I’ve spent the last 15 years of my life setting myself up for success. From age 9, I dreamed of becoming an editor in New York City, so I worked my butt off through high school and college to make that goal a reality. I landed a job at Refinery29 six weeks after graduation and didn’t think twice about moving away from my long-term boyfriend, Jake, in order to pursue the big city life I had always wanted. I knew he was the one, we had already done long distance for four years, and there was plenty of time to be together down the road. For almost two years, it was perfect. I spent weekdays focusing on work and friends, and weekends with Jake in Connecticut or NYC. Perfect until this last year, when Jake started hearing back from medical schools. He had always dreamed of becoming a Naval doctor, but when he was formally accepted to USUHS — the military medical school in Bethesda, MD — I had to really stop and consider what my future would look like if he joined the Navy. Acceptance to USUHS is a pretty big deal. It’s highly competitive, and the perks are amazing. Students don’t have to pay for their four years of medical school; they receive an officer salary, an incredible advantage in the professional world, and the personal fulfillment of serving their country. In exchange, they owe seven years of service back to their branch of the armed forces, which includes the risk of being deployed for up to seven months at a time and the possibility of being relocated to a new hospital every few years. Between education, time spent as a general medical officer, residency, and time owed back, the earliest we would return to civilian life would be 2031. I’ll be 39.
I didn’t think twice about moving away from my long-term boyfriend in order to pursue the big city life I had always wanted.
But there are no military hospitals in New York City. So if I'm planning to spend my life with Jake (which I am), I would eventually have to say goodbye to the career I had been building here — whether it was in the next few months when he starts school, or in four years when he was done with it. Sure, we had always talked about this as a possibility, but now we had a decision to make with an immediate deadline and very real consequences. And I hadn’t quite reconciled that with my career-focused, totally autonomous, NYC-centered life plan. I was overwhelmed with so many questions: Is it wrong for me to leave my life in NYC for a boy? Does that mean I’m not a feminist? If I follow him now, would I be able to find work that challenges and satisfies me wherever we have to go later? If not, would I resent him? Blame him? Or, alternatively, were we doomed to being long-distance, so that I could stay somewhere for a job? Will I be painfully bored if we’re stationed somewhere outside of a city? Am I going to be able to make friends? What if the whole military-spouse culture is as antiquated as I think it is? Would our future marriage suffer from deployments? Was I strong enough? What about any hypothetical kids? Will they be moved around a lot? Would they have any stability? Will they be able to go to good schools? I’m 24, and suddenly I was worrying about the nuances of my entire future. Making a decision with this much weight and potential for damage wasn’t part of the plan. Unfortunately, when I went to research the answers to some of those questions — especially the career-related ones — what I found was extremely disappointing. In 2014, ABC News reported 90% of military wives were jobless or underemployed. Furthermore, the lucky 10% who can find jobs are automatically at a disadvantage, since military families can move (on average) six to nine times over the course of a career, which doesn't give them a lot of time to establish their own careers. I was further confused when we visited the USUHS campus and sat through a truly infuriating presentation about the local Spouses Club. To my (admittedly judgmental) horror, the whole thing was a slideshow of tea parties and children, complete with the phrase “it gives us something to do while we wait for our husbands to come home.” No mention of support for women who work. No balance between domesticity and a drive to maintain independence. Just photos of wine and painting classes and toddlers running through the park. And, though I completely understand and respect women who choose that for themselves, it's not me. Thank goodness we ran into some students we knew later on, because they were able to alleviate my panic and explain that there were resources, career-driven members of the club, and overall more than what the presentation suggested. Still, between my research and the campus tour, I felt discouraged. I love Jake, and I want to be with him, but I worried his decision to become a Navy doctor was only going to be good for one of us. And he worried about it, too, going so far as to seriously consider his alternate medical school offer — an excellent civilian program where he would still get a great education. I didn't want to ask him to give up on this dream. After 10 years together, we had learned the importance of compromise, and I knew I would never forgive myself if I held him back from absolute happiness. And, despite all the negatives, I was surprised to find that I had started to feel a similar pull toward the military. It was an indescribable sense of curiosity, duty, and adventure. So, I dug a little bit deeper, hoping to find some shred of evidence that we could make this insane decision work.
After 10 years together, we had learned the importance of compromise.
The first thing I wanted was to dispel my fear that I could never get a job while married to the military. So, I reached out to media-industry recruiters and asked them straight up what to expect in terms of job opportunity. Their answer: Sure, it was harder to find work in certain locations. And I shouldn’t expect to get every dream job I apply for. But there were definitely fulfilling roles for me where I would be both challenged and satisfied (as long as I maintained my portfolio and relevant skills). And, if worse-case scenario should happen and we ended up in the middle of nowhere, I could work remotely — or, at least, as a freelancer. Then, I posted on every social network I could think of looking for military spouses who maintained careers of their own. I wanted to get real-life advice from women who had defied the odds and made their circumstances work for them. Quickly, I found a handful of hopeful examples. I chatted with a new mom who was married to an Army General and had her own successful IT career; reconnected with a college friend who works for a nonprofit and is enjoying her independence, while her officer husband is deployed; and talked with a colleague’s aunt whose husband’s career as a Navy physician allowed their family travel the globe. These three women — and many others — all said the same thing about life in the military: If anything, they are more independent and more fulfilled because of their connection with the armed forces. Their careers are more versatile, their marriages are stronger, their children are more resilient. And truly, that’s all I needed to hear. As long as I knew there were people who were happy — whether it was as a professional, spouse, or parent — I knew that I could be, too. On the evening before his decision was due, Jake and I agreed that we would move to Washington, D.C. together, so he could attend USUHS in the fall. Two weeks later, Jake proposed. In the weeks since, I’ve accepted an incredible new career opportunity less than 30 minutes from his medical school, and I’m wrapping up my summer in NYC. At the same time, Jake is at officer training in Newport, RI, beginning the road to fulfill his dream of joining the military and practicing medicine. We’re both getting excited about our roles in this larger institution. And admittedly, while it isn’t exactly what I had pictured for my future, it’s bigger, better, and brighter now that it’s ours.