Work-life balance is improbable for most civilians, but it’s nearly impossible for military families. The combination of deployments, erratic schedules, and frequent relocations to semi-isolated military bases makes it so the career of one member—nearly always the father or husband—affects every aspect of his family’s life. It’s a lifestyle that demands a large number of practical accommodations. Emotional ones, too: Bags must be regularly packed, schedules refashioned, and worst-case scenarios considered.
In recent years, the government has made a handful of efforts to ease life for military families, including a nationwide compact that would make it easier for military children to transfer between schools in two different states with different curriculums. They’ve also streamlined the process for military spouses to obtain a professional license in their fields when moving to another state. Before this, procuring something like a nursing or teaching license in a new state was often a timely and burdensome process, even for those with years of experience.
Still, military spouses, 95 percent of whom are women, struggle to find good jobs. A 2014 study found that 90 percent of female spouses reported being underemployed or overqualified for their jobs. Military spouses earn, on average, 38 percent less than their civilian counterparts and are 30 percent more likely to be unemployed. It doesn’t help that the military affords fathers just 10 days of paternity leave—after which they are not only expected to go back to work, but often to leave their homes for weeks or months at a time.
In her new memoir The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace (and Other Missions Impossible), Rachel Starnes writes about the challenges, both personal and institutional, she has encountered as a military spouse. In December 2004, Starnes, a University of Texas Austin graduate and aspiring writer, married a man who had been recently accepted into the Navy. Three days after their wedding, they moved to a base in Pensacola, Florida. This would be the first of seven moves over the next 12 years, during which her husband would be accepted to the U.S. Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor program—familiar to civilians as TOPGUN—and go through physically and emotionally demanding, and dangerous, training. While never deployed to a war zone, Starnes’s husband spends much of the year away on aircraft carriers training other pilots.
Recently, I spoke to Starnes about life as a Navy spouse, Wives Clubs (known officially as Spouse Groups), and what the military could be doing better to help spouses and families. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Elissa Strauss: You’ve moved seven times now, had two sons in the process, and likely have three more moves over the next eight years. How’s that going?
Rachel Starnes: I’ve come to see these moves as a necessary evil. I’ve got my routine down now, and my coping strategies in place. But I still dread the effect it will have on my kids. My older son is 5 years old and he is starting to understand that we never go back. Also, while he has no fear of strangers, he has developed a real fear of being seen as a stranger, and it is just gut-punching to deal with that.
Is there something the military could do to decrease the frequency of relocations for families? Or ease the process?
It’s a tough question. There are certain military careers that require less in the way of moving, but my husband wasn’t interested in those careers; he wanted to fly planes. There is this inscrutable bureaucracy that makes the decisions and calls the shots as to where we move, and the whole process can feel very impersonal. In some ways that is good, because it feels like a machine, not a person, is spitting out the assignment. It’s just a roll of the dice.
There is an infrastructure in place to help ease transitions for children and spouses, but it varies in quality from base to base. Still, it’s difficult, which is probably why the homeschool movement is so big in the military. At first I was suspicious of it and how these children are even further separated from civilian culture. But over time, I’ve come to understand how hard it is to keep anything consistent when everything else, including their father’s schedule, is so erratic.
How do the wives create a sense of normalcy for themselves?
A lot of military wives don’t work, and there is this subculture on the bases that, as many people comment, “feels very 1950s.” When some people say it, it is meant to be nice; they like the traditional setup. But other times I’ve heard it more like, “yeah… gosh… it feels like the ’50s.” I’m making dinner tonight. I take care of the house, the moves, the children—it’s all me. My husband always needs to be ready to step out at a moment’s notice, and he often does.
Many of the women who do work try to find stuff that is portable, so they work for these multi-level marketing companies where they end up selling stuff to their friends. I have an immeasurable respect for these people and that they are trying to work, but unfortunately these companies just force them to exploit the one thing they really need: a network of support. I wish there were more options for military wives to work that didn’t capitalize on military culture in a way that is so cynical.
Speaking of networks of support, you write a lot about Wives Clubs in your book. How do they work?
Formally, they are a vehicle for information and social organization. They also cement the hierarchy of the squadron. [Ed. note: A woman’s rank in the club often parallels her husband’s rank in the military.] Wives Clubs can be a force for good and help you meet friends, but they also can create a lot of unnecessary drama.
It’s important to understand the practical reason of why they exist, which took me a while. For one, you are moving all the time and can’t just rely on Google and Yelp to help you get to know your surroundings. Also, one of the first things you have to do when you get to a new base is fill out the emergency data form. You are answering questions like, if this or that would happen tomorrow, who would your kids go to? Or who will feed your pet? These are disturbing but necessary questions. So the Wives Clubs, at their core, are a way to address the fact that you need to have actual people in a community and you need that fast. Even if they are not your nearest and dearest, you need someone.
Before I had kids I found the social aspect of it strange, and it seemed like I was supposed to be navigating it in a way to help my husband’s career. There were also a lot of crafts, which I couldn’t get into, and events where I’d be forced to wear a shirt with “Mrs.” and my husband’s call sign on it. But, after kids, you come to see how much this community matters when your husband is gone all the time.
What’s the most challenging part of parenting on your own so often?
The fact that I have to make all the decisions but I am answerable to someone else. If I were a single parent there would be more financial strain, but I’d only be answerable to myself. It’s hard to be on the same page, even just about household minutiae, when we haven’t been able to talk in a few days or a week.
Did you ever feel, or were made to feel by others, that writing a book about the struggle of family life in the military was taboo or unpatriotic?
Absolutely. Early on, I was very selective about who I told about it, and that has been a nerve-wracking part of this.
Though, so far, most spouses are so happy that somebody is saying something about their experience. We’ve been at war for 15 years now and there’s been excellent literature about the war and veterans, but not so much about the experience of their families or what it’s like to be the wife—the one who bridges the gap between military and civilian life. There are exceptions, such as Siobhan Fallon’s short story collection You Know When the Men Are Gone. But I was looking for something like [my memoir], a representation of our experience that wasn’t some kind of “Chicken Soup for the Military Soul” or just told me to pray harder. I wanted something that acknowledged that parts of this sucked.
What could the military do to make it suck less?
This is a question that I’m struggling with. I have been posing it to my friends who are Navy wives and put it on Facebook and, crickets.
I think one thing that would help, in terms of getting civilian support for fairer policies, is to get rid of this perception, which goes back to World War II, that everyone in the military is there because they are so pro-America, or desperate, and therefore don’t mind putting their families at the mercy of this lifestyle. The way military families view war, the way we view our country—well, those are very complicated things. I think a lot of civilians give themselves a pass because they think we are all swept up in a patriotic fever.