“He loved it while I was doing it,” a Navy wife told me. But once there was a ‘bill to pay?’ He forgot all about that part.”
This Navy wife was not telling me about any dirty doings. Instead, she was telling me about her job search after 15 years of being a Stay At Home Mom (SAHM). There was something about it that didn’t seem quite fair.
While her husband was in the most deploying, most moving, longest hours section of his career, the couple decided together that the wife would stay home and raise their three boys.
“He thanked me all the time,” she said.
But now that the boys were in high school and college costs loomed and military retirement leered from around the corner, her sailor wanted her to get a job.
And not just any job. He expected her to make a salary that was about the same as his.
“How am I supposed to do that?” she asked me. “I’m happy to go back to work, especially after the boys can drive themselves. But I will be starting over. At the bottom. Does he not know that? Does he really expect me to earn what he earns?”
In a word, yes.
Service members expect wives to work.
In my research on long-married, long military couples, I did find that the majority of service members expected their wives to return to work (all the couples in the study were male service members married to female civilian spouses).
That assumption that a SAHM would return to work seemed logical enough. As families change, of course the roles of husbands and wives also change. And, at age 50, more than 80% of all women in America are employed outside the home.
Yet I was surprised how these service members often expected their longtime SAHM spouses to jump back into the workplace with ease, despite all the recent research about the very real obstacles to employment military life inflicts on spouses.
It was as if those obstacles to employment were a problem for other people’s wives, not their own.
Some of them joked about it, in that truer-things-are-said-in-jest way. When I asked one Navy pilot about his wife’s career plans, he said fervently, “Oh God, I wish I knew!!”
Other service members talked about degrees their wives had earned and how their wives would return to their previous employment as teachers, nurses and counselors-- despite the large gaps in their work history.
"She doesn't have a career. She has a job."
One interview still niggles at me, though. This couple had been married 24 years. When asked about his wife’s career plans, the husband was openly contemptuous.
“She doesn’t have a career! She has a job!,” he said. “She’s great with that. Yeah, I’m the one that has problems with it. I’m the one who says ‘when we retire’-- when WE retire-- get this ‘we’ stuff! I’m the only one with a retirement! She’s not contributing anything towards the retirement fund.”
He went on and on in that way, seeming to forget that he had moved his family ten times. Three of those moves were overseas. Three more were to remote locations where jobs are notoriously hard to find for military spouses.
In addition to caring for their kids, his wife had worked part-time jobs pretty much non-stop throughout his career. That, apparently, was not enough.
I didn’t find that kind of contempt very often in other long-married, long military couples. As marriage researcher John Gottman notes, contempt is one of the predictors of the end of a relationship.
That only pointed out to me how important the transition back to work is for military spouses who have been long time Stay At Home Moms and Dads. It may be hard to return to work and to find a place you like in the work world. But people do it all the time.
Negotiate your next career.
That’s what I told my Navy wife friend. First, assure your husband that you don’t expect him to earn all the money forever. Military guys of a certain age freak out about money. A little assurance goes a long way.
Next, start the work of identifying your second career--and draw your husband into it. In my research, I was impressed by how insightful some of these husbands were about the traits and abilities their wives had that would do well in the workforce.
Finally, I told my friend to celebrate all that she and her husband had accomplished during the SAHM years. They raised a beautiful family. They faithfully served their country. They reached the halfway point in life. And a beautiful future stands before them both at home and in the workplace.
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