Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images
The first time I was asked for my husband’s Social Security number, I laughed. I was 26, and it had only been one month since our courthouse wedding in Washington, D.C. I was still getting used to calling him my husband.
I was on a military base in Germany, trying to fill up the car with gas, still white-knuckled from driving on the autobahn. The attendant needed the number to register our ration card. I stared back at him dumbly until he eventually helped me by looking up my husband’s name and rank. At the time, I felt more embarrassed than anything; later, I saw this as a turning point. It was the first moment I realized my life was now filtered through my husband’s. Six years later, I can recite his Social backward.
To be fair, I knew what I’d signed up for. Fresh out of grad school and being certain only that I wanted to marry my Army boyfriend, everything about the structure of military life appealed to me. I relished the idea of reliable housing, health insurance, and community. I just didn’t expect the cost.
Between frequent moves, licensing challenges, and language barriers, it is not easy to work, much less build a career, as a military spouse. I have friends who used to be attorneys, real-estate agents, chefs. Now, they struggle to redirect that drive. I can’t tell you how many dinners and wine nights turn back to this subject. Just the other day, I was commiserating with a friend who, despite being a nurse and living near the largest American hospital in Germany, still could not get a job (too many people, too few roles). In fact, she was told her best shot was to work for free for a year then apply again. Thus, it didn’t surprise me to learn that in 2021, a study by the National Military Spouse Network revealed nearly 25 percent of spouses actively looking for a job were unemployed.
This would be difficult for anyone, but it becomes further demoralizing when everyday life reinforces your role as a “dependent” (the term used for an active-duty member’s family). For example, you provide “sponsor” information when making a dentist appointment, getting a library card, even signing into a language class on base. Yet worse than these logistical slights are the stereotypes that permeate, typecasting spouses as everything from a lazy, leeching “dependapotamus” to an overly rank-conscious “W.O.,” as in, You’re the “wife of” whom?
This hits heavy for me personally. Since I was young, I’ve worked hard to succeed — from schoolwork to soccer to the violin, I chased A’s, goals, and mastering Seitz’s Concerto No. 2. I thrived off achievement. This followed me into adulthood, leading me to 4.0s and fellowships and, eventually, a fully funded master’s program to study creative writing.
I knew I’d have to embrace failure. I’d have to rely on my own dogged belief in myself to become a published author. However, I didn’t realize being a military spouse would make it more emotionally draining. Without opportunities to hold other meaningful positions on top of being continuously undervalued, I struggled with my self-worth. It made me long for the days when I also taught English and worked at a literary magazine. This was made worse when, after a string of writing setbacks (endless rejections, unanswered queries, painful revisions), we moved to the States for a year and no one would hire me. I ended up teaching at an after-school program so dysfunctional, it shook my confidence further.
I see these struggles mirrored in fellow military spouses. The mix of suppressed talent and generalized judgment becomes maddening. Even my husband, while my biggest champion, doesn’t fully understand. It wasn’t until I asked him how he would feel if he didn’t get promoted to Lieutenant Colonel that I saw a flash of recognition.
There have been meaningful steps forward. While military spouse unemployment has been a longtime issue, peaking numbers as a result of COVID have drawn fresh attention. Geographic restrictions were even changed last October to make it easier for spouses to find federal employment, and groups such as the Association of Military Spouse Entrepreneurs are gaining traction. Also, with more remote positions becoming available, spouses have additional opportunities.
But if I’m being honest? It’s all more personal than that. The truest way to protect our ambition is to first honor it within ourselves.
Ironically, the moment I realized this was when my novel didn’t sell. For years, I had been so laser-focused on grasping the role of author, assuming that would solve everything, that when the book didn’t land, I had to take a step back. It of course stung at first, but I was surprised to still feel proud. Of my manuscript and the ways I’d grown over the years. Between living in four different countries and traveling to dozens, my worldview had expanded. After designing custom, hand-drawn cards for my friends, I started selling illustrations online. During days of lockdown, I learned to bike seriously. When my loved ones needed me, I went to them.
It’s not an easy thing to do — to recognize all the ways you are achieving. To recognize all the ways your desire to improve and learn and work fuels your life. Far too often, I’ve belittled my own efforts and experiences. I’ve watched my friends do the same. It’s easier to fall into the trap of thinking that without concrete titles, we are lesser.
But ambition is energy, after all: It never disappears, it only changes shape.