As a work-life coach for military spouses, my advice to any career-minded military spouse is to create not just a career plan but a life plan. In addition to your job skills, you need to get what I call your 3Ms -- marriage, motherhood (or fatherhood!) and military life -- working for you.
When I had the opportunity to conduct research during my doctoral studies, I jumped at the chance to study other military spouses like me and ask them how they felt about their career challenges.
Here’s the most important thing I learned: The spouses who are the happiest with their careers and themselves are not necessarily those with the best jobs, but are those who have pursued careers that fit their lives and the many roles they play. They have their 3Ms working together.
The First M = Marriage
How does your marriage factor into your career success? It’s pretty simple. Do you and your spouse have the same expectations about how your lives will run and where your career fits into that?
If you aren’t sure, talk to your partner now before you find yourself on a path you can’t agree upon.
Here’s one example of what that can look like. Brenda, a participant in my research study, was an accountant before she got married. She later stayed home for several years with her children and decided to go back to work when the kids got to middle school.
Brenda loved the job and found it refreshing to be back in the workforce. Her husband did not like the chaos that resulted in their household when she wasn’t home keeping everything running.
At her husband’s request, Brenda agreed to leave her job. She was resentful and angry that he took no responsibility at home. Looking back, she wished she had heeded the advice someone gave her when she got married: “Establish the way you want it to be before you get married. Don’t mow the lawn if you don’t plan to mow the lawn for the next 40 years.”
On the flip side of the marriage coin, Olivia is an example whose marriage has been a fundamental foundation to her career success.
Now the spouse of a chief master sergeant, she says that the early years of her marriage were pivotal. When she was home with young children pulling her hair out, her husband encouraged her to get a job.
Not only did he encourage her, but he backed up his words with real action. When she got a job working at the base club, he stepped in and took over parenting at home in the evenings so she could go to work.
Seeing how much happier Olivia was with a job, he continued to support her career through 25 years of marriage. Olivia said, “Thank God, I have a husband who doesn’t want me to be submissive. He wants me to be my own person and have my own individuality.”
The Second M = Motherhood
I bring up motherhood here because the vast majority of military spouses either are mothers of young children or will be sometime during their military lifespan. If you are a male spouse, the same concept certainly applies to fatherhood.
That is, what kind of parent do you want to be and how does that fit with your career expectations?
If you want a career and a life that truly fits who you want to be and what you want to model for your children, don’t let society pick your path for you. Only you know in your heart what will work for you and your family.
The point is to take time to figure that out instead of letting life figure it out for you.
When I met Grace, she was on her third consecutive overseas assignment as an Air Force spouse. Before moving overseas, she had enjoyed a successful career in the high-tech industry and attempted to telecommute when she first moved to Italy.
Grace found that working remotely was challenging. Shortly after moving to Italy, she learned she was pregnant with her first child. She quit her job and has not worked since.
Reflecting on her decision, she says that being overseas with the military gave her the freedom to choose the path she wanted to pursue as a stay-at-home mom. Because she was in locations where employment was challenging, she says a burden was lifted for her.
“I didn't have to justify it to the rest of my family and tell them why I wasn't working. There was no pressure to work. If we had stayed in San Diego, I would probably be working and putting my kids in childcare. That’s the way most people would want us to go.”
In contrast to Grace, Phoebe never planned on being a stay-at-home mom, and loved nothing more than her Air Force career. She said that being in the military was “everything about me. That’s who I was.”
For her, being a working mother was a fulfilling role and she says that working made her a better mother. “When I came home, I had all the patience left in the world for my child.”
When she married another Air Force member and they received different assignments, she agreed to separate from active duty in order to keep the family together. Now as a stay-at-home mom, she regrets that decision and says she is struggling with feelings of depression.
The Third M = Military Life
I think the most commonly uttered phrase in my research interviews was, “I knew, but I didn’t know.”
Maybe you can relate to this. Many of us were young and optimistic when we got married. If you are like me, and most of the women in my study, you probably had some idea what military life might be like, including frequent relocation and deployments.
But even though we are armed with those facts when we walk down the aisle, most of us don’t really appreciate what impact that will have on us until we have lived it, maybe for years.
Especially in the early years, it’s easy to be optimistic and hope we won’t move much or will land great jobs wherever we go. Bu the reality of military life doesn’t always make things so easy.
My advice is to dig deep when you plan your career and take an honest look at what your current and future military life requires of you.
How often will you move? Do you know where those locations are likely to be? How long does your spouse want to stay in? How often does he think he will be deployed? How demanding is his schedule, and how available will he be as a partner and parent?
These are fundamental questions to answering what kind of career you can realistically have.
I know many of you are saying, “I don’t know! I wish I had all those answers.” Even if you can’t answer every question, outline what some of the possibilities might be based on what you do know.
Start filling in the picture so you can see the realities of what you have in store. This is where the rubber meets the road, and is the final and perhaps trickiest building block to having a successful career as a military spouse.
For the women in my study, there was no silver bullet when it comes to making career fit military life.
For those who found this fit, some were employed by the Defense Department while others found careers that were flexible and portable. Others took a “job” vs. “career” strategy by finding the best available job for them each time they moved, not necessarily focusing on a single career field.
Vanessa is an example of someone who found a very good fit between her career and military life when choosing to open her own photography business. As a young mom, she took up photography as a hobby and turned it into a business opportunity.
Although she hadn’t planned to return to the workforce, she says she needed something more than her mothering role. “I realized I still needed a piece of me that was separate from my children.”
As a photographer, she runs her business from home and sells her services to military families, taking her trade with her everywhere she goes.
Maria’s story is more complicated because she has not been able to find a fit between her legal career and military life.
When Maria married her husband, she quit her high-powered job as a prosecutor in Puerto Rico. She was optimistic that she would be able to pass the bar and land a job anywhere they lived.
In reality, the experience of retaking the bar exam and finding a new job in each state was overwhelming. When sitting for the bar exam in her third state, Maria suffered from physical and emotional exhaustion and has not practiced law since. For several years now, she has been a stay-at-home mom, and said it has been a very difficult adjustment.
“Every time I saw a lady with children, I thought, that’s not going to be me. I’m going to be the professional. So it was hard to accept my fate to be a stay-at-home mom.” For her, the sacrifice has been so painful that she tells anyone dating a military guy, “End it now before you fall in love.”
The 3Ms and Creating a Life Plan
There is no shortage of career support for military spouses these days, but my advice to you is to look beyond the nuts and bolts of career planning and look at your LIFE.
Who do you want to be in the world, and how does your career fit into that picture -- if it does at all?
Put together a career that is more than figuring out how to find the next job. If you want to be your best self and have the most rewarding life, take the time to figure out how your pieces fit together and build a life plan that defines how you are going to fit career and the 3Ms.
A career will only help you be who you want to become when it also fits the marriage you have, the mother you are or want to be, and the military life you are committed to leading.
-- Michelle Still Mehta, PhD., is a consultant, researcher and work-life coach for military spouses. Through group and individual coaching, she works with spouses to develop holistic career and life plans. Michelle is an Air Force spouse and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband and two children. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit her Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/wholespouse.