The XX Factor

Work, Life, Decisions, and Sacrifice in a Military Family  

“A week before I was supposed to leave I found out I was pregnant, despite being on birth control, and they don’t deploy pregnant women.”

Photo by Klemen Misic/Shutterstock

Over the past few years, there has been a great deal of discussion about why women aren’t achieving as much in their careers as their male counterparts, even though women have been enrolling in and graduating from college in greater numbers than men since the 1980s. Explanations for this gender gap range from women aren’t “leaning in” enough, to entrenched sexism in the workplace, to husbands’ careers taking precedence, to a lack of social supports for mothers in American society.

But when we discuss the issue in a macro way, we don’t hear the stories of men and women who are making career choices not as statistics in a think piece, but as part of an often complicated balancing act between various interests and responsibilities in their lives. Here is the fourth interview in an occasional series, Best Laid Plans, about how career decisions get made over time and are altered by the unpredictability of life.

Names: Shana and Chris

Ages: Both 35

Shana’s Occupation: Air Force Major

Chris’s Occupation: Stay-at-home dad

Children: Two daughters, ages 2 and 3

Location: Ohio

Hi, Shana. What were your career expectations when you first started working?

I joined the military right out of college, where I was in ROTC. I thought I’d do my four years and get out. I majored in aerospace engineering and I thought I’d work for some kind of tech company as an engineer. But I ended up staying in the military. I incurred more of a commitment when I got my masters because I got tuition assistance. I hit 10 years and figured, I’m already half way to retirement, so I might as well stay the other 10. And there were aspects of the job that I was pretty good at.

Hi, Chris. What were your expectations?

I came from a background where my dad had one steady job for his entire adult career and I thought I would more or less follow that, except that he was an accountant and I was a software engineer. I thought I would gain seniority and work in the same place forever, like he did. But I graduated at a time where economically things were pretty rough. I endured a couple of layoffs early on, and with Shana having to relocate every couple of years, I had to revise my career expectations pretty quickly coming out of school.

What was your life situation when you first started working—did you have kids or a partner then, or did you expect to in the future? 

Shana: Chris and I met as freshman in a college math class back in 1997. We were together all through college until we graduated in 2001. Then after college we lived together for a while. We got married in 2004. We went to college in Massachusetts, and my first station was Hanscom Air Force Base, also in Massachusetts. I worked in a space research lab. I went to grad school, too. I was working full time and going to school part time. In 2005 we went to Los Angeles Air Force Base, and I did space acquisitions, and also finished up my masters.

What are space acquisitions?

In Los Angeles, I bought rockets for the government. A company like Boeing or Lockheed Martin, they have decades-long contracts with the Air Force. They say: “We’ll build 8 rockets for $1.6 billion,” and it’s our job to manage that contract and make sure they do what they’re supposed to do. It’s harder than you’d think, because it’s not like you’re getting the rockets off the shelf. You want to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.

Then we moved to Cape Canaveral in Florida, where I actually launched the rockets, so that was kind of a cool job, and it was sort of along the same lines. It was our job to make sure they build the rockets correctly and that they also launch correctly. We had kids in Florida, and I had more time then, since I had finished grad school by that point. I launched rockets, then I was the inspector general for a while. That’s who enforces the order and discipline for the wing commander, which has nothing to do with acquisitions.

My four years came up at Cape Canaveral. They don’t like officers to stay on station for more than four years. Then we moved to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. At first I was working on cost analysis. Now I’m this high-ranking civilian’s assistant. I manage his calendar, make sure he attends meetings on time, that kind of thing.

How does your current work situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Shana: When I was young, I didn’t have a lot of expectations. Being in the military, I found I would make plans, and every time I would say, “I want to go to this place, or do this, or go here,” something would change. I would get a totally different job than I asked for, or life would change, and I realized I couldn’t really plan for anything. A lot of where you go and what you do in the military, it’s not up to you, it’s what the Air Force needs. All I can do is be the best in my job I can be. Sometimes life gets in the way. I almost deployed several times, but I never have. Strange luck has always kept me from deploying. I was a week from deployment to Afghanistan in 2010  when I found out I was pregnant with my first child. That was a major career speed bump for me. A lot of things changed after that.

Chris: I never thought I’d ever be doing what I’m doing now. The reality set in when Shana got pregnant and we started thinking about how we’d do childcare, and it answered itself for us both as her pregnancy progressed. We had moved three times, and every time I had to pull up roots, I basically had to start my career over whenever we settled in a new place. I went through periods of unemployment, while Shana’s career has been continuous. Because Shana’s career was going pretty well at that point, it seemed to make the most sense for me to be at home for a few years.

How does your current life situation match up with your earlier expectations?

Shana: I thought I’d probably get married and have kids. I definitely didn’t think I’d be in the military. That was the shocker.

Chris: Being a stay-at-home-parent was not as easy as I thought it would be. I did miss the change of venue that came with working outside the home. Being at home all day can be kind of isolating, especially with infants. As the kids have gotten older, even though they’re not school age yet, I try to get out with them more and more.

In your family, whose career has come first?

Shana: At this point, mine. He has no choice, he has to follow me around.

Chris: As Shana told you, we moved in together after college, and we knew pretty quickly that we were going to get married. I knew that because she was an officer, she’d relocate, and I knew there were going to be speed bumps in my career because of it. I realized early on there would be challenges ahead, despite being in an in-demand field.

Did you ever sacrifice career advancement for personal reasons? What were they?

Shana: The closest I ever got was when I was about to deploy in 2010. That was a pivotal point in my career, because I’d asked for the deployment. I wanted to experience war, and not just buy war implements. A week before I was supposed to leave I found out I was pregnant, despite being on birth control, and they don’t deploy pregnant women. I knew that wasn’t going to go over well, and I would take a career hit. But I chose to accept it, and start a family then.

Since you’re a military family, how much of a choice do you get about where you relocate? And if you have any choice in the matter, how do you make those decisions?

Shana: Sometimes I’ll get a choice. Because I’m working for someone who is high-ranking, and even though the job is grueling, what’s nice about it is he’ll get me a job anywhere I want to go when I’m finished. The way the military works is you have your “dream sheet,” which is now called your Airmen Development Plan. You put your career aspirations into a spreadsheet, and the Air Force personnel center tries to put you where you want to go. Depending on who you know, sometimes you can work it. I haven’t been terribly successful in playing that game so far, but it looks good going forward.

When I’m making my development plan, I definitely discuss it with Chris. I’ll ask him: Is there anywhere you don’t want to go? I don’t think he wants to go overseas. In general he’s pretty game to go anywhere that I’d want to or need to go. In the end, what’s best for my career is best for the family, because the better rank I get the more money we’ll make.

Chris: I think we communicate really well about this topic. Her outlook is always changing based on what her current project is about. But she always weighs the options with me first, and I appreciate that. Sometimes I don’t have input; all the options are good. But I will subtly steer her to the places that sound better. Having family and friends in particular locations is a factor.

What is your child care division of labor? Do you live near family that can help?

Shana: Not since we’ve had kids. Chris’s family is in Boston and mine’s in Seattle, and we’ve been ping ponging around the country. Chris takes care of the kids all day, with my long hours—I usually work 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Then I spend a couple hours with them when I get home before they go to bed. They prefer him over me. We joke that he’s “primary daddy number 1” and I’m “lame daddy number 2.”

What is your housework division of labor?

Shana: I used to do most of it, but since my husband decided to be a stay-at-home-dad, I think slowly he’s starting to do most of it, which I didn’t anticipate. He cooks dinner almost every night, and it’s pretty sweet to come home to a hot meal. I didn’t see that coming. We got a new oven and for a long time I didn’t know how to use it.

Chris: I would say I do a majority of it when Shana is working. On the days Shana is home, it’s more equal. I handle a lot of the day-to-day chores, but I do almost all of the irregular chores. I do the lawn care, I am Shana’s mail screener, I manage her website, I’m her IT guy, I take care of all of the dog’s vet appointments, I bathe the dogs, I could go on and on. There are lots of unique tasks that I manage.

How much time per week do you spend on leisure (hobbies, entertainment, solo exercise)?

Shana: A couple hours after we put the kids to bed at 8. We don’t really do anything without the kids anymore on weekends. I exercise in the mornings, so I have to get up really early.

Chris: Not enough. It’s funny, as a stay-at-home-dad, I feel like I’m very busy and not busy at all. I’m constantly managing a certain level of chaos with my daughters, and my daughters’ interactions with my dogs. And that requires lots of little tasks. But there are times where I can sit down and read or play video games. Still, the only solid chunks of leisure I get are after their bedtime.

Lately I’ve been trying to get out once a week to go to a friend’s house and play board games or whatever. Shana takes over all the nighttime childcare for me on those nights, which is really great.

Is there anything, in retrospect, you wish you’d done differently?

Shana: I guess career-wise, I wish I had done things differently when I was younger. I did a lot of stupid things at work, but you live and you learn, and you mature. But I think kid-wise, or family-wise, I don’t regret anything. I would have regretted not having kids when we did. The first was unplanned, and the second was too [laughs]. I don’t know when we would have had kids if we had tried to plan it, because there’s never a great time, and we would have struggled over when’s the right time, if it hadn’t just happened.

Chris: I may gripe about child care on an especially bad day when I just want to curl up in a ball when my wife gets home, but in general I like my job a lot. Maybe I wish we would have had kids earlier, because I want to see what they’re like as they grow up, and I don’t want to wait.

Check out more of Slate’s Best Laid Plans series.