This is the third post in a series on transitioning from active duty military to life into the civilian world.
By Samantha Nicoll Samantha works as a Program Manager in Silicon Valley.
In Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, a chapter entitled “Are you my Mentor?” has some anecdotal insights about the importance of finding someone who you can look up to, someone who can help guide you in your professional development. I took from it these main points: (1) Mentor-mentee relationships should form organically. Both parties will gain more if there is “friendship chemistry” and some commonality. (2) Don’t limit yourself to a small subset of potential mentors. This is tough, because we tend to gravitate toward people like ourselves. But you can broaden your horizons by spending time with a great mentor who doesn’t share your gender, race, etc. (3) Find out what is important to you, and seek those qualities in a mentor. For me, I was interested in learning from a mentor who was involved in social entrepreneurship, and also had spouse and kids.
1. Purpose of seeking a mentor. I had a misconception about what a mentor-mentee relationship meant. I thought that I wanted to meet a mentor who happened to be a powerhouse manager at a fast-growing tech company, someone who would meet me and hire me on the spot. No resumes or interviews! Actually, my best learning experiences have been meeting mentors who asked me questions about my preferences, and challenged my whole view of what I care about in a civilian career. Seeking a mentor will challenge your assumptions. The purpose of seeking a mentor is not to instantly get hired, it is to have a two-way developmental relationship. The right mentor will guide you to reach conclusions on your own. As you struggle with editing your resume, interviews, and possibly rejection, a good mentor-mentee relationship will help you learn from mistakes and hone your goals.
2. How to find a great mentor. When I was struggling to meet the right mentor in my chosen geographic area and target industry, I started reaching out to people I met at conferences. Luckily, some motivated and extremely helpful fellow veterans referred me to a couple mentor matches. Your extended network is bigger than you think! A key to accessing an extended network is having done some soul searching, so you can give people a general direction (i.e. I want to… be a Studio Project Manager in Hollywood, start a consulting company in Texas, work at an investment bank, be a goat farmer in New Hampshire, own and operate a charter boat business). Your target field might change during your search. But sharing my elevator pitch with people and tagging “I want to move to San Francisco and find a job as a Program Manager in tech operations” helps contacts filter their own network, to help you find the right person. Lo and behold, some excellent mentor matches resulted with specificity.
In addition, I found an excellent resource in the eMentor Program: https://ementorprogram.org/ — a web-based mentoring program that has 3 unique mentoring communities for 1) all women officers, cadets/mids, and veterans (all commissioning sources), 2) all veterans (men and women) and 3) all military spouses. I learned about this online mentoring community through AcademyWomen. It’s a great place to search for a mentor in your target career field because the mentor pool is large and very diverse. And many of the mentors are veterans themselves so already understand your transition challenges very well.
3. Fostering a great mentor-mentee relationship. The best way to benefit from a mentor is to be a dedicated mentee. What does it mean to be a great mentee? I recommend doing a bit of homework on your mentor, and asking him or her about his experience. Build rapport, and establish trust by learning what you have in common. In my case, I bonded with my mentors by asking about how they raise a family and maintain a career (something I want to know more about), and sharing stories from the military. Being a great mentee also means not wasting your mentor’s time. While you may develop a friendship eventually, recognize whether or not your mentor has a busy schedule and be accommodating. Arrive at meetings (coffee shops) prepared with questions. Demonstrate you’ve done a bit of research about your mentor, ask questions about choices he or she has made, and tie the conversation in with your goals. Always be thankful (send a note).
4. Questions I’ve asked my mentors in the beginning of my job search:
a. My goal is to find a job in the San Francisco Bay Area as a Program Manager in tech operations or supply chain. I’m also thinking about applying for graduate school, to achieve this goal. Do you think that step is necessary, based on your experience?
b. Why did you choose to leave a job at a Fortune 500 company and start a small entrepreneurial venture? What are the pros and cons of such a career change?
c. I’m interested in alternative energy, especially solar power, but I don’t know enough about it. Do you know anyone in the industry I can talk to?
d. How do you balance having young children with your current career in consulting (frequent travel, etc.)?
e. What do you think? Should I tell that story about breaking a $500,000 piece of military equipment as my “biggest mistake” interview question?
5. Mentorship – Unexpected benefits. As I met with my mentors more often, having coffee or a phone chat every few weeks, I realized that just talking to someone about my goals was evolving my ability to answer tough questions. Even though conversations with mentors are informal, often times a mentor who has been a manager before, worked in consulting, or gone to graduate school has done some hiring and interviewing. Your mentor will ask you crazy wild questions that will hit you like a brick in the face. Like “Why? Why do you want to become an astronaut? Why do you want a business degree? Why do you want to work at Company X?” Answering some of these tough questions will help you polish your original purpose in the first place. You will hone your answers for inevitable future interview questions, and encounters with recruiters. Also, you might find you were looking at the wrong criteria in your job search in the first place.
Caitlin joined Veteran eMentor to get help finding her first job after transitioning out of the Coast Guard. She wanted to relocate to Montana and admits that she was starting to get desperate because the actions she was taking weren’t producing results. Even so, she was reluctant to ask for help. Luckily, a mentor in Veteran eMentor reached out to Caitlin; at first she was anxious about sharing honestly with a stranger, but she warmed up to her mentor quickly.
“We emailed, got to know each other, and discussed my goals. She listened, reviewed my resume and gave me LOTS of suggestions for improvements. She helped me figure out which jobs to apply for and each time I applied for a new position, she would review my resume again. She was so immediately available. It was amazing to me that she was a complete stranger and was able to talk to me and see where I was coming from and she understood exactly what I needed. It was incredible and humbling to have that much support from someone I didn’t know before. When I was offered my job she was the first person I called with the news and she celebrated with me.”
Caitlin felt changed by the positive experience she had with her mentor and hopes others will seek out a mentor in the program even if it feels risky.
“I feel like I have grown–I am more confident. I was so afraid of making myself vulnerable to a stranger. But, I am proud that I took the risk, went through the experience and was successful. I hope others will reach out for help through Veteran eMentor. I learned you need to reach out and ask for help even though it’s scary. I found that through telling your story to a safe person, you will make a great connection and get the help you need.”
Since posting her bio and other professional information, Army spouse Petita Rentz has been a resource to other military spouses who are exploring careers in health and wellness. Petita has a Bachelor’s degree in Recreation and is a certified Recreation/Fitness Specialist – she works for a national fitness company to certify others. She is working on her Master’s degree in Health and Wellness.
Q: How would you describe the Military Spouse eMentor Program in one word?
A: I think the eMentor Program is phenomenal. I have been telling every military spouse great things about it!
Q: What’s so great about it?
A: I love that I can find resources on the site and see what other spouses and mentors are doing.
Q: What is a specific example of how helpful it can be?
A: When I PCS (like I recently did) I can go on the site and post questions or read about different installations. There are recommendations about (local) employment, possible job openings, and even scholarships. I always share this information and encourage spouses to find mentors.
Q: Why do you consider your involvement a success so far?
A: Any time I can get and give resources and interact with other military spouses it is always beneficial. This program allows me to do both.
Q: What success have you had in being a mentor to spouse protégés in Military Spouse eMentor?
A: Most protégés want to talk about becoming a fitness instructor, but in one situation the protégé, who was interested in wellness, realized she didn’t really want to be a fitness instructor; she wanted to be a wellness coach. I helped steer her in that direction and was able to give her several options for further research in that specific career area with the same type of background.
Q: Would you consider ‘switching roles’ and using the program to get a mentor for yourself?
A: Yes! I have a portable business and want to see how I can take it to the next level.
Q: What is one of the most helpful features of the program?
A: I try to log on twice a week, but when I don’t, I get email reminders and they help me get back on track.
This is the second post in a series on transitioning from active duty military life into the civilian world.
By Samantha O’Rourke
Expand your Network.
I gained an interest in personality type testing after taking Psychology in college, and again in the Army. Most people tell me they can’t believe I’m an introvert. However, I really am, so this “expand your network” notion has annoyed me at the outset, since it depletes my energy to meet new people constantly. But in reading What Color is Your Parachute?, I’ve learned that most hires are made through inside references. If all of your contacts are in the military, you might not find that amazing opportunity without expanding your lens and network of people. There are tons of passionate people making a difference out there in the “civilian world,” waiting to learn who you are and sing your praises! I went outside my comfort zone to approach people, and have not only gained professional contacts, but mentors and friends. For extroverts, this may be less of a concern. Some tips, if you are like me and need a push:
Get a LinkedIn Profile to complement your résumé. If you don’t have a profile on LinkedIn.com, get one! If you need to learn some intricacies of refining your profile, read How to Write a KILLER LinkedIn Profile…And 18 Mistakes to Avoid by Brenda Bernstein. There are also great tips for online courtesy in this professional networking space.
Get business cards and ensure they’re always accessible. www.vistaprint.com offers deals for free business cards. Put a link to your LinkedIn profile on your business card. In the last month, I’ve traded business cards in an elevator, on a plane, and standing in line at coffee shops. The most important thing, in my opinion, is receiving one from someone you’re interested in following up with, so offering is a great way to get one.
Practice your elevator pitch. One or two sentences about who you are, what your experience is, and where you want to go (see blog post #1 in this series, do some soul searching!). I recently had 30 seconds in an elevator to speak with a friendly tech executive, and later laughed to myself because of the cliché of the moment. I guess my elevator pitch is compelling enough, because I was lucky to exchange business cards (easily accessible!). My pitch is something like, “I’m a transitioning Army Officer with experience in satellite communications and global operations, and I’m moving to the Bay Area this fall. I’m passionate about emergency response, telecommunications, and energy, but I’m open to other industries. How about you, what do you do?” You’d be surprised how interested non-military folks are in your service and experience.
Go to events, volunteer, and find groups. One way I was able to meet other military women—those still serving, transitioning, and veterans—was by attending the Officer Women Leadership Symposium (OWLS) and the Women in Transition Career Workshop hosted by Academy Women in Washington D.C. Interacting with so many interesting people was energizing, and I left feeling motivated to seek other networking events. You can learn more about both of these events at http://academywomen.org/events/ . AllConferences.com and Meetup.com are sites I’ve used to learn about events in my areas of interest. Honestly, though, the last two events I’ve attended I found out about by word of mouth and an invitation (expand your network!)I volunteered at one of the conferences, saving money on attendance, and showcasing the “harnessing chaos” skillset that military veterans often possess. This particular conference was about Health, and even though that’s not my industry of choice, I still got a chance to practice socializing in a professional non-military setting. You never know when and where you’ll meet that gatekeeper human resources contact for your dream company. Additionally, I’ve had a few “oh-my-gosh, this person is my new-best-friend!” moments, allowing me to see normal life beyond the military.
Follow up. Once you get a business card or have obtained contact information for a new professional contact or friend, follow up immediately. Remind the person in your email, text, or LinkedIn message how you met so he or she will remember you. If you’ve been invited to something via a contact, be sure to write a thank you email or letter.
If you are an introvert, how have you gone outside your comfort zone to approach people?
This is the first post in a series on transitioning from active duty military life into the civilian world.
By Samantha O’Rourke
Six months ago, I was preparing for an exciting new Active Duty position in Civil Affairs at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Then my husband got a Traumatic Brain Injury in training, and everything changed. He has recovered just fine, but the incident allowed us time to consider our priorities. As a couple, we explored options for changing our scenery entirely…that is, getting out of the military. My husband proposed moving to where I grew up, the San Francisco Bay Area. I learned about how I can continue my service in the Reserves in my home state of California, so I enthusiastically agreed. All of a sudden, we’re getting out of the Army… now what?
In realizing there are other possibilities, I’ve seen how this process can be overwhelming. In the Army, there is a lockstep path for Officers with some control over assignments. Looking to the future outside Active Duty, its like I’ve traded in a sedan for a dune buggy. I can deviate from the hardball road, and go anywhere. Go to graduate school? Get a job –which industry? Do I use a job-placement service? Sell everything and travel? Start a banjo goth band and live out of a van? It has been ten years since we were civilians—and we were teenagers at that time! So these are some simple things I’m learning in my Active Duty to Civilian transition adventure.
Read books, do some soul searching, and figure out who you are, what you want, and why.
If you know exactly what you want to do and have the necessary certifications and degrees for your next mission, great. I don’t fit that category, and I’m still on a self-exploration journey. It’s not crunch time yet. Until then, here are some books that have inspired me, and given way to subsequent actions:
1. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. As Chief Operating Officer at Facebook, Sheryl has shared her insights about women in the workplace based on her experience in leadership positions in the corporate world. This book inspired me to have confidence in myself, think about how diversity can be a powerful asset to organizations, assess how I can seek mentors, and learn how to find meaning in a career resembling more of a “jungle gym” with many opportunities.
2. What Color is your Parachute? by Richard Bolles. The 2014 edition of this great book talks about how to embark on a job-hunting journey in today’s modern tech-savvy world. It also provides behind-the-curtain details about how employers actually hire talent, and provides a completely new way of thinking. This book challenged me to identify my skills and passions and practice marketing my strengths to companies and positions that greatly interest me. An underlying theme of the book is to conduct Informational Interviews to discover as much about potential industries and companies as possible, form relationships, and get jobs through side door references versus being one the of the thousands of resumes poured into inboxes of discerning hiring managers. This book fundamentally changed how I think about job-hunting.
3. Do What You Are: Discover the Perfect Career for You Through the Secrets of Personality Typeby Paul D. Tieger and Barbara Barron. The premise of this book can be found in many similar resources, which is that your unique preferences and qualities make you predisposed to certain skills. Who you are will forge your interests in some industries and positions more than others. So even though personality tests are not gospel, and people don’t always fit neatly into categories, this concept provides a jumping-off point if you want to discover other non-military roles you might not have considered. Myers-Briggs and Holland Code are interesting tests to point you in the right direction. These tests are easily accessible online if you search for them.
What are some other inspiring reads out there for transitioning military women? Please comment below!
Veterans and Military Spouses Benefit from Mentorship
The eMentor Leadership Program Powered by AcademyWomen & Hiring Our Heroes Supports National Mentoring Month
January 14, 2013
San Jose, CA – In recognition of National Mentoring Month, the non-profit organization, AcademyWomen, announced their continuing strong commitment to serving all veterans, military spouses and uniformed women officers through their award-winning eMentor Programs. Their newest online mentoring programs focus on helping veterans and military spouses find great jobs and were developed in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring Our Heroes initiative and lead sponsor Toyota.
The outstanding benefits of mentoring for both protégés and mentors are well proven in the business world. With veteran unemployment rates hovering around 10%, and military spouse unemployment rates at 26%, the Veteran and Military Spouse eMentor Programs offer robust mentoring opportunities to assist the hundreds of thousands of veterans and spouses seeking jobs today. Participating mentors provide guidance and support in career transition, career advancement, work/life balance, and other veteran or military family challenges.
Many veterans and military spouses find themselves daunted by the transition to civilian careers due to limited professional networks, a lack of direct experience in particular jobs or industries, and strong cultural differences. Designed to bridge the gap between the organizations seeking hires and this vast pool of talent, the Hiring our Heroes eMentor Programs offer a solution of support, trusted networking, and success. The President of Academy Women, Susan Feland, said “Mentoring provides the guidance and support for veterans and spouses to pursue their dream jobs. Having a mentor who can provide insights into civilian careers and corporate hiring practices removes some of the anxiety of navigating a new career path in the corporate world. Mentors help protégés overcome fears and dream big!”
The Military Spouse and Veteran eMentor Programs are focused on improving the transition process for communities which have traditionally faced unemployment rates higher than the national average. The Military Spouse eMentor Program serves all current spouses, widow/ers or those divorced from uniformed members or veterans. The Veteran eMentor Program welcomes all Armed Forces veterans – women and men – seeking civilian employment or assistance with any aspect of the transition to civilian life. Both of these programs are currently open for enrollment at www.mentorheroes .org . AcademyWomen encourages those interested in making a difference in the life of a veteran or a military spouse to join as a mentor today! Volunteer mentors need have no military affiliation.
Derek Nail, a retired Army Officer said, “I love the Veteran eMentor Program … I could select my own mentor and meet with him as often as I like. I can’t tell you how important the program has been to me and my job search. If I didn’t have this program I don’t know where my job search process would be right now.”
Stefanie Goebel, the director of the eMentor Program said, “We are so excited about the benefits that spouse and veteran protégés in our Hiring our Heroes eMentor Programs are reporting to us. Many tell us that their mentors have made a huge impact in their lives and that their job searching has been vastly more productive due to the support they have received through the program. We can’t wait to see the program grow and affect the lives of many more veterans and spouses. ”
AcademyWomen is a 501c3 nonprofit organization founded in 2003 as a leadership and professional development organization that is now powering the Hiring our Heroes eMentor Programs in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.
The Hiring our Heroes eMentor Programs are proudly sponsored by:
AcademyWomen Selected as Second Place Winner of 2014 Leadership 500 Awards
San Jose, CA – AcademyWomen has just been named the 2nd place winner in the Non-profit Organization category of the 2014 Leadership 500 Excellence Awards! For the past 30 years, Leadership Excellence, in partnership with HR.com has identified and recognized the Top 500 leadership organizations and their strategies and solutions in their yearly ranking. AcademyWomen was selected by HR.com based on the profound impact of their eMentor Programs on military women, veterans, and military spouses. These award-winning web-based mentoring programs connect career and peer mentors with military, veteran and spouse protégés to assist them with achieving their unique professional and personal goals.
“The award winners from the 2014 Leadership 500 Excellence Awards program are the top firms with outstanding leadership programs from over 1,250 nominated companies. To be in the top 10% of any category is truly spectacular, and it’s a true demonstration of the hard work and effort by these great companies,” says Debbie McGrath, CEO HR.com.
In these especially challenging economic times, there have been hundreds of thousands of transitioning veterans and military spouses looking for meaningful employment. They must overcome limited professional networks, a lack of direct experience in particular jobs or industries, and strong cultural differences to find a satisfying civilian career. Meanwhile, companies have been investing millions of dollars to find talent, not realizing the potential the veteran and military spouse communities have to offer. Leveraging the lessons and success from its award-winning eMentor Programs and in partnership with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Hiring our Heroes initiative, AcademyWomen expanded its online eMentor programs to help bridge the gap between job seeking veterans, military spouses and corporations searching for motivated, skilled talent.
The President of AcademyWomen, Susan Feland, said “Mentoring provides a valuable resource for veterans and spouses, while engaging corporate mentors who appreciate the skills this community can bring to their organizations. A mentor removes some of the anxiety of navigating a new career path in the corporate world by providing insights into civilian careers and corporate hiring practices. Mentors help protégés overcome fears and dream big!”
The eMentor Program accelerates the transition time to civilian work and life by matching protégés to people who understand the challenges unique to service members and their families, by mentoring individuals to find jobs that fit, making past experience relevant, and helping veterans and spouses to gain confidence in new cultures. Derek Nail, a retired Army Officer said, “I love the Veteran eMentor Program … I could select my own mentor and meet with him as often as I like. I can’t tell you how important the program has been to me and my job search. If I didn’t have this program I don’t know where my job search process would be right now.”
Please visit www.ementorprogram.org to learn more about our progressive mentorship programs.
You can read more about this year’s Top 500 award winners at: http://www.hr.com/LE_April2014
AcademyWomen is a 501c3 nonprofit organization founded in 2003 as a leadership and professional development organization supporting all current, former and future women military officers to achieve their highest potential as leaders. Through the eMentor Leadership Program, AcademyWomen also serves uniformed men, enlisted servicewomen/veterans and military spouses.
All Allene Higgins needed was an encouraging word. The Army veteran was feeling discouraged in her job search when she signed up for the Veteran eMentor Leadership Program and started looking through the list of potential mentors with whom she could connect.
Higgins came across the profile of Greg Jenkins, a fellow Army veteran who’s now a senior partner in the Veteran Services division of inQUEST Consulting. When Higgins contacted him, he said she seemed to have a negative outlook on herself as a woman over 50 with a lack of education in the career field she wanted to get promoted in — certified nurse assistant.
“My job was telling her, ‘Hey now, that’s the situation you’re in, but here’s what you can do to change that,” Jenkins said.
Jenkins, who is in Missouri, and Higgins, who is in Arkansas, talked several times over email and by phone. He was able to point her to resources she could use, gave her networking tips, and offered to be a reference for her if she needed one.
Jenkins believes that having a mentor as a sounding board is very important. He said the informal mentors he had in the military helped shaped him and the career path he ended up taking. Now he wants to help mentor others.
“There’s a number of business studies that talk about the absolute value and weight that a mentor can provide. You have to find someone who can teach you the ropes,” Jenkins said. “Networking is critical, just having somebody to bounce off ideas and/or concerns.”
Thanks to Jenkins’ feedback, Higgins now hopes to pay the mentoring forward and set up her own veteran career planning business. “I’m trying to educate and teach other veterans so they can learn from [other veterans’] experiences,” she said.
She said that eMentor allowed her “to talk to someone who knows what you went through and understands the military side” of career searching.
The best advice Jenkins’ gave Higgins? “To never give up and to keep trying,” she said.
I love cycling. I love climbing hills and the sense of accomplishment when I make it to the top, even if the way up is unforgiving. I love finding scenic detours that I would have whizzed right by if driving in a car. I even have a soft spot in my heart for lycra.
Several years and a series of moves later, I realized that cycling had become little more than a long lost friend. Though I wanted to get back into the sport, I needed someone to push me out of my comfort zone and back onto the bike. It just so happened that the particular someone who pushed me to get back into riding came by way of a fellow military spouse, who I was actually mentoring. I decided to give mentoring a try at the urging of a friend, who was actively engaged in a new, innovative mentoring program online called eMentor. The program seemed like a new approach to an age-old concept! Instead of the old-fashioned way to find a mentor (which by the way can be very difficult for a military spouse who is moving so frequently), this program took the legwork out of having to do all of the research and cold calling! Instead, it aimed to accommodate the military community, which may be located anywhere in the world. I was super impressed that there was an entire mentoring site designed specifically for military spouses and female service members to find mentors from across the world based on their desired outcomes.
In no time, I was matched with a newly wed military spouse eager to learn about the military lifestyle and how to effectively create a career she loved. As time progressed, I shared more about my experiences moving around and my long lost love, cycling. In addition to bonding over the obstacles and shared struggles of military life, we found a common interest in cycling. As we talked about the difficulty of staying active in cycling while moving around, my protégé inspired me to get back on my bike, all in the midst of discussing a variety of other military-related topics. It was after one particular telephone appointment and a few follow-up emails with my protégé that I decided to get back into cycling full force with a race (that just so happened to be free to the military community and on post…talk about good timing)!
I realize cycling isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time (even though I think it should be)–but the point is that there is so much to gain from the mentor/protege relationship. Most of us have a tendency to think of a mentor as a giver of time, resources, knowledge, advice, and energy; yet, what I have gained from the relationship I have built with my protégé is just as valuable as the guidance and perspective I give her; and what I have learned is more than just how out of shape I had become. I also learned more about…
The Military Spouse Sisterhood
Though my protégé is located over a thousand miles away from me, we have been able to communicate through an online portal eMentor provides. I can keep track of her goals and help to hold her accountable, and she and I can communicate via email. Good mentoring relationships establish the mentor’s and protégé’s expectations, parameters and the goal for the relationship. We use these tools, as well as phone calls and emails to stay connected and encourage each other. As a mentor, I have been encouraged by my protégé’s willingness to learn about military life, and it has reinforced my own need to get back to the basics of what it means to be in a military marriage.
Knowing it All…or Thinking You Have To
When I received training to become a career coach, I learned the importance of asking the right questions—not providing what I think are the “right” answers. This is true for the mentoring relationship too. If I knew it all, I would not have needed my own mentors when I was a newlywed, and I wouldn’t continue to need them as I journey on. I had a misconception that I had to know everything there ever was to know about military installations, the history of each branch and which commissary was the best—but it’s more about listening to what someone’s needs and goals are than spoon feeding answers. You don’t have to know it all, but you do have to possess a desire to help someone slightly less experienced than yourself in a certain area of life.
The Value in Hearing Someone Else’s Story
Too often, it seems military spouses feel like the only one who is going through a trial or challenge. I certainly feel that way at times. Hearing someone else’s story serves as a reminder that we are all in this together, and we must support each other to truly thrive—and a great way to do that is to become a mentor yourself.
What it Means to be a Mentor
The eMentor program itself really set a great standard for me and took the guesswork out of what I could and should do to best assist my protégé. From a personal online journal to keep track of milestones, to tutorials and forums, I didn’t feel like I was just out there on my own. Mentoring can seem daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
As I continue to serve as a military spouse mentor, my hope is that I can support my protégé as much as she has me. I highly encourage everyone to consider becoming a mentor to a military spouse—whether married to a service member or not. I am often asked by civilian friends a colleagues what they can do to support the military, and this is one key way to do just that.
I work full time. I have relied on myself to earn a living since I turned 18. I graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Not at the top of my class but not at the bottom either. I worked hard and it was an unbelievably difficult experience but I survived mostly unscathed and ready to take on the world. I have competently (I think) led Soldiers in combat on more than one occasion; as a platoon leader in Baghdad and later as a Company Commander in Diyala. It was a burden and stress that I quickly realized no amount of schooling or training can prepare you for. It was also incredibly rewarding and I proudly survived that experience too.
I am also a wife. I married a wonderful man who has happily put limits on his own career to support my ambitions for years now. He is my rock and despite the pressures of work and life, we have survived. And, just 18 months ago, I took on the most challenging assignment yet. I became a mother.
Nothing about my previous experiences prepared me for motherhood. It is exhausting, stressful, overwhelming, intensely rewarding…did I mention exhausting? I love it. I don’t think that I knew just how much I would. I had spent years focused on me; travelling the world on a whim, taking on more and more challenging positions in order to push myself further. I found myself amazed at how much I was accomplishing at such a young age and pretty pleased with how much opportunity there was for me, a woman, in a man’s world. So after my daughter was born and the time came to go back to work, I was surprised at the amount of anxiety I felt about leaving her. I was physically ill for weeks as the date approached.
Like the good Army officer I was raised to be, I decided that there had to be a logical solution for my problem. I decided to develop a plan. I moved my entire family out to the suburbs to get a bigger house, found and moved an au pair into our home, and then pushed the limits as much as a I could every single day to spend as much time as possible with my daughter. It wasn’t enough. That twinge of anxiety just wouldn’t dissipate. So I went on to phase II of my operation; I researched the problem and continued to seek out a better way. There just had to be something I could do to make my guilt and anxiety subside. So I read articles, journals, entire books about motherhood and separation anxiety (since I was at this point convinced that I must be afflicted with some type of disorder since I hadn’t ‘gotten over’ my mommy guilt yet). I talked to senior leaders too. They (mostly men) all said variations on the same thing; ‘don’t make any rash decisions, your kids will grow up one day and not need you so don’t give up your career’ or (and this was my favorite) ‘it’s about work-life balance.’ The latter argument only frustrated me more because it seemed like another way in which I was failing. Aside from not being a great mom (by not being there every day), a less than satisfactory wife (I only halfheartedly listened to anything my husband said anymore as I rushed home to reconnect with my daughter everyday), and not being able to focus at work, I was now failing to achieve this ‘work-life balance’ everyone kept referring to.
But a few weeks ago, as I transitioned to a new job that threatened to break the morning and evening routine I worked so hard to develop for my daughter, I had a groundbreaking realization. What is ‘work-life balance’ anyway? Furthermore, how could I work so hard to achieve something I couldn’t even define? It was then that I realized what, to me, is the truth; there is no ‘work-life balance.’ It is merely something created by overwhelmed mothers who spend too little time with their children or ill-advised men (and sometimes women) who are trying to encourage a valued woman employee to stick it out or (more likely) step it up at work. I know what you’re thinking. If work-life balance is a myth then why do all of those corporate or executive mothers seem so happy? Why are their kids so well-rounded and wonderful? All of my reading on the subject wasn’t useless after all. After hours of scrolling through blogs, websites, and ebooks on my kindle I understood. Those mothers are probably suffering from just as much anxiety and guilt as the rest of us.
Now because I am a solution driven women, here are my thoughts (I’m probably not qualified to give tips) regarding how we quit propagating the work-life balance myth and start solving this problem or at least admitting that it is one.
1. We need to be more honest with ourselves, each other, and most importantly, with our daughters. The women’s liberation movement was a wonderful thing. I have clearly benefited from the hard work of the many women that came before me and cleared the way for all of my opportunities; from graduating from West Point to leading Soldiers in combat. That being said, the feelings that I am having are okay. I don’t have to ‘suck it up.’ I don’t have to pretend that I’m on a business call when really I’m listening to my daughter giggle on the phone. I don’t have to let the word ‘mommytrack’ become this horrible thing that I have to avoid. By the way, why is motherhood now something to be embarrassed about? We need to tell our daughters what is true; you can do anything you want in life and, more importantly, you better because when you have your own children your priorities may change and that’s okay! Until then you need to push yourself and take advantage of your time to focus on you. I have done more in the 12 years between leaving my parents’ home and having my daughter than most people (men and women) do in a lifetime. I think Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook COO turned mommy mentor to thousands) said it best in her recent address to Barnard College’s graduating class of 2011. “…do not leave before you leave. Do not lean back; lean in. Put your foot on that gas pedal and keep it there until the day you have to make a decision, and then make a decision. That’s the only way, when that day comes, you’ll even have a decision to make.”
2. If you haven’t read Sheryl Sandberg’s speech that I reference above, do yourself a favor, go read it. While I believe that she is certainly one of the prominent women out there who could stand to be more open about her personal struggles with being a mother and a high-powered executive, I have a feeling she would agree with the following…if you don’t love what you do, it’s a lot harder to leave your child (who you do love) to go do it. This was a tough realization and is not realistic for everyone; especially in these difficult economic times. But again, we need to quit acting as if you can achieve ‘work-life balance’ with a job you just aren’t passionate about and a child you are absolutely in love with. That seesaw starts out imbalanced from the get go and will never even out.
3. There is one absolute advance from the women’s lib movement that we must continue to fight for and never allow to lose its momentum; that men, fathers, need to be as involved and invested in their children’s development (physical, mental, emotional/spiritual) as mothers are. There is absolutely no one that I trust more with my daughter than my husband. He is an incredible man and loves being a father as much I love being a mother. When I proposed that he stop working to stay home with our daughter he genuinely considered it but after much discussion we realized that he was so passionate about his work and had so much potential there that it would be a bad idea/bad timing to pause his career. My point though is that he was willing to consider it and have the discussion. In too many houses in this country the idea of a man staying home with his children is out of the question. Why?
So maybe all those days of juggling too much at West Point did prepare me for this after all. Because right now, amidst the fatigue of short nights and long days filled with trying to be a good mother, a good wife, and a good Solder, I’m still getting by. For me, there is no work-life balance but for now I’m getting the job (Mother, Wife, Soldier) done.
-Rachel Breslin is a graduate of the United States Military Academy. She has her masters in Policy Managment from Georgetown University and is currently serving on the Army Staff at the Pentagon. For more discussion on this topic, one of many to be addressed at the 2011 Officer Women Leadership Symposium, register to attend today! Just go to www.academywomen.org.–