Why Did I Agree to This? Unique opportunities, and challenges of being a spouse and a mom in a military culture

Today I’m thrilled to introduce our first guest author, Susan Silverman, kicking off a series of articles on some of the particular challenges of combining parent, careering and military service . A highly educated and well-traveled individual (not to mention a friend from my American University days), Susan served for a decade as a U.S. Department of Defense consultant before taking time off in support of her family. (For a longer bio, check out our bios page.) Now she’s learning the balance between being a spouse, mother, and individual, all the while residing in the United Kingdom and touring Europe, binging on the latest “X-Files” episodes, and figuring out her future adventures. Despite 10 years working as a civilian for the DoD, her immersion into U.S. military culture as what that institution still terms a ‘dependent spouse’ has contained some real surprises, which she shares with us in this article that gives a glimpse into the perspective of someone peeking into the establishment from the outside.



Why Did I Agree to This? Unique opportunities, and challenges of being a spouse and a mom in a military culture

by Susan Silverman

Since university, I have been set on being a career woman in the international affairs world. Sure, the path has not been straight—whose has—but my career has always been at the center of my personal dartboard. Being a wife and mother were not impossible roles but not ones I conscientiously dreamed of.

That said, I made it a goal to be professionally and financially secure before I married or had a child. During my pregnancy, my husband received a fantastic offer to work for the U.S. military at a base in the United Kingdom. We could not turn this three-year opportunity down. Because every child needs to be exposed to the Beatles, the royal establishment, and socialized medicine.

At that time, I agreed to be a stay-at-home-mum (SAHM) with the hope of working remotely. I had this whole vision of getting the best of both worlds: balancing feedings, nappy changes, and the early days of my daughter with the satisfaction of meeting the daily needs of my clients. Unfortunately, it turned out I could not take the job with me. Nevertheless, we believed this opportunity would allow us to tour Europe and have more time to be a family together. Our daughter, LB, would get experiences and our—both my husband’s and my—time, two things experts say are the most important things for children.

Before I continue I need to state that I agreed to this life for our family. I could not allow such a wonderful professional opportunity to pass my husband by. I loved my career as a Department of Defense consultant; I felt I was making a difference that mattered for those in the military and had colleagues that I truly respected. But we had the ability for me to forego working and raise our daughter for three years without feeling financial constrained—a blessing that very few families in the United States, especially Washington, DC, have—so I chose this path for my family.

We moved to the UK in September 2016. Quickly, I realized I was a foreigner in two ways: to the overseas U.S. military culture and to the British child rearing ways (the latter I will not address in this posting). And from that day on, I was a nobody. The identity I have had for so long evaporated. I was only thought of as my “husbands’s wife” or “LB’s mother”—nothing more. I became part of a no-man’s land of professional women: those successful professional women trying to balance work and motherhood, who ultimately have to sacrifice their vision of one to survive. In my case, I gave up my professional identity.

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Tots and Tech

You’re new to the parenting gig and deciding between car seats involved spread sheets and reading lots of consumer reviews. Now we have to add technology on top of everything else? It’s one more thing on our parenting plate…and there isn’t much of a trail blazed. It’s all relatively new. My parents didn’t have to worry about me binge-watching Sesame Street. It only came on once a day! And VCR’s weren’t invented yet! (I may be a little older than some of you.)

Our blog is all about finding that space between…the middle ground in sometimes extremely divided issues. When it comes to the topic of technology and kids, I don’t see two camps as much as I see parents desperately looking for answers on how to deal with the deluge of screens. How is everyone else handling screen time? Am I giving in too much? Am I using it as a cheap babysitter? How can I get them away from the screen without a tantrum?

No one wants to overexpose their kids to screens or have them stumble upon inappropriate content. No one wants to get it wrong…but there’s no guide book on how to get it right. I have a few thoughts and some resources, but this is for you and your family to decide. What’s best for you, is probably not going to work for your neighbor. It’s your choice on how tech is handled in your home. The good news: early on is a great time to set up the ground rules.

I’m going to suggest you focus on the two I’s:

  1. Informed
  2. Intentional


It takes time and energy that you might not think you have, especially with the demands of raising little people, but being informed will make decision-making so much easier.

We hear a lot about the appropriate amount of screen time for kids. There are charts and recommendations. (And that other mom in the car line is happy to give you her opinion, too.) I would argue that, while the amount of time is seriously important, the content of the screen is even more important. Before you plunk your little one down in front of the TV or iPad, you need to know the content of the program, movie, or game.

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Love & Load-Sharing or the Art of Communicating about Dirty Laundry

With the smell of wilting roses and conversation hearts still permeating the air, it’s time to talk about love. Not the Hallmark kind that inspired your partner to present said tokens of affection. Not the pheromone-induced kind that led to the progeny with whom you spent the last week cutting out hearts or addressing valentines. I’m talking about the nitty-gritty daily affection you show (and hopefully receive from) those other humans with whom you share your life. Love made visible every day via 1000 acts of service, small and large, manifested in meals served, toilets cleaned, cars serviced, groceries purchased, papers filed, trash taken out, schedules managed, errands run, laundry washed, folded, and (in cases of extreme adoration) put away.

There is no measure for love. It’s impossible to say with any degree of certainty, or at least with any scientific backing, that one person’s love for someone is greater than another’s. And hopefully you and your partner love each other equally. Yet, when you consider those 1000 acts of service rendered in the name of love, do they divide as evenly?

If not, you’re not alone. How many couples have you heard complain about the same thing: one partner ‘nags’; the other is ‘lazy.’ Yet, I’m willing to bet that few of these relationships began with these troubles. At one time it was Hallmark moments and pheromone-induced highs. Now both sides feel trapped by perceptions. And as they say at the CIA, “perception is reality.”

Because whether you both work full time, part-time, from home, or not at all, the issue of divvying up chores is frequently more loaded than the washing machine. All you have to do is type “load sharing” into your browser’s search bar, and you know right away you’ve hit a hot-button issue. There are sites that offer practical charts or lists designed to make it easier to  more evenly distributing the load. Faith-based family groups and feminists address roles within a household, frequently seeking to redistribute the mental or emotional loads more equitably.

Forget about balancing the load for a minute. How do you even discuss it when the topic is so fraught? Religious or feminist perspectives aside, figuring out who’s putting in how much effort around the house can feel like comparing apples to bananas. Cleaning the toilet may be grosser than tossing the towels in the washer, but it takes less time than sorting, washing, drying, folding and putting those towels away. Vacuuming and lawn mowing may look similar to some, but when you check out frequency and duration of time spent, or total surface area maintained, there may be some big differences. Does staying on top of car maintenance equal staying on top of sports schedules? Is filing equivalent to meal prep? What about the dishes?!?

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ABCs, 123s, and Deep Breaths

From choosing a doctor to changing the foods we eat, we are advocating for our little people before they even make their grand entrance! And once they are here, we advocate for them by making a million little – and big – decisions on their behalf. So, by the time you are ready to ship that precious little peanut  off to school, you should be a pro at advocating. Right?

Well, advocating for your child in a school setting presents new challenges. There’s a lot to learn and some things that just aren’t in your control. (Begin deep breaths.)

Wait, that sounds scary. And I don’t want to be the Crazy Mom or the Difficult Mom or the Helicopter Mom…but I also want what’s best for my kid…

Is there a middle ground?

Of course. There’s a space between doing nothing (and being unhappy) and being the dreaded Crazy Mom/Difficult Mom/Helicopter Mom. Do I have a step-by-step plan for you? No, but I do have some loosely-strung-together thoughts, a lot of experience, and the hope some of this will help you.

Why do you need to advocate?

The professionals at your child’s school are invested in helping your child grow. They also have many other children they are helping. Do children fall through the cracks? Yes, they can – if parents aren’t engaged in their child’s education. You and your partner are the adults who know your child best. If you aren’t going to advocate for your child, you cannot count on someone else doing the job for you. There are too many kids and too many issues for teachers to make that happen in every instance.

So when should I advocate?

There are different reasons you may need to advocate. I, along with a few of my friends, have children with varying types and levels of special needs. Behavioral, emotional, physical…learning differences…If your child has any kind of special needs, or you suspect they might, you need to familiarize yourself with the federal laws, your state laws, and your school district policies. There are lots of great national and local support groups that can help you understand your child’s educational rights. The laws aren’t meant to be something to hold over educators’ heads as a threat. They are there to protect your child and ensure services for any special needs. (Check out our resources page!)

Yikes. That sounds like a lot of work.

It is, but your kid needs your voice. And since when have we dodged hard work?

Maybe your child doesn’t have specialized learning needs. There will still be reasons you need to advocate for your child. Maybe a classroom discipline system isn’t working for your kid. Maybe the kid sitting next to your kid is being disruptive and distracting your kid. Maybe your child has an allergy and you need to feel confident about their food safety at school. No matter the issue, you are eventually going to have to reach out to the school.

What will they think of me? OMG what if they label me the Crazy Mom?

Well, let me give you a personal experience. An incident occurred at my son’s school and I was not happy with how it was handled. I wasn’t happy with much of anything that year. BUT I didn’t want to be the Crazy Mom. The one mom the teachers must surely talk about with eye rolls. Which is completely ridiculous. I was a teacher. I never talked about parents with eye rolls. I knew better, but I still felt funny about expressing my concern. (Note: I did not say “complaining.”) I shared my hesitancy with a friend who was also a teacher. She looked me in the face and said, rather sternly: Continue reading “ABCs, 123s, and Deep Breaths”

“Who Are You?”

Three little three letter words. They seem straightforward. Perhaps too direct. Maybe that’s why, put together this way, they form a question no one ever asks outside of daytime TV dramas. But, here in the space between, I bet it’s something you ask yourself.

Identity. So basic and therefore so fundamental to our happiness. Rooted in biology, identity with a group helps cement relationships, establishing a pack to provide protection and nurturing. Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, articulated belonging, esteem and self-actualization as the top three (of five!) tiers: all of which tie into our sense of identity – as individuals and as group members.

Which is why when our identity shifts, whether through our own choices or forces outside our control, it can lead us to feel anxious and uncertain. Will the pack accept this new me? If not, will you be able to find a new pack that will have your back?

Identify shifts are programmed into our DNA but also taught to be scary, which is kind of a raw deal since identity is fluid. We all experience several versions of ourselves over the years: child, teen, adult, student, parent, grandparent, etc. We move. We change jobs. We switch from pilates to crossfit to couch potato (while we recuperate from sports-related injuries).  Gender, race, religion, profession, education: they all contribute to our definitions of ourselves. And increasingly, people are demanding non-binary options.

Thanks to my previous career, I may have had a few additional identities over the years.  Yet never has the issue of identity haunted me as much as it has since I became a mom.  

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Embracing Extended Families and that Beautiful Mess

That little bundle of joy arrived and brought a whole new slew of expectations. And new roles for everyone. Yay! Roles and expectations! Fun stuff! Right? Um…You had expectations of how your extended family would step into their new roles. They had expectations of how you would want them involved. And (gasp!) your expectations didn’t line up! Which of course can lead to hurt feelings, tension, and confusion.

Over the last thirteen years, I’ve watched friends tread into these murky waters with me. It’s not always pretty. Some depend on extended family for free childcare – which you can imagine isn’t really “free.” Some thought their extended family would be more helpful and are hurt to find that their family doesn’t want to be more involved. Some feel pressure to raise their kids in the same way they or their partner were raised – religion, schools, discipline, food, nap schedules – it’s all on the table.

My husband and I were the first in our sibling groups to become parents. No one to lay any groundwork – it was all new, unchartered territory for us. Like us, I’m sure your family and your partner’s extended family have very different dynamics and expectations. So, what works for you and your parents/siblings might not work for you and your in-laws.

When I think about the extremes in this area, there seem to be two camps – Camp “My Extended Family is Making Me Nuts” (where you pull out your hair) and Camp “I’ll Do Anything to Make My Extended Family Happy” (where you eventually die from exhaustion). Neither camp is much fun. So where’s the camp for those of us who want to stay sane and have healthy relationships? Where’s the space between? Well, hop on the bus! We’re headed to Camp Boundaries! Continue reading “Embracing Extended Families and that Beautiful Mess”

“So, what do you do?”

Who else freezes in horror, stumbling through a mumbled response to this simple question? Show of hands?

It USED to be so clear cut, right?

“Oh, I’m a student.”

“I’m a professional.”

“I’m a parent.”

A nice short sound-bite – just the kind of response people expect. That people want.

It’s a question I’ve come to dread. I’ve spent way too much time trying to think of ways to ask this without stumbling into a minefield of assumptions. (If you’ve got good ones, SHARE THEM in the comments, PLEASE!) And only slightly more time trying to figure out how to distill what I do now into something that is comprehensible to most other Americans in under 30 seconds. (I’m a stay-at-home-parent but I also do freelance consulting in the realm of political risk and network analysis specializing in the Middle East and Africa *breath* AND I’m trying to launch a writing career. Wait, I see from your expression that I’ve lost you. Was it at ‘stay-at-home’ or ‘freelance consulting’?)

Here’s the thing though: study after study indicates that the U.S. population is increasingly working from home, and will continue to trend that way. Which means that even more of us are going to find it challenging to answer the question. At least in a tidy little soundbite. Do you admit that you work from home? Do you define yourself by that? Or by your title? Do you acknowledge a hybrid-ness to who you are?

Because as soon as you’re not in the office, more of your personal life is going to creep into your day. Which is a great thing! There are efficiency gains to be had all over the place! No more time lost in commutes. The laundry can get done while you’re on that phone call. More free time to spend doing fun things with the family instead of running errands that couldn’t be done during regular working hours.  And as working hours become more flexible, the chance to pursue other passions,  becomes possible in a way it frequently isn’t if you’re tied to a desk 40+ rigid hours a week.

The flip side of the coin, though, is that people are going to struggle with how to arrange that time and how they identify themselves (more on both of these issues in subsequent posts).

A couple of things to consider, both when you’re trying to determine how much information to throw into your soundbite, and even more when you’re trying to unpack the answer someone else gives you:

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