Can You Balance Life, Work AND Military? Show Me How

woman working on computer at desk
(Bianca Wilson/DVIDS)

Can you imagine losing a whole year of paid time off? According to a Boston Globe story, that is what just happened to a non-profit employee who had been with her organization for nearly 22 years. In all that time, she had never used a vacation day. Paid vacation days. Vacation days she earned.

Why? Because she was afraid that if she took those days, people might think less of her. "Am I going to be looked at as a lesser employee?" she asked.

She might need to read up on work-life balance. That's something every military spouse knows all too well, because all too often, the "life" part of work-life balance really means "military."

"It always becomes military-work balance, or military-life balance," says Tara, a Marine Corps wife in California. "I've been a stay-at-home mom and a full-time employee, and my big problem has been balancing military demands with my job and family and then also finding time for my own needs."

So how do you actually achieve that work-life balance when you're married into the military? We talked to three moms -- one working full-time, one staying home full-time, and one trying to do it all part-time -- for their best advice on how to handle it.

Full-time employee

When it comes to leaving unpaid vacation days on the table, Maggie can relate. Maggie is an Air Force wife living in Florida, and for her, the Globe story really hit home.

"When I read it, I thought, 'I am so much like her.' I didn't take a sick day at my last job because I was so worried that if I did, no one would have any sympathy if I had to leave to deal with something military," she says.

So when she left her job for a PCS, she had more than three weeks' of vacation saved up. "Unfortunately, they didn't pay it out when I quit. It was money down the drain."

Maggie's husband has been in the Air Force for six years, and during that time, she has always worked full-time and dealt with the demands of military life full-time, too.  

"Sometimes, there are meetings you have to go to, and you don't choose the time," she explains. "But it's essentially mandatory that you're there. You just hope your boss understands."

The thing is, Maggie says, many bosses don't. "If they don't know the military personally, they act like if you're not the one in combat boots, it shouldn't affect you."

But as every military spouse knows, it does.

"Balancing full-time work, a personal life and military life is something I haven't completely figured out yet," Maggie admits, "but I have discovered that transparency is key to at least surviving."

For Maggie, that means being very organized about her time -- and making sure everyone is in the loop. "My husband and kids know about work things as far out as possible, and vice versa. I can't be everything to everyone, but I can try to keep expectations reasonable."

Whereas she used to dread having to explain an upcoming military-related absence at work, now she sends her boss an email every other week that explains her schedule for the next month.

"I'll send anything that I know about; that way, they know about it with plenty of lead time," she says. "I think that everyone does better when they have enough time to adjust, and if you don't know military life, it can be surprising. "

She says her strategy so far has been a huge help in finding balance. "The scheduling annoyed my husband at first, but finally he got the hang of it. Now, we can even schedule date nights in -- and he really likes that."

Full-time stay-at-home mom

Curious how stay-at-home parents struggle with work-life balance? "If you don't know it's a struggle, you've never done it," Tara says.

Tara, who lives aboard Camp Pendleton, says that there are so many stay-at-home moms in the military world, you would think there would be a perfect formula for success already.

"But instead, I see a lot of moms like me. Struggling to show up as moms like we want, struggling to be good spouses to our husbands, struggling to find any time for ourselves."

Tara's husband deploys frequently, often on short notice. "I was working part time, and I miss it, but it was impossible with the demands the military placed on our lives. I made a last-minute call to my boss that my husband was leaving next week and I would have to chaperone my son's field trip in his place, and I knew it was that moment. I was choosing work or family, and I chose family."

Tara says that it's those stark choices -- either be with your kids, or be at work -- that made being a full-time, stay-at-home the right choice for her.

"It wasn't an easy choice, but it was the right one," she says. "But I traded one crazy boss for another. Instead of a boss who can fire me, now I have two small children who don't understand what a 'sick day' is and why mom might need one."

For Tara, it became clear that she needed to find a better work-life balance after an early morning trip to base.

"It was last spring; my husband's car was in the shop," she said. "That's how it started." That left her driving him to work -- and to get him there on time, she had to take her children, too.

"They were asleep in the back when we left the house at 4:45. We dropped him off, came home, got them up, fed and dressed, and then I dropped them off at their schools." Finally 10 a.m. rolled around, and she realized that she had been up for nearly six hours. "I had not yet brushed my teeth."

Tara felt exhausted, overworked and stressed out. "So I talked to the boss -- me -- and I decided to make a better schedule," she says. "I knew I needed to have working hours like an employee. Sometimes where I could be 'on' and other times when I could be 'me.' "

Now, Tara does not force herself to get up with her husband to see him off in the morning. "Instead, I sleep until six. I do breakfast, drop-off, pick-up, everything, but before that, I get a good night's sleep. A shower. I put on makeup. Twenty minutes for me every morning."

She says that little bit of time carved out just for her has made all the difference.

"If you are a stay-at-home parent, you know. You can get lost in the shuffle so easy. That's my best advice: Find something that's yours, and hold onto it. Make it as sacred as everyone else's needs."

Part-time employee

Hillary is a mother of three and an Army wife who has worked part-time since her youngest was born four years ago.

"I have been part time, full time, and stay-at-home. They are all hard," she says. "No competition between moms will ever settle that being a mom is hard. Working is hard, and being married into the military is hard," she says. "But the secret to doing any of it well is finding that balance that works for you."

For Hillary, that balance has come from the same time organization that worked for Tara and transparency that worked for Maggie, as well as creating her own, independent measures of success.

"When you work full time, you basically get a report card every week that tells you how you're doing. Good job on this, not so good on that. But when you're part-time, your schedule can be a lot more fluid, which can make having those guide posts harder, and as a mom, they aren't there," she explains.

"I've found I have to set my own. Some days, it's as simple as running one load of laundry. Taking my fingernail polish off. Doing those things that day means that day is a success, whatever else happens. It sounds stupid, but it works."

Hillary sets these goals for herself every day, and she finds that they keep her on track for success at work and home, and they have really increased her overall happiness.

"You can count on several things as a part-time employee: One, that your family will need you more than you can be there. Two, that your boss won't understand. Three, that the military will make it harder. Having a goal for yourself that you can work toward, it makes dealing with those bumps easier," she says.

For Hillary, finding work-life balance is a neverending process. "But if you say 'I'm going to define 'balance' and what 'success' is,' and you don't let others define it, you are one step closer to achieving it." she says. "It's incredibly hard and military life doesn't make it easier. But you have to find it. As the head of your family, that's your job."

Do you have any tricks for finding work-life balance? Do you think being married into the military makes it harder?

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