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Lean In: What Milspouses Must Know

Sheryl Sandberg, Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, is all over the news urging women to “lean in” to their careers.

Uh oh. Have we military spouses leaned out of our careers just by marrying someone in the military?

You could probably make an argument for that. Marrying into the military means that you are agreeing to move on average every 2.5 years in order to live in places where women statistically early less.

Thus Sheryl Sandberg would probably not endorse marrying into the military as an asset in your quest for the C Suite at a Fortune 500 company.

So why should Lean In matter to a military spouse--especially if you don't actually want an office in the C Suite? It matters because 93% of military spouses are women. It matters because at some point in life almost all women work. It matters because we are going to live to be 102 years old and the constraints of our military lives are not forever.

Call me crazy, but I don’t want all of us spouses working retail in our 50s just because we married into the military. I want us to be able to stay home and raise our kids if that is what works best with the demands of the military.  I want us to be able to live in the same house as our service members.  I want us to end up with engaging, challenging, fulfilling work-- because that is one of the strongest paths to happiness.

Too often I see spouses (shoot, I see my own self) held back by the dozens of  internal beliefs Sandberg talks about in her book.

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” writes Sandberg.

I think because we milspouses are the kind of people who tend to marry earlier than our matched civilian counterparts, we start to believe that we have leaned so far away from career that we should just give up on it.

That is just silly. Because leaning in is not only a behavior that women should do when they are young, before their children are born.

Sandberg may not know this, but we military spouses are also capable of leaning back in to our careers. Oh sure, it's too late to head for the C Suite.  That kind of achievement requires unwavering focus for women and men alike.

But engaging work doesn't only happen in the rarefied air of a corporate jet.  Engaging work happens to people who lean in.  While we spouses may hop on and off the career track, there will come a time we can actually lean back in.

This doesn’t happen nearly often enough. Even in civilian life, Sandberg points out that only 74% of professional women rejoin the workforce in any capacity after leaving to take care of children and only 40% return to full time jobs.

Why is that? Over the years, I have seen many military spouses get to this point in which their lives as mothers are winding down. Instead of winding up a new life as a worker, I think they lose their confidence. They decide that they shouldn’t go back to school. They decide that all their resources should go into sending their kids to college.

Then they take jobs that pay the bills. Or they spend a lot of time running errands.

For some reason, this makes me profoundly sad. I tell myself that if these women are happy, that’s all that matters.  I remind myself that not everyone wants to work. I am well aware that not every job is the compelling, creative, rewarding employment that Sandberg champions.

But I do see truth in what she is saying. I do think we women need encouragement and support from each other in order to lean back in to the workforce. I do think there is something worth having at work and that we need to lean in to get it.

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