I’m a military spouse and I’m terrified of being irrelevant.
I am scared to death of being irrelevant, anonymous, or unknown. My fear creeps into arguments with my husband, skews my emotions, and sits in my stomach twisting it in knots late at night. This fear is an old friend, I know it so well I’ve even named it, “Dennis.” I don’t personally know anyone named Dennis, was never wronged by a Dennis — it just seems to have the right ring to it when I need to yell at my fear. “Dennis, shut your mouth and get out of my head! Dennis. Enough!” Most often Dennis comes out and contorts my mouth into a tight knot and clenches my fingers around whatever happens to be in my hand when I am sitting in trainings, info-meetings, or other like places for “military spouses.” I’m a military spouse and have been for 13 years and I am incredibly proud of my husband and our family’s service. But, BUT having a complicated identity as a professional, an intellectual, a trailblazer, a daughter of a disabled veteran, a mom of two, and a military spouse is well, complicated. My fear is something I’m learning to live with and I’ve learned a couple of things along the way to help put Dennis back in his box when he starts twisting my stomach up in knots so I can keep on keeping on.
My husband, Will, and I met in a class on America’s role in the world (true story) when I was a freshman in college. He was in ROTC and had his eye on a commission in the Air Force and I was full of wanderlust and ready to explore the world. When we graduated I received a Fulbright Fellowship and left immediately for Kazakhstan. Will commissioned as a 2nd Lt in the Air Force and went to school to become an Electronic Warfare Officer on the B-52. The world pulled me as far and away as I could go and the military told Will where to be and when to be there. Two years later and tired of being apart, I moved to Shreveport, Louisiana where he was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base and we decided to get married. Love and sprinkles and all of that jazz. In 2009 I became a military spouse. I sort of knew what I was signing up for having grown up in a military family. I knew everything and I didn’t know anything.
College was an amazing time. I was the first person in my family to attend university and I was incredibly proud to be that person. It’s a tremendous thing to be a bridge between your family and a bigger part of the world. It was a privilege I took seriously. I was creating opportunities for myself, for my future children, and for my family. I received a generous scholarship to Tufts University and double majored and minored, took every internship, side job, research project, and opportunity I could. When I graduated with honors and accolades at 22, I walked away with confidence because I knew I could do damn near anything I desired in the world. College prepared me for the work world. But I was woefully ill equipped to understand and manage being a part of a behemoth military system that would tell me where I had to live, when I had to move, and when and for long I had to be alone during deployments. What I didn’t know was that it would also classify me as a “dependent” legally and psychologically. Dependent is a word casually thrown around in the military world but a word that carries an enormity of challenges and responsibility that can be at times truly unimaginable.
DEPENDENT. I remember rolling the word over and over in my mouth when I was enrolling in DEERS as a military spouse (Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System — say that five times fast!). I’d been a dependent before, of my father. And now as a doggedly independent woman, here I was once again a dependent. There was something incredibly uncomfortable about going from a dependent of my father to a dependent of my husband. My head was doing a double-take and all of the empowering education and world experience I’d just had left me flummoxed. Here’s the first dictionary definition of dependent as a noun:
Dependent (n) -a person who relies on another, especially a family member, for financial support.
Cue Dennis knotting my stomach and my fingers turning white clenching the armrest of the black metal and industrial blue fabric office chair I was sitting in that day. I had worked in high school to pay for my standardized tests, gas money, and an AP Political Science course I took as an independent study. I worked my way through college, applied for every scholarship I could find, and scrimped and saved to pay for my books every semester. Dependent? You’ve got to be kidding. The word itself stung my lips like crab apple sour. So that was 13 years ago…
Just last month I was once again sitting in a military spouse training. It was a week long session of classes that spouses were encouraged to attend. My in-laws graciously flew out to watch the kids, I cleared my work schedule for the week, and my husband and I walked in to register for the training together on an early, foggy morning. On the right-hand side of the room were three folding tables with neatly arranged, printed name badges. Each table was staffed by a young, polite soldier providing information and answering questions. This is where my husband, the military member, signed in. I was directed to sign-in at the table behind me. It was a small table pushed against the wall. There was no signage, it wasn’t staffed by anyone. There was just a pile of blank name cards, bright pink lanyards, and no pens. I had to walk around and ask one of those polite young soldiers on the other side of the room to borrow a pen, to write my own name tag… Dennis jumped out of my throat and my eyes went wide, my head felt woozy and I physically forced my feet not to run headlong out of that room. If you think the fear of being irrelevant as a professional is all in my head…let me reassure you that it is not. It’s real. Especially as a military spouse.
Last year when we first arrived at our new duty station, I went to a spouses’ coffee. Our host asked us to go around the room and share the following, “Please tell us your name, your husband’s name, what school your husband is attending, and what language your husband is studying.” Dennis is now squeezing my chest so tight I could barely breathe. Here’s what I later learned. I was sitting next to a chemical engineer whose husband was studying Mandarin, across from me was a mother of five with a successful cottage baking business whose husband was in graduate school, and in the corner was a clinical psychologist whose husband had just finished learning Korean. But none of that was shared in the circle of MILITARY SPOUSES, it was extraneous information picked up in conversation after the fact. If military spouses ever question why they feel complicated things about their own complicated identities, well, it’s understandable and very, very real. So this is why Dennis and I have this uncomfortable co-existence. I panic, he climbs out and sends out red-alerts telling me to high tail it out the door, and then I have to take a deep breath, dig deep and figure out what to do and how to do it gracefully. Some of you might roll your eyes at the phrase “do it gracefully,” but I can tell you from experience that a military spouse with a chip on their shoulder is going to struggle even more than most. So it’s an important part of caring for yourself to stay positive, never be bitter, and keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Not all military spouses have careers, it’s a sort of choice we each have to make. By sort of choice I mean that it’s incredibly challenging to create and maintain a career. Active duty military spouses face a jaw-dropping 24% unemployment rate and an additional 31% are underemployed. Some by choice, some by consequence of the challenges of military life. There are a lot of great resources and more coming online all of the time to help address this, and I personally take full advantage. Mentoring, webinars, networking, resume help. All are important tools and there are good people trying to make a real difference for military families. But the fear of letting my career slip through my fingers is still very real.
I have a rule for myself and anyone that I work with — criticism must be accompanied by actionable suggestions. So here’s what I do to manage my fear, do meaningful work, and find joy in the process. At least most days…
- Accept. The. Messy. I’m a business owner and consultant and I love what I do. But it’s hella messy. My clients don’t see it (usually) — thank heavens for video-less video calls and mute buttons. Scheduling looks different week to week, month to month. I wish it didn’t because I love organization and predictability (hilarious universe joke). The secret though, is to not let the messy part stop you from still taking steps forward all the time, they may be small, but they add up! The mess will never stop. Keep going anyway.
- Ask for Help. I’ve had to eat my fair share of humble pie and learn to put my pride to the side and ASK for help. From neighbors, friends, old colleagues, and family. Help looks different for everybody and every family. But I also make a big point of being present and available to give help too. I wouldn’t be anywhere professionally if not for favors exchanged with neighbors for childcare or family making work trips possible.
- Ask for More Help! Once you’ve started asking for help, look for more help! Find a mentor, find another mentor, network and build relationships and be willing to ask for help again and again. Think about what you need, make a list, and start asking. I have found so many people that are incredibly kind and generous, I strive to find those people and be one of them!
- Prioritize You. There are so many days when it would be so much easier to not make time to do the little things I need to for running or growing my business. I’m needed by someone all of the time. But I remind myself that even if it’s 15 minutes to send off a few emails at the end of the day or an hour early in the morning to finish a blog post, making that effort matters. It’s easy to put it off for one day and then another and another and then it’s time to PCS or your husband gets a surprise 3-month trip abroad and, and…on and on. Do the little things every day to make progress for you.
- Talk about You. It’s okay to be authentically complicated in the many identities you have. Use those identities to build wide and diverse networks, you have so much to talk about with so many different kinds of people. Talk with other spouses, other parents, other military members, other professionals. Spend a little time actually deciding how to talk about your complicated identity and consider how to use that to you advantage.
- And finally…
When Dennis starts to sneak out of his box and I feel panic and ensuing irrelevance creeping in…I’m self-aware enough now to say, it’s okay to feel this way. And I know how to manage my fear. I take a deep breath and tune into the event, barrier, or the upcoming transitions in our military lives that’s causing the fear. I look at it head on and remind myself that it’s okay to feel frustrated and afraid. And then I make a list. Not a BIG list. Just a little list of three things I can do right now to make progress in my professional life in spite of the obstacles ahead. Focus on those three things. Get them done and reward yourself for making progress. To my fellow military spouses with careers and complicated identities, if you can’t be fearless, be relentless.