If I were to measure myself against MTI’s Happiness Equation, I would score a zero out of 3. Maybe on a good day at work a 1 out of 3 at best.
I am not doing work that I love. I am generally not around people that I love, and the Army does not allow me to live long term in a place that I love. If I do not want to be miserable for the rest of my career, I need to change my path.
If you’re reading this expecting to hear about a traumatic experience, toxic leadership, or a litany of negative thoughts then this article may bore you. Of course, I have my issues with the Army and it’s endless bureaucracy, but I’m not leaving on a sour note. I’m also not writing this essay to complain about things I can’t change.
I’m writing it because I’m ready for something new and different. Sometimes you hit that rut in a career, and I know that staying in this rut isn’t the right answer.
After 11 years of active duty service, my husband and I made the decision to both leave the Army. While it’s an exciting prospect to be starting new careers, it’s stressful. Adding in a global pandemic with an unpredictable economy doesn’t help.
From a purely financial standpoint it makes sense for us to stay in the Army. We are both Majors with over 11 years of service; only 9 more to go until full retirement and insurance for a lifetime. The financial security and freedom that retirement provides is alluring, but I can’t and won’t put a price tag on my mental happiness. Waking up and going to a job that I know is no longer right for me is a prospect I am simply not willing to endure. I see my officer peers silently suffering in jobs that make them miserable – living Thoreau’s “life of quiet desperation.”
What’s more terrifying- living a life of quiet desperation or putting yourself out there, taking a risk, and seeing how it turns out? The answer is clear – I’m going to take the risk.
A decrease in pay is almost inevitable for us. DINK life (Dual income- no kids) has treated us well. We’ve been good with saving and investing, but we’ve also never had to consider the money factor in the vast majority of day to day decisions. That’s about to change- and change drastically depending on our future employment. We are both mentally prepared for the financial hit but thinking about it and living it are two different things. It’s going to require strong self-discipline for both us to reign in our spending. In preparation for our departure from the Army, my husband I read a book called “The Psychology of Money” by Morgan Housel (highly recommend). In the book he states “Past a certain level of income, what you need is just what sits below your ego. One of the most powerful ways to increase your savings isn’t to raise your income, it’s to raise your humility.” While it would be foolish not to consider the money factor in future careers, I don’t believe it should be main deciding factor in what careers we pursue.
I’ve never seen a happy field grade officer in the Army. Maybe they do exist, but I’ve never seen one on a Brigade Combat Team. They all look overworked, stressed, and generally unhappy with their lives. Even with the draw down of deployments, many still spend countless hours tied to their desks in windowless offices, filing out spreadsheets, updating PowerPoint slides, and dealing with a new crisis every 5 minutes. From my perspective, this is unacceptable for me and the way I want to live my life. I can say without a doubt in my mind that I do not want that job.
My husband and I delayed starting a family. It was never the “right time” as we’ve always viewed that our primary mission was to the put the needs of the unit before our own wants. We set high professional standards for ourselves and we didn’t’ want anything to take away from our careers. Now that I’m in my mid-thirties I’m feeling my biological clock ticking and my priorities have shifted to starting a family.
And frankly, I’m not willing to deal with the drama and negative stigma associated with being pregnant and in the Army. Being pregnant in a BCT is viewed as burden to the unit and detractor from combat readiness, no matter how great you are at your job. I’m also not willing to try and find a work/life balance while being a mom and field grade officer as I don’t think it can truly exist. I have very few female mentors and the ones I do have share the constant struggle and pressure they are under both at work and at home. It looks exhausting. Being pregnant and becoming a mom is supposed to be exciting and joyful, instead the Army makes you feel inadequate and useless. Add in the constant pressure to keep up with male peers who don’t have to face these same obstacles and it’s demoralizing.
I’m also not naive enough to think that this work/life balance magically exists in the civilian world. Professional working moms face many of the same issues and right now they are probably exacerbated with COVID and kids not being in school. However, the Army does present some distinctly unique challenges to working moms that include 9-12 month deployments, weeks away in the field, or 12+ hour days as the norm and in some units that’s the expectation.
To highlight this point, I want to share an observation I had as a young platoon leader that really opened my eyes to the difficulty of being an active duty mom. It was a 2-week field problem and I observed a female captain who had returned from maternity leave a month earlier. She was working 18 hour days and in between briefings, she would sneak away from the TOC to find HMMVW where she could have some privacy and pump. She then had to find a way to keep the supply cold, and have it transported back to the battalion staff duty desk, where her family (who she had to ask to fly down to watch the kid) could come and pick it up.
That Captain had my utmost respect, but at the same time my heart hurt for her. She looked miserable and I felt the immense pressure she was under to perform well at her job, while at same time providing for her young baby. It didn’t help the situation that other male officers on staff would make disparaging and rude comments about her well within ear shot. Instead of uplifting and supporter her, they hung her out to dry. That whole situation honestly scarred me, and I never want to be in that position. Maybe it’s cowardly or taking the easier road, but I’m not willing to put up with bull**** like that. Another reason why I believe pursuing a civilian career is best decision for me and for my future family.
Family- No one in my family ever made the military their primary career. I come from a family of schoolteachers, who for the most part, have lived in the same part of the country for their entire lives. When I joined the Army they were super proud, but also sad to see me go, knowing that I would probably never live close to home and that yearlong deployments were an inevitable part of Army life at that time. When I expressed to them my desire to leave the service, they were incredibly supportive, and offered to help anyway they could. They openly express how much they want my husband and I to live closer to home and be a steadier physical presence in their lives, which is something we have not be able to do since we were 18. It’s an exciting thought to be able to be home for all the holidays and it honestly helps makes the decision to leave the Army easier. Of course, they share our same concerns about financial well-being and overall happiness but having us live closer and plant some roots outweighs many of the worries. Having the support of our families has been invaluable in this decision-making process. Both my husband and I realize how fortunate we are to have their encouragement.
Professionals – Seeking advice from senior officers for me is difficult. I can’t really relate to them and they can’t relate to me. I would never define myself as “true believer” in the Army culture. For starters, the vast majority of senior officers are male, and many are married with stay at home spouses. Our life circumstances are very different and while I appreciate their interest and advice, it’s just not applicable to my situation. In the rare instance where I see a dual military high-ranking couple, one of them has often had to take “step back” from being on fast track career path and more often than not, it’s the wife. It’s very un-inspiring.
From my experience two things generally happen when you tell your boss that you’re getting out of the Army. I’ve seen it happen to my peers countless times.
The first is that seniors will try and convince you to stay. Making the Army a career is what they did, so, many have a hard time understanding why you wouldn’t want to follow the same path. The second thing that happens once they realize that you won’t be convinced to stay and that your decision is final, is that they start to write you off. Sometimes you’ll be moved to a higher headquarters staff position to ride out your time; feeling ostracized and no longer part of the team.
This was all racing through my mind as I walked into my boss’s office to tell him that my husband and I are getting out of the Army; expecting the worst the case scenario. I didn’t want him to think I was a shitbag, but that’s how I felt the whole week leading up to the meeting.
To my surprise, the conversation went really well, and he fully supported my decision. Of course he was disappointed, but he had my back and understood my reasons for leaving. My boss is a progressive thinker. He has a daughter in the service as well which I think helps him empathetic to the challenges females deal with on a daily basis. His open-mindedness was refreshing, and I truly hope that more senior leaders take this approach with subordinates. I walked out of the meeting feeling like someone finally picked the barbell up off my back. My mind was free; nothing left to hide. My decision was out in the open. One more step toward making the change and tipping the happiness equation in my favor.
I don’t have all the answers, I probably never will, but I’m optimistic for my future. I’m excited for a new chapter with my husband; one that gives us more control and choice of what we do, where we live, and who we are surrounded by. I know that we probably won’t be getting a 3 for 3 in the happiness equation off the bat, but I trust in our ability as a team to pursue a life we want, where we want, and with careers where we can find personal and professional fulfillment.