If you're a plugged-in military spouse, I'm sure you see all sorts of career advice -- how to build a portable career, how to hide the gaps in your patchwork resume, how to use volunteer work as a career-builder, and so on. There is no shortage of practical tips for those of us trying to cobble together some sort of a career while living a military life.
Yet we don't always teach others how to make that career work in our crazy military lives once we've landed a job. The challenge isn't just about getting a job, it's about being able to sustain that employment through the roller coaster ride of military moves, deployments, parenting demands and household needs (sometimes single-handedly).
Some have found their own personal version of success, while others are still painfully wrestling with lost dreams. The common thread through all these candid stories is the fact that each military spouse who has found some satisfaction in their career has found a way to integrate those aspirations with the realities of their daily roles. I call this the 3Ms (Marriage, Motherhood or Fatherhood, and Military Life).
Here are some lessons I've learned from the spouses who have successfully fit these roles together:
1. Forge a true partnership with your spouse. You and your spouse need to be on the same page regarding your career plans. What support do you need from him or her to be successful in your job? Does it mean renegotiating the workload at home or with kids? Do you need to reconsider your service member's career plans in order to meet your goals? Whatever the answer is, it requires open and honest communication about your needs and desires.
2. Honor your own needs as a parent. So many new parents feel conflicted about working while their children are young, or feel guilty for wanting to work. Others believe they are better parents when they are fulfilled by their work. And, many of us have to work out financial necessities. There is no right answer, except the answer that fits for you. Honor your beliefs and your desires as a parent instead of doing what you think other people expect of you.
3. Decide if you are truly committed to military life. The spouses I talked to who were happiest in their careers were also the ones happiest with military life in general. They were not naïve about the challenges of military life, but they were committed to their spouse's service and were willing to build their plans around that reality. If you're struggling with this commitment to military service, talk honestly with your spouse about your concerns, and decide together what your future looks like.
4. Choose a career path that is realistically sustainable and compatible with military life. Here is where a certain amount of flexibility may come into play. Can you find a career that suits you while still being portable enough to carry with you? The most successful military spouses I know are those who have broken the connection between employment and geography. Either they can work virtually or take their employment with them at each new assignment.
5. Learn to live with resilience and grace, without compromising who you are. Truly successful military spouses are agile and able to roll with changes. They think creatively about opportunities that fit them in each situation. They are flexible, but not to the point that they give up core aspects of their identity. The spouses I know who are devastated by this military life are those who feel like they've given up who they are in the process. Know who you are and what you love about yourself, and never give that up.
6. Renegotiate the 3Ms as needed. Change is constant in our military lives. Just when you start feeling comfortable, a new set of orders comes along. Or perhaps you finally find the perfect job and you find out you're pregnant. Managing the 3Ms requires regular care and feeding to make sure the different parts of our lives are in alignment. Does this path I'm on still work for me and for my family? What course corrections do I need to make when new things pop up?
The good news is that this is not a test to pass or fail. This is your adventure to create, enjoy, and experience. It's okay to choose new trails on the path or take a break and regroup. Who knows? When you stop by the stream to take a rest you might discover some amazing new mountains to climb on the horizon.
-- Michelle Still Mehta, PhD, is a consultant, Air Force spouse, researcher, writer and coach specializing in military spouse employment, the psychology of working life and organizational change. Through her writing, Dr. Mehta hopes to promote open dialogue and positive culture change within the military community.
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