Being a nurse is hard. Being a nurse with an active-duty husband who also works demanding shifts, in a stressful atmosphere, as well as living in a strange town with a 3-year-old child in tow, is doubly difficult.
Both have taught me that the keys to life as a working military spouse are flexibility and sacrifice.
A whirlwind of change
Within the span of a single weekend I graduated nursing school, married the man who could be called my high-school sweetheart, packed my car and moved 1,651 miles from my hometown in Michigan to a small, isolated city in Montana. Our 3-year-old son stayed behind with his grandparents until I could secure a job and, I hoped, some measure of stability.
I had become an Air Force wife, and in classic military spouse fashion left behind everything I had ever known to craft a life out of possibilities and uncertainties in a strange land. It was exciting in the same way that a fresh, clean whiteboard is exciting, in that it positively glows with potential. What shall I write on it? How does one begin a new life story? You almost don't want to mar the surface at all; you almost choose to leave it blank and instead live a life filled with nothing but the notion of possibilities.
Of course you eventually have to write something. We moved into a small house on the base (I called it living in a gated community, but one that happened to have control of nuclear missiles), I sat for the state boards, became a registered nurse and was hired on a critical-care unit at the only hospital in the region. Brendan, our aforementioned preschooler, flew out to join us and before I knew it my whiteboard was filled. My new life had begun, and in many ways I had left the old Melissa behind in Michigan.
A constant juggle
Military life is a series of reinventions. You move, change and adapt, each time leaving parts of yourself behind. Friends are made and then they move away, routines are formed and then abandoned. It's a play with a constantly rotating cast and a script you have to improvise daily.
For a while my life felt like a nearly constant search for a babysitter. I worked full time, 12-hour shifts that rotated between days and nights. My husband, a missile-code controller, works the same way, only with different shift times and stretches. Because of that we were always overlapping, and usually at times of the day which most consider "God-awful." Trying to find childcare from 3:30AM to 8:30AM, for example, is indeed "God-awful."
We made it work for several months. It felt like a track-and-field event in which you pass the baton, only the baton was a child, and the race was a constant sprint to work. I loved (and continue to love) my job, but found myself having to call in absent all too often because of lack of child care. That's the thing with being a military spouse: You don't come first.
Most wives and mothers feel that way; it is, after all, what you sign up for when having a child. "I hereby promise to indefinitely put my own wants and needs behind those of my child" is the initiating creed to motherhood -- but most moms don't have to add, "and of the federal government" at the end of that statement. Our non-military employers are not always understanding of that. Some sacrifices are mine to make because they're simply not an option for my husband; he can't just go AWOL for lack of a babysitter.
A worthwhile tradeoff
Eventually, I realized that the picture of my life had expanded and filled every space of the whiteboard, leaving no further room for flexibility. Something had to be erased and adapted. I compromised on my options and dropped from full-time nurse to registry, or per diem, nurse. That means I sign up for shifts that are short-staffed, on days when my husband doesn't work. But that means I am the first one to get put on call if the incoming patient census drops. This means that many afternoons I can be found carrying my phone around, waiting for the call that tells me I won't be working that night. It's like paycheck roulette; but when your spouse is on active duty and you live in a small town that appears to not believe in babysitting, it's very much worth the flexibility.
All in all, being an Air Force wife is incredible. You see new places, meet new people and the government provides a house for you in a gated community with nukes and cheap groceries. It's worth the stress and unpredictability, but only if you can handle your life story having to be written on an erasable surface rather than chiseled in stone. When you marry a member of the military you are not only wed to them, but to the military itself, for better or worse. I think most find that this brings out a wonderful side of us; an adaptable, free-flowing aspect of our personalities that we take with us wherever we go.
Next: Military Families Week
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