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Is Spouse Employment Just a Jr. Officer Problem?

Spouse job fair

I’m always worried that spouse employment problems will turn into a sub-meme of First World Problems.

Along with "I had too much goat cheese in my salad" and "I’m smarter than my manager at Starbucks," I expect a military theme to emerge.

I expect to see a tearful junior officer at a rainy window saying, "My wife wants to make partner at her firm -- guess I’ll have to leave the Army."

Just a matter of time. Because it is so easy to dismiss the worries of educated military spouses (and their officer or enlisted servicemembers) as being nice privileged problems to have.

But spouse employment isn’t a problem that only belongs to those educated spouses. It is a problem that trickles into other areas of military life—like retention.

Recently I have been following a thoughtful series of blogs at Foreign Policy about junior officer retention. Junior officers and spouses have been decrying the frustration of trying to support two professional careers when one of those professionals is in the military.

It can’t be done, they say. There is no way to make partner if you move every other year. You can’t have a real career if you keep getting stationed in Jackson or Fayetteville or China Lake. 

So these young professionals suggest more homesteading. They suggest increasing the number of unaccompanied tours. They suggest giving preference for assignments that are located in metropolitan areas to those servicemembers whose spouses have careers.

If the military does not overhaul its archaic system, they threaten mass exodus.

I totally get that. I remember the year-long depression I went through after I gave up a job I really loved to follow my sailor on our ninth move. Every fight seemed to end with “I’m never going to BE anything if you stay in the Navy!!!”

Like everyone else our age, I thought the solution was to get out: get out of the military or get out of the marriage.

I was wrong. Like so many people are wrong at that painful crux of military life. I could only see that the choices were 'out' or 'out.'  I couldn’t see that the third way out was through.

How are we going to get through this problem? How are we going to change? How do we adapt what we want to what is possible?

Because at some point in a military marriage you realize that two basic things are never going to change about military life: deployments and PCS moves.

The military is a geographically dependent job. Unless someone figures out how Harry Potter apparates or Captain Kirk gets transported, military families will move and accommodate the daily demands of deployment. And that will negatively affect spouse careers.

Couples have to work through that. For some, it is easier. It is an easier choice for couples who divide their duties on traditional lines. It is an easier choice for couples where the servicemember doesn’t find the profession particularly rewarding.

The rest of us start to work it through. Grindingly. Painfully. Loudly.  "Through" often feels like prying open a new section of your brain with the blunt end of an axe.

Yet that is how two professionals make military life work. We make compromises. We look for a Plan B (or C or D or Z). We finally realize that the operative word here was never "out" or "through." It was always "we." As in, We make it through. We figured it out. We made it work. Just we two.