I spend a lot of my time with other military spouses these days. They are some of my closest friends, they are my collaborators in business and they are my clients.
I am proud to be a military spouse, but that hasn’t always been the case. I was reminded of that this week when I found myself totally riveted by the discussion at Military.com’s Spouse Summit. A decade ago, I would not have been caught dead at any spouse event, let alone such a high-profile gathering. What’s changed?
I’ve had some hard lessons in humility and have realized that as military spouses, no matter what our background or experience, we have much more in common than we sometimes recognize.
In the early years of my marriage, I basically tried to deny that I was a military spouse at all. I had my job and my husband had his. Since he didn’t hang out with the spouses of my co-workers, I didn’t see why I should care about getting to know the spouses of his co-workers.
I was usually away during the week traveling for my consulting job, and wasn’t interested in spending our newlywed weekend time with people I probably didn’t have anything in common with (or so I thought!).
I remember feeling a bit grumpy about a dinner date my husband arranged one night with another military couple. I planned to put on my usual fake smile as the conversation turned to military acronyms I had not yet bothered to master, and ride it out. As it turns out, these people are now Godparents to our children, and are some of our closest friends in the world, but it took awhile for me let down my guard about all things military and make a connection with them.
Recently, I was talking with this same friend, and I apologized to her for being so rude and obnoxious when we first met. I didn’t know if she realized it or not, but I felt like I had treated her badly.
Her response was, “Oh I didn’t think much of it. I just thought it was because you were liberal.” Ouch! How many other people had I dismissed and missed an opportunity to connect with because I had labeled them with my negative stereotypes? And what stereotypes had I reinforced by my own behavior?
Things began to change for me very quickly when my husband got orders to our new duty station in Turkey. I went kicking and screaming the whole way, terrified at the prospect of giving up my hard-earned career.
I remember literally crying on my husband’s shoulder one night, saying, “How will anyone know that I am important if I don’t have a job?” (Little did I know that the lesson I needed to learn was that in fact I am no more important than anyone else, and never will be. I still struggle with this.)
Well, it didn’t take long for my worst fears to be realized. We arrived in country and the Turkish military stamped my residency permit with the words “Ev Hanimi” (translation – housewife).
I was mortified.
I resolved to make friends and walked every morning with other spouses in my neighborhood. One morning, I was wearing a Harvard t-shirt and my friend asked, “Oh did your husband go there?”
I wanted to scream, “No, I did!!! Don’t you know how successful I used to be?”
Slowly, ever so slowly, I began to realize that perhaps I was not the only person on the planet who felt under-appreciated or invisible, and that maybe my need to feel important was no different from anyone else’s.
Several years later I found myself in graduate school, researching the working lives of military spouses, because I wanted to know how other career-oriented spouses deal with this military life. I knew the employment statistics, but I wanted to know how others navigate the emotional roller coaster that comes with the territory.
As it turns out, the majority of the spouses I talked with expressed some version of the scenario I just described. That is, inside they felt like they were somehow different than other military spouses, or at least their stereotypes of military spouses.
One of the participants in my study, Charlotte, sums it up by saying, “I think sometimes I’m a little snooty, like I’m not like y’all. I’m not just a spouse. I have my own thing.” She follows it up by saying her recent unemployment caused by moving overseas has been especially hard because she has become the very people she used to look down upon.
So what is the lesson? As spouses, we can be quick to stereotype each other and write off amazing individuals with our labels of stay-at-home moms, snobby officer wives, or selfish working mothers, etc.
When we do that, we miss the opportunity to support each other, make a badly needed friend, or see another human being for the person she is. The reality is we all share the common bond of trying to be our best selves within the context of an unpredictable, chaotic, identity-shattering military life. Not much is more humbling than that.
-- Michelle Still Mehta, PhD., is a career and life coach for military spouses, and a researcher on military spouse employment. Michelle is an Air Force spouse and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband and two children. Write to her at michelle(at)stillmehta(dot)com or visit her Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/wholespouse.
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