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This is what it’s like to be a working military spouse

Three military spouses talk about their struggles to find jobs and work while juggling unpredictable schedules and childcare responsibilities.

This is what it’s like to be a working military spouse
[Photo: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Matthew Callahan]

The hunt for a steady job can be daunting for military spouses, a quarter of whom are reportedly unemployed. All military spouses are faced with unpredictability, which often makes them less attractive to employers, but wives–who account for more than 90% of military spouses–are also subject to the issues that all women contend with in the workplace, from the gender pay gap to the motherhood penalty. Even among military spouses, men are more likely to be gainfully employed: According to a recent Blue Star Families survey, about half of male spouses work full-time, while just 27% of female spouses do. Women’s earnings potential is also compromised, with just 19% of female spouses making more than $50,000, as compared to 44% of male spouses.

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But working, period, is a challenge when an active duty spouse can be deployed for months on end. “You’re not a single parent,” one military spouse told me. “But you’re a sole provider for your children, and your spouse has no predictability. They can’t control anything about when they’re there or not. Sometimes you’re in the middle of breakfast, and they leave, and you don’t know when they’re coming back.” For some spouses, entrepreneurship or remote work is the answer, but that brings its own challenges. We talked to three military spouses about what it’s like to find work while juggling unpredictable schedules and childcare responsibilities.

“I had to have three different back-up nannies”

“I think being a military spouse is the privilege of my life thus far,” says Maggie, who is now an entrepreneur. “But it’s really hard.”

Maggie, who has been a military spouse for eight years, has lived in more than seven states; her husband is usually gone about six months out of the year. She started her own company about three years ago, after working in a number of tech roles. “One of the things I’ve found really wonderful about being an entrepreneur is that it’s allowed me to have a high degree of flexibility,” she says. “But I wouldn’t say that my story is necessarily typical.”

For military spouses like Maggie who are parents, juggling work with childcare is even more of a challenge, since their spouse may have to leave at a moment’s notice. “It’s not just like a business trip,” she says. “They’re out for weeks or many months, and you’re not able to anticipate when they’re going to depart or come home.” To prepare for a recent weekend work trip, Maggie had to put three nannies on hold to take care of her four-month-old and two-and-a-half-year-old.

And yet many military spouses gravitate toward jobs in, say, education or healthcare–roles that don’t necessarily offer flexibility and require different licensing by state. In dual military families, Maggie says the woman may often choose to step back from an operational role. Despite the prevalence of remote work, Maggie hasn’t seen a big shift in military spouses working remotely. The remote opportunities are fewer for military spouses, she says, and especially if they work in fields like nursing. “You don’t see a lot of highly skilled remote-work opportunities,” she says. “A lot of the communities aren’t necessarily hubs of innovation. So how would you even establish the relationships to have those opportunities?”

Though there are now many initiatives to help veterans join the civilian workforce, companies don’t necessarily try to recruit military spouses–and in fact, they’re often biased against them. “One of the challenges is that it’s kind of out of sight, out of mind,” Maggie says. “People don’t remember that we’re still in Afghanistan. It’s kind of forgotten that deployment cycles are still very much a reality in these communities.” She adds that it would serve companies well to recruit military spouses for remote work. “If companies are looking for people to do certain types of remote positions, it would be a fabulous community to tap into,” she says. “You’d find a hungry workforce.”

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For Maggie, a key motivator to start her own business was having women in her life who showed her what her career could look like. It also helped that she had cofounded software companies prior to becoming a military spouse. “I think I had role models in other women who were like, There is a way to navigate this,” she says. “Largely it’s been about seeking mentors. If a military spouse wants to start something, there are ways to do it.”

“It’s just different being a male spouse. You get excluded a bit”

David* was a college basketball coach for 20 years. That changed when he married someone in the military four years ago. Since then, David and his family have lived in three different places, and in a few months, they’ll be making their way from North Carolina to Washington, D.C. “Those [coaching] jobs are pretty limited,” he says. “It’s not like I was a lawyer or a mechanic–jobs that are anywhere in the world.”

David struggled to find a professional coaching job that would be close enough to his family and where his wife needed to be. When he applied for an athletic director’s position at a junior college, he made it to the final round of interviews and then didn’t get the job, partly because he was a military spouse, he believes. So he now works remotely part-time for a company his friend started, which runs a college basketball tournament in Jamaica. (In general, he says, the male military spouses he knows work remotely.)

“I could live anywhere in the world as long as I have my phone and computer,” he says. He concedes he could have taken a different type of job altogether, if something in the realm of coaching wasn’t a viable option. “If I wanted to get a job at Kinko’s or something like that, I’m sure I could probably do those kinds of jobs,” he says. “But something in a professional field is a little more difficult.”

It was also important to David and his wife for one of them to stay home with their children, since they welcomed a new daughter two months ago. “You can’t pass up the time that you could spend with your kids,” he says. “I’ve been there every day with my daughter, and luckily, I found something where I can still work at home and be around the kids and make it work.” When you’re a military family, he points out, you also can’t rely as much on family support. “The odds of you living by your family are pretty slim,” he says. (Last year, when David had to fly to Jamaica for work, his wife was also deployed; they had to ask her aunt and uncle to stay with the kids for a week.)

As a male spouse, David sometimes feels like he isn’t always included in the military spouse community. Many spouses tend to be in pink-collar fields like nursing and teaching, he says, or run small businesses out of their home. When work opportunities arise, they’re often directed at women; some of the workshops offered to military spouses school them in how to start a successful Avon business, for example. “It’s just different being a male spouse,” he says. “There are groups on Facebook, but it feels like you’re the only male. They’ll write, ‘Hey ladies, this opportunity opened up that is perfect for us,’ but you don’t really fit that bill. So you get excluded a bit.”

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“I’m not sure how anyone gets anything done”

When Wendy Coop was in the U.S. Navy, she couldn’t quite grasp what it was like to be a military spouse during a deployment. “I had all this one-sided experience being the person who was always going away,” she says. “You leave and you think about it, but the mission is what’s important, so you just go about doing your work every day. You don’t really think about the people who are at home trying to keep everything together.”

Now she sees things differently. “I’m not sure how anyone gets anything done,” she says. “In two or three years, you’re moving to a different spot.” As a disabled veteran turned military spouse, Coop is acutely aware of the struggles spouses can face in finding work. (She got married in January, and her husband will be rotating to a new duty station in July.) “I can’t just pop up and say I want a regular job,” she says. “And my disabilities prevent that–I can’t really work a 40-hour workweek–so I’ve had all these really underpaying jobs.”

Since leaving the Navy more than a decade ago, Coop has held a battery of odd jobs, all of which didn’t quite pad her bank account. “I was so enamored with being able to do whatever I wanted that I literally took whatever job sounded interesting,” she says. That included many retail jobs–even a stint at Victoria’s Secret–and a teaching gig at a Catholic high school. (The latter was the only job that required her to have a bachelor’s degree.) She also spent years driving for Uber on and off, which in Maryland, where she is now, pays no more than $1 per mile and 9¢ a minute. “My husband doesn’t understand that Uber is very taxing, and it’s not reliable,” she says. “If I can get a client to buy a website from me and pay in full, that’s a whole week of Uber driving that I don’t have to do.”

For years, Coop says she couldn’t recognize that she even could earn more than, say, $12 an hour. “It didn’t occur to me that I had knowledge and expertise that was worth money in the market,” she says. “I looked at my husband and what he made, and I said, ‘I could just as easily be earning the same amount of money. Why am I not?'” She realized she was just as skilled as her husband, if not more skilled, given her experience in the civilian world, and decided it was time to find something she could get excited about. “I took one more job that was an hourly wage and it lasted three weeks, and then I said, ‘I refuse to do this anymore,'” she says. “And it’s not because it’s a bad job, or that people who take those jobs are less than. I just knew that wasn’t for me, and I knew I wouldn’t be happy doing that.”

That’s why Coop is now in the business of helping other military spouses start their own online businesses. She has found that many military spouses end up underemployed in part because, given their lifestyle limitations, they prioritize bringing in money over finding work that utilizes their skill set. “They’re not getting paid what they’re worth for the knowledge they have and the experience they have,” she says. “That’s why I redirected my own business to concentrate on military spouses to help them launch their own online businesses. That’s something you can take to any [permanent change of station]; you’re charging what you’re worth, and you’re still adding to the family finances but getting the flexibility that you need.”

As a veteran and new spouse, Coop has been particularly struck by how little acknowledgement military spouses receive, whether it’s preference from employers or respect for the support they provide. Sometimes, they’re treated as hangers-on who want to milk military benefits. It’s been a hard pill to swallow as a veteran. “I’ve had this whole other life for 15 years, where my identity has been wrapped up in being a disabled veteran,” she says. “But when someone looks at my ID now, all they see is a dependent; they don’t see all the things I’ve done. I don’t want to lose my veteran identity just because I married my best friend.”

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*David is a pseudonym.

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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