Sunday, November 04, 2007

Air Force Wife: Failure

Hello again. It's Sunday morning and I'm here blogging. Yawn. Good grief I didn't realize how much I liked my weekend breaks from blogging. So, in case you've just stumbled over here, I have joined the NaBloPoMo cult and we're blogging every day in November. For the weekends, I'll be blogging about what it was like for me as an Air Force Wife. Because as scintillating as my account of laundry day may be to some, I would like at least two readers for the weekend stuff.

I was a really bad Officer's wife at first. Like I said, I thought the whole Debra Winger/Richard Gere scenario was overly played out and certainly not my fantasy.

I remember early on at the first Air Base we were ever stationed at. It was a requirement for us to live on base in officer housing as opposed to in a home in the surrounding town. Not that the surrounding town, Mountain Home Idaho, had homes of any merit to offer. It was a one stoplight town. And you couldn't see the mountains. As a hospital administrator, we needed to live within five minutes of the hospital. We had just moved away from our beautiful new home in Vancouver, Washington, with rivers, parks, and forests a stone's throw from my front door. I was so proud of this house, the home that we made to bring our two girls into the world. Now, I was shuttling my babies to a post World War II track home on a dusty air base in the middle of the desert in Idaho. As we drove onto base for the first time I caught sight of a small but lovely colonial home. The shutters had been painted green, the yard was nice, and the surrounding homes looked similar. Whew. "Okay, Bob. Maybe I won't go totally postal here, at least the housing is nice. "

Nice for the colonels and generals. It was their homes I was admiring. As a junior officer we got to live in one half of an attached unit that was like two railroad cars laid end-to end. Each house had tiny windows cut high on the wall in each room, and the entire home was floored in old, yellowing linoleum. There had to be forty years of grime in the corners of each room, and it really was like living in a railroad car. Small kitchen/laundry room at one end, walk through to the living room/dining area, then down a tube-like hall with three bedrooms and an aqua-colored bathroom. It was an impossible design, made worse by aesthetics that suggested a Sergeant had designed it so that its owners could hose it down once a month for a good cleaning. In fact, I remember a relative visiting (many did over the course of our stay there) and she was so shocked at how my home looked that she blamed me. Oh yeah, good times. Because I drew up the plans for the house and then imported scads of desert dust to sweep in each day through the cracks in the windows. I remember being scolded for not cleaning under my refrigerator, or the disapproving hmms over my lack of window treatments. How could I explain that I couldn't bear to cover the tiny windows and impede any more light from coming in? That I was at the end of my emotional rope and that my daily dose of Idaho sunshine was the only thing keeping me from sinking into a deep depression and simply running away from a lifestyle I did not choose?

After a couple of months of feeling vury, vurrrry sorry for myself, I started to dig out. I was confounded by the wives that lived in my neighborhood, however, and I knew that what was working for them would not work for me. To my left was a neophyte bride who was married to a fighter pilot. She spent her days at home, waking at the crack of dawn to drive to the flight line and bring her husband breakfast. Then back at the end of the day when he had finished his sortie (flight) for some more refreshments. She and the other pilots' wives would dress up in their spouses' flight suits and practice silly cheers in the neighborhood park, so that they might perform for the men. They congregated separately, and also at the Officers Wives Club (now the more politically correct OSC for Officer's Spouse Club). I remember telling my neighbor that we were just in the Air Force for a few years so that my husband could get a lot of condensed, intense hospital experience and then take it back to the civilian world. You don't say that to most officer's wives. They are in it for the long haul, the brass ring being a full-bird colonel at minimum, maybe even a one star and the presidency of the Officer's Wives Club. You wore your husband's rank as proudly as he did, and to indicate a separateness from that was akin to high treason.

Then there was the "older" wife a few doors down. She was roughly my age now, somewhere between late thirties to forty, and she had - GASP - four children. I looked upon her as one might a specimen in a petri dish that has grown totally out of control. She was always neat, with a pressed campshirt and capris, and her four kids were mini doppelgangers for her and her husband. Buzz cuts for the boys, sensible bobs for the young girls. She was always busy, coming and going in her mini-van, unloading groceries and sports supplies, cooking or gardening. I could never understand why these women gardened in the homes that were so temporarily theirs. It wouldn't be until much later that I would learn to make the most of my present moment and not dwell on the negative.

The rest of Gunfighter Manor (the name of my new subdivision, as opposed to the old one: Fisher's Landing) was filled with women who, to a person, were members of the OWC and stayed home. Most had children, although there were several who did not. It didn't matter: Officer's Wives did not work. The enlisted side of the house, the vast majority of any branch of the military, had wives that worked. But not the officers.

So I went back to work.

First, I started volunteering. I took cases in the local town and cases from the nearest (and only big town in Idaho) city, Boise. I did home visits and case studies for children who were in protective custody so that I could help make a court recommendation for their living placement. To see all these children who had it so much worse than me, who needed a train-wreck like myself to help decide what would be best for them helped kick me out of my fog. I started to smile again. I placed my baby girls in pre-preschool offered by the base, and accepted the help of the base Chaplain's wife for their care when I needed to be gone. I was in no position to be a good mother to them, at home full time. I was saving my life.

Then I took a job in Boise, an hour and a half away, at a local women's shelter. I worked two fifteen hour shifts during the work week (5:00 pm - 8:00 am, so Bob was home with them) and then often all day Saturday or Sunday. I was on the mend. I was finding a purpose, and I was not feeling so out of control. Meanwhile, everyone in Gunfighter Manor had noticed.

Bob was approached at the hospital by the Chaplain. "Is everything okay at home? We hear that Jennifer has been working. Are their financial problems? How can we help?" In other words, what the feck is your wife doing having a life of her own and not supporting your career. This is the Air Force, dammit, and it is all about YOU.

A full-bird colonel's wife gently counseled me. It was my duty, she explained, to help raise Bob up so that he might fully do his job, to honor his rank and his mission to serve God and Country. Years later, after doing that very thing, I would receive an official commendation from the Chief of Medical Staff as being a "force multiplier" in Bob's career. But at that moment, I was finding myself and carving out something that I could say was mine, not something that I was dragged into. It furthered my rebellion, and I never went to any of the wives functions, never socialized with them, didn't attend any official base functions outside of Christmas, and basically solidified my position as pariah.

After a time, I applied for and won a coveted job at the Boise District Attorney's office in adult felony crimes. It was a full-time job, it paid well, and it meant extraordinarily long days with the commute. I enrolled the girls in the best private preschool in Boise I could find, and began my separation from Mountain Home. Soon after accepting the job, Bob and I were at the Officer's Club for a Christmas party and my beeper went off. I would need to leave to accompany a rape victim to the hospital. All the men at the table scrambled for their belts, who's beeper was it? I held up mine and said, "No worries, it's mine. Go back to your party." These men were dumbstruck. What the hell did I have a beeper for? Was my turkey done at home? The women either didn't look at me or looked at me with obvious scorn. Bad wife, their eyes said. I looked back at them, with their embroidered Christmas sweaters and their charm bracelets with charms indicating their husband's squadron (a silver flying eagle, or a plane, or the Air Force insignia) and shot them my own look right back: Spineless Sheep.

My final act as a bad Air Force Wife happened when Bob was TDY in Washington, D.C. I was on a lunch break at work and had decided to take a run through the tree-lined streets of the historic neighborhood close to downtown. I ran by a house that took my breath away. A house I had seen in my mind since I was a little girl. Turn of the century Victorian with relatively clean lines, beautiful yard, picket fence, lush trees, and on a street close to schools, markets, and town. It was for sale.

I bought the house.

After that, Bob was the one with the hellacious commute. I made Bob petition Washington, D.C. to extend his tour in Idaho so that I could continue my work. He was told it was career suicide. He did it anyway (and went on to win hospital administrator of the year some years later, regardless of the omen) and we spent our remaining time in Idaho in a happier state.

All because I was a bad Officer's Wife.

31 comments:

Kellan said...

This was such an interesting post. I grew up as an Army Brat - living in base housing, travling to follow my father's career. I could relate to so much of your story - even though I was not the wife, but the child. It is a hard life, a special life. My mother was an officer's wife - she too was not always the perfect wife, but in the end she survived and did help my father to build himself up and he retired as a General. Have a good weekend - see ya.

Mary Alice said...

It’s funny how when we are feeling powerless about a situation it clouds how we view people. I know you were very unhappy with the unexpected move to Mountain Home.
Goes to show that it really does have to be a family decision and you shouldn’t take marrying into the military lightly either. I’ve known so many that hate it and claim they had no idea they would have to move away from their family. Hello?

I think you did a fantastic job of capturing the 10% of the “Officer Wife” group that is the stereotypical obnoxiously competitive women who wear their husband’s rank, I laughed out loud at your description - I am so glad that stereotype is the exception rather than the rule. Most OWs are thinking, well educated, empathetic women who are willing to support you through what ever life has thrown your way.

For those that are unfamiliar with the military lifestyle I wanted to add that though many military spouses do not work outside the home there is a perfectly legitimate reason for that. The reality of moving every 2-3 years makes career progression for the spouse nearly impossible. The fact that the active duty member deploys often and isn’t home every night at 6 pm for dinner makes it ever so important to provide stability on the home front for our families. And some just make the choice of a less hectic lifestyle - when you know you can not rely on the mil member to be available to pick Suzy up from soccer every afternoon, when it is all up to you, you have to make some choices. A military career often is a partnership, two for the price of one…but the free one keeps things running smoothly and makes the career possible. The number one retention factor is the support of the spouse.

Sorry about the novel :-) Have a great Sunday

Jen M. said...

Mountain Home Air Force Base is a "tip of the spear" base. Which means, essentially it is a fighter pilot base. Unfortunately, my description of the OWs covers more than 10% of the wives at that particular base. Of course, I was only referring to the ones in my neighborhood, which was largely fighter pilots and again, a unique base as far as Air Bases are concerned. It has a reputation around the Air Force for being a very gung-ho base in that regard. I was told by so many women that I wasn't supposed to work. Not that it would be hard logistically (yes, it's hard - but you can do it if you work at it.) I met so many amzing women through the Air Force (MAry Alice included) that defy the stereotype I describe. But I stand by my description as accurate for the majority, the vast majority of the ladies I encountered on that base. It was truly an eye-opening experience for me.

the dragonfly said...

We have such different experiences! Of course, my husband is enlisted, so that's different in itself...but I like being an Army wife. I am so thankful that I am able to stay home with my new little baby. And I like the sense of family I get from the other military families living nearby. The "family" feeling is even more prevalent here in Germany, because everyone here is living away from friends and family.

A very thoughtful post. Thanks!

Kit said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog - and good luck with NaBloPoMo - I did it last year but am chickening out this time but I'll look forward to reading your stories of Air Force life.

flutter said...

Or what we like to call, human.

Rimarama said...

This was fascinating reading, Jen. I was somewhat aware of the whole "Air Force Wife" phenomenon before, but I never realized how pervasive it is. The entire time I was reading this post, I kept thinking, "Seriously? SERIOUSLY?" It's amazing to me that there is still a whole subculture out there where women take such a back seat to their husbands' ambitions. It can't have been all that long ago that you and your family were living in Idaho. I wonder if things have changed at all?

suburbancorrespondent said...

Mary Alice presents the other side of the story very well, and I appreciate that. In our years in and out of the active duty military, I've met the type of military wife that Jen describes; but more often I've gotten to know the type that Mary Alice has presented to us. Usually, there are both types at any duty station; and you can generally find friends that suit you.

And then there is the whole "bloom where you're planted" ethos of military families. The life might seem hard, but this approach of making the best of any given situation certainly helps military families make lemonade out of any lemons that are thrown their way. It sounds as though Jen caught on to that eventually (despite the very negative social situation where she was stationed) and definitely bloomed. Way to go!

What impressed me about the military wives that I met in Newport (at the Naval War College) was how friendly and fun they were. Their support was important to their husbands' careers, but they weren't overly invested in the careers themselves. I think military spouses are starting to strike a better balance between family and self; one spouse told me how, at the beginning of her husband's career, there was actually a place on his job eval where she was graded! That no longer happens, thank goodness. A lot has changed for the better over the last 20 years in the Armed Forces.

Sarcasta-Mom said...

Great post. Go NaBloPoMo and NaNoWriMo!!!!!!!

Michelle said...

I think you were telling us your story. It is a great story, and it's yours and yours alone. Only you know what it was like when you lived there! I remember you calling me and telling me all about your neighbors. At the time I thought it was funny. I didn't know it was so painful, Jen.

Just Seeking said...

I so cried when I read this post. For years, I wished I had the stamina, the umph, the whatever it takes to defy the odds and be the career women, but instead, I did not. Because I was swimming. I was barely keeping my head above water. I was in what I call "survival mode." Because having two babies and a hubby in residency was more than I could stand and yes, I chose to hold down the fort. But I wanted to be "more." I wanted to be the strong, independent career woman I had always been. But residency and motherhood and lack of social/familial support wore me out. I couldn't hack it. We (read: I) barely survived. Seriously.
I am so grateful to have you as a friend and to experience your motivation. I am. You are such a positive force. Thank you.

WorksForMom said...

Wow, what a story! The whole time I was shaking my head thinking "SERIOUSLY"? Wow.

dawn224 said...

(mental note, do not use fbomb on Jen's blog... do not use fbomb on Jen's blog)

But eff YEAH! I'm totally sitting here doing arm pumps for you for grabbing those bootstraps and yanking yourself into living - you had other choices and options you could have made - I'm So! Impressed! by the path you took!

Jen M. said...

LOL - Dawn, you can totally fucking drop a bomb on my blog. It's all good!

I realize everyone has different military experiences....this was just one of mine. There's more! Some are great!

And THANK you to those of you with kind words. It was really a hard, dark time in my life, although blessedly years and years behind me.

Jessica @ A Bushel and a Peck said...

Wow...I was in the Army myself, then an Army wife for 2 years after I got out. My husband and I were both enlisted, though, so I'm sure it was different for us just due to that. I think its great that you were strong enough to do what was right for you and your family!

Anonymous said...

Jen was writing about her experience and hers alone. Mary Alice can do the same on her own blog.

painted maypole said...

jen, you rock.

AnotherMomCreation said...

There are some things in life I am so glad I don't have to deal with. THis is certainly one of them.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog today.

Nice work!

Sarah said...

I totally admire you for sticking to what you knew you needed to do in order to survive (if only mentally) there. And I can't wait for more stories!

Cathy said...

This is such a fascinating glimpse into a whole other world for me...

Good for you for being bad!

theghelertertwins.blogspot.com said...

Good for you girl! How long ago was this?!?! 100 years ago? lol.... I could not imagine. But, I've always had my own career too.

Jenn said...

I found you through NaBloPoMo, and love your stories - it's a world very foreign to me, and you provide a delightful humorous look at it! I'm looking forward to reading back a bit...and looking forward to next weekend for more stories!

crazymumma said...

This was fascinating. A glimpse into a life I know nothing at ll about and in truth sounds stranger than fiction.

You really are quite a fascinating and complex lady.

Daisy said...

I loved envisioning the guys all flustered that your beeper went off -- yours! A (gasp) female!! Kudos to you for having the courage and the stamina to make this work.

Lawyer Mama said...

Jen, I love this post and I can't believe I missed it.

I'm an Air Force brat. My father was not a fighter pilot (thank god), but he was a navigator on a B-52 crew. A job with its own set of egos and hierarchies among the officers' wives. I watched my mother go through the same thing you did and I'm saddened to hear it hasn't changed all that much, at least in some places.

I'm so thrilled to hear that you bucked the system and carved out a life for yourself. Go you!

You know, I still deal with this to some extent in my husband's company. He works for a small government contractor specializing in intel and surveillance. Everyone is ex-military. And their wives are ex-military wives. I am the black sheep because I insist that my career is just as important as my husband's.

Sarcastic Mom (aka Lotus) said...

Rock on, lady. What an inspiration.

Lynn said...

I think it is important to remember that everyone has different goals for there lives and I can’t help but feel YOUR elitist attitude. I have defiantly met my share of women that you have described but I think you forget that in the civilian world doctor’s wives are the fighter pilots equal. Most don’t work, are very proud of there husband accomplishments and so on. Your experience is eye opening for many women that they may be perceived in such a negative way. My husband is certainly not a fighter pilot but I do stay home with my four children. I think when your husband is in a career field that deploys often it is unfair and self-serving to tell children that mommy is only available after 6:00 and on weekends. I was in medical school when I married my air force husband and had planned to continue practicing despite how hard it would be with all the relocating. When I found out I was pregnant I figured if I could make the decision to give life the least I could do was put them first until kindergarten. This has been my experience and I think it just shows that the world of military wives is very diverse.

ThatWife said...

This was a very interesting read. I think you did a great job of capturing stereotypes, especially those of fighter pilot wives. That being said, I have met several MDG doctor wives that fit the stereotype as well!

I am married to a fighter pilot, and I have a professional career (gasp!) and actually know a fair share of other FP wives and O wives that do too.

Having lived at 5 different fighter bases, I can say that O wives and pilot wives are a diverse group, not all are rank-wearers that live their lives entirely through their husband's career. (thankfully!)

I'm guessing the job market in Mountain Home isn't fantastic, which would probably attribute to the number of non-working wives you encountered!

Thanks for letting me read!

Mike & Susie Cahill said...

Hello, I am presently an AF Wife and my husband is a fighter pilot. We are stationed at SJAB and house the same jets you mentioned in your blog. I understand your struggle to both support your spouse and pursue a career. However, I was really disappointed at how you describe the other AF wives. In my own squadron we have many women who are presently earning or already obtain Masters degree. There is also a doctor, lawyer and two PHD. These women are choosing to have it all- family AND career. There are still plenty of women that stay at home with their family. Its a personal choice and we all need to remember that. Why be bitter at the other side???

debcom said...

Thanks for the interesting post. I am a Canadian Airforce wife who got in late in the game ( I married at 38 and had a child at 40)and hates military life. I grew up in a large family who all live in the same town and I am just hoping to get back there before my parents pass away so my daughter has time to spend with them. It is a hard life I found out, my first post was out of country and there was virtually no suport for Cdn wives and I suffered from depression. I had a child and though it was tough not being able to share the experience with my family/freinds and had to toughen up.

I just got word we're probably heading back to the USA , right now I'm 4 hrs driving time from my family and enjoying that and I'm feeling really aprehensive about leaving again. My choices are to make it into a positve experience by doing whatever it takes (and falling apart won;t helop my child adjust) or to divorce my husband and take my daughter and go back to my hometown. In retrospect I didn;t put alot of thought into the fact we'd be moving every 3 yrs,I saw it as an adventure never having moved before. It is in some ways but it can be tough on a marraige when one spouse hates the life. It takes me over a year to settle in after a move and I'n still homesick 5 yrs later..My only solace is that we only 2 more posts till my husband is eligable for full pension and can retire so if I can hang in for 3 yrs he can request a final posting back to my home town.

Pauleen said...

Wow, I am an AF wife myself and your post was so true. It is kinna funny because some OFW do carry their husbands’ ranks. I think it is important to have a life of your own and still be a big part of your husband's career. It is true, it is not easy to be a military wife with the constant move but I find my life more exciting by having a career of my own. We support each other and we are happy. I salute you for posting this and for doing what you are doing. It is really sad when I see wives who only talks about their husbands ranks but they can't share anything about themselves. Some act as if they are better than others and honestly, I actually feel sorry for those who are in their fantasy world. Unfortunately, the whole rank thing only applies in the military world but doesn't really apply in the outside world. You are to me a perfect example of what a happy independent military wife should be. Of course, I have a lot of respect for all military wives as well who chose to stay at home but God dear; some just need to get out of their lala world.

I remember a neighbor who was married to a fighter pilot. Acted as if she was better than others, shopped till she dropped, even posted all her brand name purses on her my space, it was funny. She even had few extra marital affairs. She said she was a queen and she doesn't need to work ever. One day, her husband was diagnosed with Diabetes 1, stopped flying and was eventually discharged. He became very ill and all of a sudden, she had to work and the last time I heard, they were living pretty badly. It is so sad to see something like that happened but it is sadder when some just don't get off the lala train...