Has Being a Military Family Parent Hurt Your Career?

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If you're like up to 42 percent of military spouses, according to a report by Blue Star Families issued last week, things like frequently moving and solo parenting have left you totally unemployed.

Those with jobs are likely to be working in a position they're over-qualified to do, the report says, with more than half saying that having a spouse in the military has had a negative effect on their ability to find a job that meets their education and experience levels.

And even those who have a job that meets their education and experience levels may be earning much less than the person sitting next to them with no military affiliation. The report estimates that military spouses with a bachelor's degree earn 40 percent less than their civilian counterparts.

Depressing as it is, probably none of this surprises you if you are or ever have been married to someone in the military. You live this. Your friends live this. You know it well.

But the recent Blue Star Families study was the first time anyone looked at how much military spouse un-and-under-employment impacts the rest of the U.S.

That's right: You not being able to hit your own career goals is also costing the nation.

According to the report, the economic impact on the U.S. economy is anywhere from $710 million to $1.07 billion (that's billion -- with a big "B") in lost tax revenue and the cost of unemployment benefits.

The study didn't even take into account the cost of caring for depression and other mental health issues that experts already know stem from unemployment. It also didn't account for the cost the Defense Department incurs when it pays to train someone and that person elects to leave military service because his or her spouse can't find work.

I've been involved with Blue Star Families since the group began, and I'm currently on the National Advisory Board. Year after year, the inability to get and keep a good job has come up as a major problem in BSF's annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey.

For years, I've read about that lack of spousal employment thing, rolled my eyes and thought, "must be nice." My corner of the military world has been one of constant deployments and casualties. Compared to the life-or-death stuff, military spouse unemployment always seemed trivial to me, the military equivalent of #FirstWorldProblems. And, really, military spouse employment worries ARE trivial compared to war -- but everything is trivial compared to war.

My husband uses a term for the kind of thinking I used to have on this issue. He calls it "the 50-meter target." I'm certain he didn't coin that phrase. It means that you deal with the problem that's right in front of you first.

For many years, military spouses hitting their own career goals seemed like a luxury to me. My friends were becoming widows and caregivers. There were always a billion things to take care of during yet-another deployment. Thanks to our spouses' military careers, my friends and I had enough money to pay the bills, and that pushed our own careers beyond 50 meters -- a luxury, not a necessity.

But my thinking has changed.

If a military spouse's experience with the military begins and ends with a four-year enlistment, securing career-track employment probably isn't a major problem, especially not when compared to the life-or-death problems the Defense Department currently faces. Four years out of the workforce or spent doing a non-career track job probably won't permanently sideline anyone.

But 10 years off track could. And 20 years absolutely will.

Here's the thing: We are not extras in a movie about our spouse. We're starring in a movie of our own. And there won't be a sequel.

There is no mandate that everyone must pursue a career. If your family's finances work on one income and that's how you want to live, then I applaud your clarity of vision and your budgeting skills.

But if you need more than one income, if you need it to keep your finances in the black, need it for your own sense of self-worth, or need it because it's a key element in the desire line for the star in the movie of your life, then there's nothing wrong with that. You're not unpatriotic for wanting something for yourself. You're not unsupportive for asking, "but what about me?"

That's why military spouse employment should matter to people inside the military community. But should it register as more than a "sucks to be you?" or a "well, that's the life you chose" to the rest of the country?

I think it should. Here's why:

Our nation has changed, and that change started well before anyone who is actively parenting today was even alive. We don't raise our daughters to be homemakers anymore. We send them to STEM academies.

We don't tell them that its OK for them to work only until they start having children. We tell them that, with some smart planning, they can get that Ph.D. while they breastfeed without derailing their career trajectory.

We don't tell them to find a man who will support them financially; we tell our daughters and our sons to find a partner who will support them emotionally through every aspect of life.

Our culture doesn't raise women to be helpmates anymore, but our military structures are still built around the expectation that military spouses, be they female or male, will be helpmates. You don't need to know how to code to see that this means that there are and that there will continue to be fewer and fewer future military spouses willing to go against everything else they've been trained to do to accept a lifestyle that was designed for their grandmothers.

If we want to recruit the best and brightest to our military, we have to offer them and their spouses a lifestyle that fits the society we have today, not the one we had 50 years ago. When a study comes out that says that military spouses have an unemployment rate that is more than three times the rate of everyone else in the country, that's a real problem. That's a 50-meter target.

I as a mother of three who wants my children to have the best life possible read that and think: "I don't want my kids experiencing that kind of hardship."

And if I, an Army wife and a writer for Military.com who understands the intangible benefits of being in a family that serves, am thinking that, imagine what everyone else is thinking?

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