Choosing To Make It Work
Navy spouse Elizabeth Shaw dedicates both her professional life and volunteer hours to help others find their voice. During the day, she works as a grassroots organizer, connecting constituents with their members of congress. In her spare time, she runs a wildly popular Facebook group focused on careers for military spouses. Diving into philanthropy and public service has been a meaningful road for Elizabeth, but she has also faced challenging roadblocks thrown at her family by her husband’s service.
For Elizabeth, having a career in tandem with being a military spouse comes down to a simple truth: you either make it work or you don’t. With each fork in the road, Elizabeth chose to make it work and encourages other working spouses to find the best fit for both their careers and their dedication to military life.
Deciding to “Geobach”
Upon graduating from college with her degree in political science, Elizabeth began working as a Campaign Manager for a state senate campaign. She quickly learned she was capable of juggling demands while staying calm under pressure. Her career ambitions then took Elizabeth to Washington, D.C. where she eventually landed a job as Manager of Federal Grassroots Development for the American College of Cardiology. Her husband, a Navy Intelligence Officer, was soon ordered to move across the world to Japan, and Elizabeth and her family made the difficult decision for her husband to go to Japan as a geobachelor. The decision to “geobach” meant Elizabeth would only see her husband every six months, but the fact Elizabeth could keep growing in her job was worth the distance.
Using her creative mind, outgoing spirit, and problem solving skills, Elizabeth went to her boss with a plan of telecommuting from Japan for 2 ½ months during her husband’s time as a geobachelor. Prior to setting that meeting, Elizabeth focused on being a reliable employee and put effort into building a relationship with her boss. That way, when the time came for her to work thousands of miles away from the office, her boss knew Elizabeth was trustworthy.
“They knew I was dedicated to the job,” Elizabeth explained. Telecommuting from Japan meant some 2 a.m. phone calls and creativity with technology, but Elizabeth was then able to return back to her job after spending time with her husband. For spouses looking to propose similar ideas to employers, Elizabeth advises coming up with a detailed plan before the big ask.
Ultimately, the decision to be separate from her husband and stay behind for her career was emotional, but Elizabeth says her family would consider the option again.
“You have to think about what fits for you,” she said. “This is what worked for us.”
Creating an Online Community
As a working military spouse, Elizabeth felt lonely at times. Working full time meant a busy schedule, making it hard to participate in daytime spouse get-togethers and base events were often geared toward families and non-working spouses. She brainstormed ways to get better connected and decided that philanthropy would be a natural way to learn more about the military community. She soon threw herself into volunteer work for military spouse or military family focused organizations.
“I joke with my husband that I don’t know how to do anything halfway,” she said, laughing. “So when I decided that I wanted to start volunteering for the military community, I started volunteering for five different places.”
In addition to her volunteer work, Elizabeth wisely thought that working military spouses could use a way to connect with one another.
“I thought I would create this Facebook group called Career Military Spouses, where people who were like me that are career-minded spouses who love working and also love being a military spouse could get together, network, and feel like they’re not going through this alone.”
Initially, Elizabeth expected maybe 50 other spouses to join, but it soon became a way for spouses to learn about resources out there for career advancement. Today, the group has nearly 2,000 members and offers spouses advice on everything from networking to resume building to general advice on how to maintain a viable career amidst moves and deployments.
“I think as a career military spouse you get so engrossed in that that you forget to look around,” Elizabeth said. “So hopefully it’s been a way for the spouses who are like myself to know we’re not alone.”
Balancing Career with Family
Modern military spouses are often expected to do it all. Have the job. Manage the house. Manage the move. It can be overwhelming at times, but for Elizabeth, she finds inspiration in spouses who find ways to make it all work cohesively.
“I saw a spouse at an event who was presenting her company while holding her baby at her hip,” she reflected. That woman decided not to put her business aspirations on hold, but instead pushed through difficulties. Elizabeth encourages other spouses to do the same.
“This is something you can do,” she advised. “You don’t have to choose not to have a career just because your significant other’s career is very difficult.”
To make balancing easier, Elizabeth suggests spouses look into flexibility policies at their workplaces and possibly even presenting the idea of telecommuting one or two days a week. Just like Elizabeth went to her boss with a detailed plan on working from Japan, you can backup your idea with data, citing the proven benefits of working from home and have answers prepared for challenging questions your boss may have.
If you are still looking for work, Elizabeth points to volunteering as the best way to find connection and purpose.
“There’s always something that is going to bring you strength and confidence,” she said. “If you don’t have a job, find a volunteer opportunity that makes you feel whole and pour yourself into that.”
In addition to volunteering, treat your job search like a full-time position. When Elizabeth was looking for an opportunity in Washington, DC she made herself go to any interview that was available, even if she knew she wasn’t going to get the job. The practice helped her find what made her different and learn how to better sell herself to potential employers. Plus, connections may come from strange places. Elizabeth found her current position through an interview for different job.
Elizabeth also pushed herself to attend networking events outside of her comfort zone. Meeting new people can lead to new opportunities or give you a fresh take on a job search.
“I never walked out of an event thinking, ‘ugh, that wasn’t worth my time,’” Elizabeth explained. “You never know if someone you meet can impact your future.”