This article originally appeared on the U.S. Naval Institute blog.
Vice Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Bill Moran recently instructed all admirals to take extended leave, ten consecutive days each year to be exact. This direction from our leadership is vital both to promoting a culture that encourages self-care and to extending the longevity of productive service.
As leaders, we must carry this intent to those whom we are committed--both our sailors and our family. The latter is often neglected in a manner we, as predominantly male naval leaders, have a responsibility to fix. My unconventional suggestion will improve your marriage and quickly realign your priorities: take extended leave so your spouse can go on vacation without you or your children.
Many fellow officers refer to their spouses as "CinC House" or some other high rank associated with their domestic role. As such, our spouses should be afforded the same benefit prescribed by Admiral Moran: ten consecutive days of leave each year from their responsibilities of executive household leadership.
This recommendation stems from my recent experience in heeding this advice and is illustrated by the juxtaposition of my two most recent leave periods. In December, my wife and I, along with our three children ages 9, 8, and 5, went to Disney World for a week. And in January, I took leave to stay at home while she went to Hawaii for ten days. For both of us, the two leave periods could not have been more different.
Most of this article's readership, I would venture, can personally relate with the Orlando vacation experience and likely has both joyful and cringe-worthy memories of their trip. However, I'd also guess that few can personally relate with my second leave period. Most of us have assumed the role of primary caregiver for short stints: maybe for a weekend trip with her girlfriends or for a quick jaunt to the beach with her sorority sisters, but not for an extended period of time. Certainly not enough time to release the stress and anxiety that often accompanies the responsibility of serving as both the primary childcare provider and household manager.
The Disney World or beach week-style vacations are good and necessary, as they create fun memories for us and our children, but they are not "vacations" for everyone.
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Often, we as the service member drop in to a family trip on a return from deployment or perhaps squeeze in a vacation during a holiday stand-down period. In both circumstances, we benefit from the prior planning and execution of our spouse, who is continuing their work of carrying the mental load for the family.
They remember everything -- what groceries are needed for the week, clothes the kids need as they continue to grow, the doctors, the teachers, the coaches, in addition to managing the family's schedule, full of children's sports and extra-curricular activities along with our own service-related events. Not only are they the lead planner, they're also the lead doer. For us in the Navy, this is akin to allowing your workcenter supervisor to carry the most hours as a maintenance person. In a professional setting, each of us would readily identify this and find ways to alleviate the situation to prevent burnout. In our personal lives, however, we are less likely, at best, and less willing, at worst, to offer ourselves as the solution.
The structure of our family arrangements is often a necessity to support the hardships we endure through our naval service. My wife left a successful and lucrative career as a financial adviser to raise our children and allow my continued service in uniform. Our situation is not uncommon. I often find myself at a loss for words when asked what my wife does. The simplest answer I've found is that she does everything! Unfortunately, I didn't know what "everything" meant until I took on the role of primary care provider for ten days. I'm reminded of the fable of the chicken and the pig to illustrate the difference between involvement and commitment: when it comes to the bacon and eggs breakfast of family management, we service members are all too often chicken.
In our marriages and in our families, we should strive to be more like the pig. When not geographically separated by the call of deployment, we should endeavor to assume a greater share of the physical and mental load. The best way to gain this appreciation in our personal lives, just like in our professional lives, is through experience. As a naval leader, if we want to appreciate the hardships of sailors in the engine room, we jump in the bilge and clean alongside them. The best way to quickly gain this experience and appreciation in your personal life is to assume the role of primary caregiver for at least a week to serve as the head chef, house cleaner, tutor, taxi driver, referee, dog walker, pastor, social coordinator, landscaper, and plumber.
My leave assuming these roles was not a story of resounding successes, rather a string of daily incremental improvements in my parenting and household-management skills. Prior to my wife's departure, I laid out a mildly aggressive to-do list of home improvements to accomplish while I was on leave. I was able to do exactly zero of them.
I am an energetic naval officer, nuclear engineer, work-ethic--driven surface warfare officer, and White House Fellow -- and I accomplished none of the extra tasks I set out to complete. It certainly wasn't for a lack of effort, but rather a lack of proficiency. My wife is simply better at those skills than I am, and it showed. It took time and repetition to prove to myself and, more importantly, to our children, that I could do the things that their mother does.
Now, after her return, the kids don't walk past me to ask her a question that I can answer. Now, I don't hesitate to jump in and assume roles that before I didn't have either the knowledge or proficiency in. I can continue to reduce her share of the physical and mental load of our household.
Your spouse needs a break. A break from their role as household executive. A break from the kids. A break from you.
It was the best leave I've ever taken, and I think it will be for you too.
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