As an active-duty military spouse, I confess I have often been bitter about my career. Twenty moves, eight deployments, three kids, two geographic bachelor tours and countless unimpressed hiring managers will do that to a person.
To be fair, I have also been joyous, engaged, deeply satisfied and well-paid during my career, too. So, there is that.
When I was at my most bitter -- often during Military Spouse Appreciation Month in May -- I would compose long emails about the unfairness of it all to Carolyn Hax, the venerated advice columnist at The Washington Post. I never sent a single email.
I was pretty sure that Caroline would not say super encouraging things about sticking it out until Brad was done with his Navy career, which was the other thing I wanted just as much. Go figure.
Here is the letter I would have written to my young, bitter self. I share it with you in honor of Military Spouse Appreciation Month and because this tenacious journey toward meaningful work and a solid marriage is what I appreciate most about my fellow military spouses. This especially includes my daughter-in-law who is a computer engineer, an active-duty Army wife and a wonderful mom.
Dear Bitter About Your Career:
I hear you, and I get it. Yes, you fell in love with and married someone wonderful who wanted and still mysteriously wants a career in the military. Congratulations to you both. Close relationships are strongly correlated with happiness.
Yes, you are a smart person who completed your education and now wants a meaningful career of your own. Again, well-done you.
And, yes, moving around every 2½ years, as is standard in military life, is not at all conducive to having a career. This is why spouse unemployment and underemployment are so prevalent. Surprise, surprise. Employers just don't like to hire people without a network or job-related tenure. Not exactly fair, but true.
So What Are You Going to Do?
Yes, you. Your happiness and your career decisions are always up to you, no matter your circumstances. You already know this without having me go on and on about it, right?
Here are the things I think you and Brad should keep in mind while you are on this journey together:
1. You Are on This Journey Together.
Military spouse employment is not a spouse problem. It is not a military problem. It is a family problem and requires the input of all members of the family to find a workable solution. You are going to be amazed at how often Brad and the kids are going to come through for you.
2. Having It All Is Going to Be Really Hard.
That's especially true in this military context. It was going to be hard anyway. Marriage always is. Family always is. Work always is. Don't get distracted by comparing yourself to others.
3. Praise Is Required.
Service members do not know and cannot know the devastation of losing a job or giving up a job or getting back on the job-hunting track every time you move. Thus, Brad is not going to be that good at figuring out what you should do next.
Often, his own overdeveloped sense of responsibility is going to make him say things that are not terribly helpful, like, "You don't really need to work." Or, "This doesn't matter." You do need to work, and this does matter. Be very clear what kind of help you want. Praise and encouragement are essential for you.
4. Kids Change Every Aspect of Your Life.
No two military kids are alike. They each need what they need when they need it. Expect both careers to take a bit of a hit at times to help one of the kids.
5. Not Everyone Has Kids.
One in five military couples do not have kids. Remember, your own kids will grow up and move away, I promise. During times without kids, expect your career to loom even larger and matter more.
6. Don't Get Stuck on Gender Issues.
A lot of military spouses get hoisted on the petard of gender. Get off the petard. Don't let yourself get caught up in whether you are expected to sacrifice your career, because you are a woman. It might feel true at times. Shoot, it might be true at times. Know that this dilemma is a giant waste of time and usually the sign you need to do something new about your career.
7. Depression Is a Thing.
In 2023, sociologists found that military spouses with jobs were less likely to experience depression than those who were unemployed. By 2023, you will have experienced this yourself. Often.
A job can be your way to express your gifts, make lasting friendships, contribute to your community, increase income, decrease financial problems and organize your time. Granted, finding a job and working will also be a source of stress, but most of the time, it will be your greatest help.
8. What Kind of Pain Do You Want?
For some couples, there is eventually a choice: me or the military? Deep inside, you know that if you put your foot down, Brad will leave the Navy for you and the kids. It is that simple.
You also know that either way, there is a price to pay. Would you rather pay the price of making your career portable, or would you rather live in Dayton, Ohio, with a Brad who was not all he wanted to be? It really is up to you.
9. COVID Is Coming.
You would not believe this in 1987 or 2001 or 2012, but in 2020, a terrible pandemic is coming that will shut down the country for two years. During that time, there will be a national experiment to determine whether it is possible to work from home.
Technology will be so advanced that most people who work in an office will be able to keep their jobs. While it will be very hard on military spouses at the time, it will create more opportunities for hybrid work and work from home (WFH) that will better suit your peripatetic military life.
10. Totally Worth It.
To make your career work with Brad's military career, you are going to do a lot of strange things. Sometimes, you will be up until 4 a.m. to hit a deadline. Sometimes, you will follow leads or job opportunities that just don't work for you. Sometimes, you will have to retool. Your kids will think that having you turn in an article during a family vacation is a normal part of family vacation.
Know it is all worth it in the end. You will have a career you love. Your kids will be OK. Brad will stay in the Navy as long as he likes and describe you to other people as "the love of my entire life."
It will all work out for you, Bitter About Your Career. Have a little faith, a lot of luck and a whole lotta love -- and maybe a jelly doughnut. Jelly doughnuts go a long way to restore your strength. You are going to need it.
Jacey Eckhart is Military.com's transition master coach. She is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level Master Classes through our Veteran Employment Project and on her website, SeniorMilitaryTransition.com. Reach her at Jacey.Eckhart@Monster.com.
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