A few years ago, my husband and I found ourselves moving into our new on base home during the middle of cool Fall Monday. We unloaded air mattresses and tubs of the Christmas ornaments I wouldn’t trust to the movers. You could almost see the interest ripple down the street as first one neighbor, then a few more, emerged from their homes to watch our progress. They slowly walked over, introducing themselves and comparing the ages of our children. As my husband walked over, one of the neighbors gushed about another’s skill with a vinyl cutter and invited me to join in on their several-times-a-week craft sessions.
“Oh, she has one of those, too!” Exclaimed my husband, eager to embrace any positive to a move I wasn’t thrilled by. Turning to me, “maybe you could swing by in between meetings.” Confusion colored the faces of our new neighbors.
“I work full time, from home, but I have to schedule things around my video meetings,” I clarified. Their heads tilted slightly to the slide in impressive unison as one chimed curiously “you work?”
My husband likes to joke that we have a pattern, alternating between on base and. off. This unintentional switch indicates less about our preferences than the Army’s insistence on sending us to rural, small installations outside of normal PCS months. In those situations, on post options offer the most straightforward housing resolution.
For the most part, I enjoy living on post. It is predictable, familiar and a convenient option in the chaos of a PCS. We have had mixed results with the condition of our house – 2 that were small and outdated, 1 that was large and refurbished (that we loved) and 1 that was “new housing” but small, oddly laid out and of dubious quality.
All in all, the best and worst part of living on a military installation? The people.
Not the Stereotypical MilSpouse
I know that my experience is shaped by living on post at rural installations where jobs are scarce and 6 degrees of separation are more like 2. Our first PCS led to my leaving a job that I loved and the work force for 2 years. And so many of my on post neighbors share similar stories. We don’t fit the Hollywood stereotype of a military wife, in her apron, patiently waiting at home for her hero’s return. Because while we do wait, that waiting looks more like running kids to after school activities, trying to remember to stop at the store on the way home from work and wondering just how long you can go without doing laundry.
That Fall morning, standing in my new front yard, felt like a great big you-don’t-belong sign. My husband’s new co-workers expressed similar surprise when he took leave for the first few weeks to help with unpacking and getting our son schedule because my remote job meant that I only took a week off of work for our move. There were moments when it felt like I had stepped back in time when we drove those gates. Somehow we traveled back to a place where a spouse working felt out of step. Eventually, of course, I met other spouses in similar shoes. Some who worked, a few going to school full-time, and a handful who volunteered longer hours than my business required – we slowly found each other.
It takes a village
Like most things, it’s all about finding what works for you. I struggle at times living on post with the small things that create a feeling of not fitting in. Activities are still run with that Hollywood stereotypical military family in mind – assuming a stay-at-home spouse is available. I recently had to remind our son’s on post school that both my husband and I work, so we require more than 4 hours notice of an after school club meeting cancellation. They seemed surprised that I might not be able to drop everything and run to the school right that second.
At the same time, despite my neighbor’s disbelief over the fact that I worked, I relied heavily on my village. Not those neighbors, but others who picked up my son from school when I needed a hand or kept an eye on our home when we were out of town. An amazing friend, who is going back to school online, realized during pick up that my son’s club had been cancelled and I wasn’t there to pick him up. She called me, told his teacher and let our boys play together on the playground until I could get there. That support, and the community that builds it, redeem on base living. My son goes to school and plays in the street with kids who understand PCSing and dad being in Afghanistan.
Making On Post Living Work
If you feel like you don’t quite fit in to on post life, does that mean you’re destined to scroll through Zillow and Military By Owner listings every PCS in the future?
Not at all – you simply may want to consider venturing outside the box to make it work.
- Advance guard – I find that my work means that the usual suggestions for making friends won’t work. I’m not available during most volunteer opportunities or when social groups are meeting. So, I have a handful of national organizations with local chapters that are my first stop: Team RWB, Hearts On A Mission, The MilSpo Project, Toastmasters and Independent. Find something that serves what you are interested in – you’ll share something in common from the get go.
- Don’t be afraid to get off base – From exploring small businesses to kid’s activities to day trips, getting off base may be the key to making it feel like home. When I expressed frustration with the limited resources at Fort Leonard Wood, a friend told me with all seriousness that she knew she had to get off post at least twice a month to keep a positive attitude.
- Take the time to plug in – Those unit activities aren’t just for your neighbor. It might take some juggling and planning, but engage with the military community. Those resources? Powered by military spouses who have been in your shows, saw a need and worked to fill it. They just might be the secret weapon you need to make it through the challenges of military life.
- Keep an open mind – It’s easy to fall into the rut of assuming that the other spouses who don’t work couldn’t possible understand what you’re going through. But just because it’s easy doesn’t make it right. That friend I referenced who watched my son when his club was canceled? She spent the previous 10+ years as corporate accountant and decided to stay home while her husband was in a position that required considerable travel.
At times, I feel like choosing to pursue my career sets me apart. The reality, though, reveals that the military spouse community is far more diverse than we give it credit for. Over the last 12 years, I’ve met doctors, nurses, teachers, lawyers, artists, entrepreneurs, researchers, fundraisers and more. My perspective and experience is tremendously richer because of it.