There is no question that marrying a service member, while wonderful, comes with some sacrifices. Many military spouses modify, delay, or even give up plans and aspirations as varied as college degrees, specific careers, or living in a certain area (such as near family or close to home). Many of our articles at Military Spouse magazine present stories of spouses who have found ways to follow their dreams within the constraints of a military lifestyle, or provide advice and resources on how to do so. We consider ourselves part of the community of military spouses, and seek to further the cause of military spouses both in the military and in society at large.
A recent (2014) study by the Military Officers Associate of America (MOAA) and Syracuse University’s Institute for Veterans and Families (IVMF) revealed that 90% of responding female spouses felt that they were underemployed based on their education and/or experience. These results are disheartening, but are they complete? The military spouse community shares the constraints of military life, like single parenthood over deployments or constantly changing home locations. But otherwise, the community is diverse: it includes both dedicated businesswomen and dedicated home-makers, spouses who are involved in their service members’ units and those who wish to remain separate from the military, spouses of every different race, religion, political outlook, and personal goals. We at Military Spouse magazine want to know more about these issues, so we spoke to spouses young and old, with children and without, at all stages of their life’s journey in the military to find out their dreams and experiences, and answer the following questions: What do military spouses really want? Can they achieve their goals? What resources do they need?
Times Have Changed
Holly Scherer, who co-authored Military Spouse Journey with fellow Army wife Kathie Hightower, remembers when military spouses were simply expected to volunteer their time, instead of seeking their own employment. And if they wanted a job, they were only considered for babysitting and bake sales. But these days, she notes that there is a great deal more encouragement for military spouses to have a meaningful career that gives them the opportunity to contribute to their highest potential.
The first lady, Michelle Obama has spoken on military spouse employment, Senators like John McCain and Tammy Duckworth talk with military spouses on how to run for political office, and non-profit organizations like MSJDN and Gear Career bring employment education to our community. The prevailing narrative has changed: military spouses are no longer considered ‘dependent,’ but instead are seen as capable, patriotic, and worth employment. Despite the demands of military life, there are more opportunities than ever for spouses to pursue a career and get beyond the state of underemployment. In their book, “Military Spouse Journey,” Scherer and Hightower emphasize a key point: “Remember, this isn’t a dress rehearsal. This is your journey, your life. Don’t wait to start living it!”
‘I Didn’t Know What I Didn’t Know’
Almost all spouses emphasize that they learned about military life as they lived it. When they first married, the military seemed only constraining and restrictive, full of rules and arbitrary changes (like moving to a new base every few years). New spouses can’t take advantage of services simply because they don’t know about them. Chris Pape, an Air Force husband and Founder of MACHOSpouse, said he was so ignorant about this lifestyle that he didn’t know what he didn’t know. “I knew so little about the military that I never thought about the positives, or negatives, of being a military spouse.” Yet as he grew familiar with military life, and was faced with some hurdles in his own career, Chris realized he needed to grab hold of his life.
Involving himself in spouse programs, he discovered that they were largely oriented towards women and unintentionally excluded male spouses. So he created MACHOSpouse, an online community which serves and advocates for male spouses. Since its establishment, MACHOSpouse has grown to provide support and resources for both male and female spouses who seek to build or maintain a career, as Chris believes that military spouses, regardless of sex, just want a chance at their goals–and there are many services in the spouse community to help.
On the other hand, Marine wife Jessica Benjamin reflects the sentiments of many military spouses who prefer to focus on their home and family. On her horizon is someday graduating school, but for now she is content in giving her son her full attention. “I have chosen to be happy instead of waiting for that perfect moment.”
Just Be Something; Do Something
The overall consensus among seasoned spouses is that any military spouse needs one thing to do that is all theirs. When I first married my husband in 2001, I was told that his career came first, and I was there to support him. Being married to someone who was constantly attaining promotions and awards and medals made me proud, but it also highlighted the fact that I needed something of my own.
Many spouses will attest that it is miserable being stuck alone in a foreign place, and that is unfortunately one of the constants of military life. It leads to the ‘dependent’ mentality, which holds us back as a community and helps push the survey-documented incidence of underemployment up to 90%. But that doesn’t have to be our reality, as many military spouses have found ways to fulfill their potential wherever they end up. I, personally, decided that I would strive to be the best version of myself (whatever that would be) at each stage of my journey. I see now that in the beginning, I was satisfied with taking a few classes and working some odd jobs. Then as I had children, I decided it was most important to me to stay home with them around the clock. Now, sixteen years into my husband’s career, I’ve returned to the career dreams I had as a nineteen-year old girl with all the experience of my life so far, and the support available to the military spouse community.
What do military spouses really want? Can they achieve their goals? What resources do they need?
The answer is complex. Despite the constraints of military life, we want it all: to be stay-at-home parents, entrepreneurs, lawyers, and writers. What’s more, our aspirations, personal and professional, change throughout our lives due to: increased familiarity with the military, personal education accomplishment, the arrival of children, or even (sometimes!) the opportunity to live in a dream location. There is no need to feel ‘dependent’ or ‘underemployed,’ because whatever we decide to pursue for ourselves, we have a growing array of resources to help us achieve our goals. To quote Kathie Hightower, “The most important message is to see the possibilities when you don’t think there are possibilities.”
Military life typically presents far more obstacles for the professional military spouse than those experiences by their civilian counterparts (such as licensing needs in multiple states), and many spouses feel overwhelmed by this additional burden. However, there are many services which assist in professional needs or mitigate any restrictions. Here’s a good place to start:
Military Spouse Foundation: Provides a goal assessment to help you decide what career you want to pursue. https://www.militaryspousefoundation.org/
Spouse Education & Career Opportunities: Military OneSource has counselors available 24/7 to assist with education & career information; to include financial aid information, finding the right school, job openings, and resume preparation. https://www.militaryonesource.mil/seco
MACHOSpouse: A virtual community forum for male spouses who make up a smaller percentage of the military spouse community. https://malemilspouse.com/
MSJDN: Created for military spouses who are or want to be in the law profession. https://www.msjdn.org/
Stroller Warriors: Location at installations around the globe, the Stroller Warriors bring together fitness enthusiasts. https://www.strollerwarriors.com/
Moms Club: Support group for stay at home mothers; located around the country.https://www.momsclub.org/
Small Business Administration: In communities around the Nation, the SBA provides free programs for aspiring entrepreneurs. https://www.sba.gov/
In Gear Career: Organization that helps spouses seek professional employment and maintain long term career paths. https://www.ingearcareer.org/