Balancing the Military and Family Life

Scales

I dream of my servicemember stumbling into the office of a work/life balance expert as if he was looking for an oil change at the Jiffy Lube.

WORK/LIFE GUY: What seems to be the problem today?

HUSBAND:  Hey, I am deploying for eight months.  I’ve got two months of work-ups at sea to get through first. Then when I get back I’ll be working 12-14 hour days at the Pentagon. I have a wicked cute wife and a nice little boy at home. I’d like to get all that into balance, please.

WORK/LIFE GUY: ?????

HUSBAND:  (whispering) Umm, can’t you help me?

WORK/LIFE GUY: ARE YOU INSANE?? No one could balance that! There is no balance for that! You can’t be gone from your own family for eight months at a time! That will never work! That’s pure selfishness! What kind of guy are you anyway???

I can just picture my husband skulking away from that office. Poor little fella. 

In the military today, we seem to hold two truths to be self-evident about work/life balance. Truth #1 is that work/life balance does not and cannot exist in the military.

I hear this belief from military spouses at live events all the time: We are “all in.” Army first. Family second. That’s just the way it is (Shrug).

Truth #2 is the belief that a little work/life balance is absolutely necessary. Spouses I talk to would love to have one of those husbands who carry exactly half of the childcare/housecare equation. We wouldn’t mind bringing home an equal or better paycheck. We could be in a family where everyone rides bikes and eats lots of vegetables and looks like Katherine Webb in an Alabama T-shirt.

Which would really be an interesting look for my husband.

Personally, I don’t think either of those “truths” work for military families. I don’t think families can always come behind the military. We cannot live on scraps of time.

I also don’t think the military can suddenly start sending servicemembers home from deployment in order to attend every assembly at school. I don't think young Marines can confine their troubles to work hours. I don’t think our ships or aircraft can just decide never to be broken.

So how is that supposed to ever come into balance? Last week, I interviewed Manager Tools consultant Mike Auzenne about the steps to achieve work/life balance in the military.

Auzenne pointed out that our problem with work/life balance in the military is that we want to compare work and family. “There is no comparison,” said Auzenne. “Family is first.”

He said it like he knew military members would throw back their heads and howl at that. As a West Point grad and former artillery officer, Auzenne was well versed in the fact that our military members do have to go when the military calls.

That isn’t the problem. Because balance is not achieved not by parceling out time or divvying up hours. Instead, Auzenne emphasizes that balance is really about your attitude toward your family: You have to want to go home. 

I think he is right about that. My husband spends most of his time with the Navy. When he is home, his phone rings and buzzes and vibrates with Navy stuff. But we know he likes us best. We know he loves to be home. We know he works as fast as he can during work hours so that he can get back home.

Work/life balance in the military is not a scale where hours are weighed and measured. Work/life balance is not something that can be calibrated at a Jiffy Lube.

Instead, work/life balance comes from family first. We are the bedrock upon which our servicemember stands, constantly shifting to balance the demands of a military life.

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Jacey Eckhart is the Director of Spouse and Family Programs at Military.com and a military sociologist.  Since 1996, Eckhart’s take on military families has been featured in her syndicated column, her book The Homefront Club, and her award winning CDs These Boots and I Married a Spartan??

Most recently she has been featured as a military family subject matter expert on NBC Dateline, CBS morning news, CNN, NPR and the New York Times.  Eckhart is an Air Force brat, a Navy wife and an Army mom.  

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