Raise your hand if you’ve had a similar experience:
You’re in a room with military spouses, who are meeting for the first time. When the spouses introduce themselves, they give their names and their service members’ job descriptions.
Some of you who raised your hands might be thinking back on one or two stories in particular. The story that comes to my own mind is curiously set in a leadership seminar for military spouses back in 2008. As I listened to spouse after spouse stand up, say her name, and describe her husband’s job, I felt sad and confused, wondering why these bright, intelligent women weren’t describing their own hobbies, skills, jobs, families, or educations.
Over the years, I’ve recalled this story any time I’ve reflected on or discussed a struggle that many military spouses face: the struggle for a sense of identity.
Perhaps it’s natural for us spouses to ask or to offer up what our service members’ careers are as a starting point for conversation; after all, we meet each other knowing that one thing we have in common is that our spouses are in the military.
However, I wonder: Is our tendency to introduce ourselves according to our service members’ jobs a major contributing factor to the struggle of maintaining our sense of identity? In 11 years as a military spouse, I’ve worn numerous hats, as PCS’s and other life changes shifted me from jobs to stay-at-home-mom to freelance writer and a mixture of all three. My own sense of identity hasn’t always been in sharp focus, but I’ve learned something very important, which I humbly offer here:
1. Stand up, and own yourself.
You are you, and no matter how shy and lost, new and uncertain, outgoing and positive or established and sure you are in this life, you have unique qualities that other spouses want to get to know. Instead of stating your name and service member’s occupation, follow up your name with a description of your interests and background!
Making a conscious effort to do this will lead to some very important outcomes.
2. You will be in control of your own possibilities.
Frequent change can be a nasty beast. It can cause us to dampen down our dreams and put our plans on hold. Oftentimes we do this because we think we need to be ready to accommodate the next move, deployment or turn-on-a-dime change. Soon, our own ambitions feel so far away that we feel purposeless, and at times we might even resent the military or our service members for controlling our lives. But we can change that.
Take the “blank canvas” opportunity of a new unit, and begin drawing the picture of you. When you meet people at your new unit, answer opening questions as they pertain to you personally. For example, “I left a great job as a preschool teacher, so I’m looking for a similar position here.” Or, “I was part of PWOC at my last base and hope to join it here, too.” Or, “Photography is a hobby of mine. I give free pre-deployment sessions to families. It’s a nice gift, and it gives me practice!”
Introducing yourself with thoughtful details puts you in control of how your picture will be drawn at each assignment.
3. You will help build a robust community.
The more you talk about the qualities that make you YOU, the more connections you will make, and the more you will enable others to make connections, too.
You might be a career-oriented military spouse, one who has mastered the art of taking your career with you wherever you have moved, with or without children. OWN IT.
You might be a stay-at-home mom, who has researched the quality of local schools extensively and who is involved in support groups in the Exceptional Family Member Program. OWN IT.
You might be an outside-activity enthusiast, so you have Outdoor Recreation’s schedule memorized and an extensive knowledge of the area’s unique sites. OWN IT.
Owning yourself sets the tone for a community in which spouses’ interests and skills are respected and celebrated. Ask other spouses about themselves. Give each other the space and the support to talk about their backgrounds and experiences. Doing this will help you build and empower a community of spouses with a robust collection of skills, talents, and expertise.
Furthermore, consider how making this a diligent practice might just erase the sometimes alienating side effects of typical introductions. When we introduce ourselves in terms of our service members’ job descriptions, we inadvertently make ourselves aware of that uncomfortable undercurrent of hierarchy; although that hierarchy may not matter to many, it can drive wedges between others.
Consider that, by introducing yourselves with details of your own backgrounds, you will be more likely to find common ground with other spouses before an awareness of a hierarchy (which doesn’t involve you anyway) has a chance to misguide or spoil your relationships.
4. You will define yourself.
Many military spouses reflect that somewhere in the midst of PCSs, TDYs and deployments, they lost sight of their own direction. Their sense of identity is blurry at best, which can be very depressing.
But, constant change doesn’t eliminate the gifts, talents and qualities within each of us. They are still within us, and we owe it to ourselves to breathe life into them.
Standing up and owning yourself enables you to define your shape. It shows others who you are and what you are capable of doing. It leads you to opportunities you wouldn’t have seen otherwise. It connects you to people with similar interests, who become helpful resources, coaches, and cheerleaders. It overturns stones that allow you to hone skills that might have been ignored. It leads you to happier feelings, a more positive outlook, a greater momentum and a motivated spirit.
Best of all, it makes you feel more confident in yourself and your abilities. And suddenly, that self-identity comes into sharper focus, and your life’s roadmap reveals a much clearer direction.
I think it’s safe to say that when military spouses express a desire to reclaim their identity, the vast majority of spouses don’t mean to imply that they wish to reclaim it so they can move on alone; rather, they wish to reawaken a drive within themselves so that they can walk alongside their service members with a sense of purpose and a feeling that they are teammates.
And that word right there – “teammates” – that’s the key to succeeding in this life, isn’t it? In a life that requires us to shift gears, adjust the balance and change course frequently, we succeed when both military spouse and service member are standing up strong on our own two feet … when both of us are standing up strong … when both of us are standing up.
There are aspects of this life that we cannot change – “change” being chief among them. But we can examine how we approach this life, and make choices that lead us toward happier, more authentic versions of ourselves.
Standing up and owning yourself just might be a start.Subscribe to Millspouse: This Week