The Professional Military Wife: Pivot or Die
This pandemic has changed all of us in some way: mentally, physically, emotionally, situationally or professionally. My biggest change was professionally. For those of you who follow and don't know, I have worked full time for a military non-profit, The Semper Fi & America's Fund for almost 6 years. Honestly, this has been a military wife's dream job. Not only can I work remotely with like minded people while caring for my own family, but it has allowed me a front row seat to every side and and every branch of the military. From the eyes of an injured service member, their care giver, a case manager or a supporter, the experience has changed the way I look at the world. The timing of my taking this job could not have been more divinely ordained.
You see, being a military wife is like living in the "Land of Detours." It is never a simple, "lets go from point A to point B." No. It's more like, "Lets got to point A, go around points B,C & D to land at E which will bring us back to B." Whatever your big dreams were, plan to pivot them. After Zac and I were married, he commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps. I had NO clue what this meant at the time, but I loved his new outfit. (I am just being honest and yes, it took years for me to stop calling it an outfit but a uniform.) When I decided to marry him, I put to bed my aspirations of moving to D.C. to be something grand. Instead, I bet on love. A hot second after we were married I lost all three of my parents, found out I was pregnant and moved thousands of miles from Louisiana to North Carolina. I am not kidding. I actually hopped a plane the day of my mother's funeral to go see Zac graduate from school in Quantico the following morning. The day after that, we packed and moved to Marine Base Camp Lejeune where Zac deployed 4 months later. So there I was, 25, no parents to go home to, no job, one baby and no clue what I was suppose to do as a military wife. This was not where I thought I'd be. I was very lucky I had a neighbor 2 houses down that took me on as a friend. I don't think I had a lot to offer her at the time, but she showed me the ropes and we became fast family. I didn't really give her much choice if I think back on it. It was then I decided, if I am going to do this military wife thing...damnit, I am going to be the best damn military wife I can possibly be. Experiencing so much loss, one right after the other had changed my priorities. When my back is against the wall, I have come to realize I just jump, its not my best quality, but sometimes I land it. In my 25 year old head, I was so afraid of disappointing Zac or my family back home, that I just dove headlong into volunteering. Any and all volunteering would do. I started out by working office hours at Zac's battalion. I answered phones, organized care packages, walked younger wives through paperwork and helped write a monthly newsletter to communicate information about the deployment. (It was a rough deployment.) In the midst of it all, I was totting around my 9 month old. I vividly remember nursing Avah in a storage closet I barricaded with foot lockers to make sure no one saw me with my boob out. The closet smelled like a boys locker room but it was better than the tin shed out back. Even in that moment, I enjoyed working. It made me feel like I was a part of the bigger picture, and closer to Zac wherever he was in the world. I even started to wear my old work clothes just to let everyone know I was taking my volunteer role seriously. I am sure they thought I was running a political campaign, or crazy. In the time I was working the phones, I started to give out my personal number to wives that were just as lost as me. I often became a two-bit counselor when wives would call and say, "What the hell did I sign up for?" It happens, and it honestly takes a lot of courage to ask the question. One night, at 10:30 p.m. I got a suspicious call. I answered because curiosity is my nemesis. It was a wife and she was crying, she told me she got my number from a friend that told her I was a part of the "wives network." To give clarity, there isn't an official "Wives Network." It's unofficial. It's wives who whether on purpose, or by accident, are deemed a source of support. I say, "Yes, are you ok?" She says, "I'm stuck in the Walmart parking lot and I can't get home and I just don't know what to do." I say, without a thought, "I'm coming." I load up my baby and off we go. When I arrived I clearly did not fully assess the situation. I also believe she was slightly disappointed as I did not look as official as I think she had imagined. I was sporting pajamas, a bathrobe and a baby. She had run out of gas, after trying to buy groceries that she could not purchase because her card was declined, she is 19. She has barely been married a year, her husband is gone and she too, is far from home. The feeling of desperation searching for her in the Walmart parking lot is just as fresh as the night it happened. When I found her, I was so relieved. The image of her, just a baby herself, is emblazoned in my memory. We have all been there. NO judgement. I put her mind at ease, take her inside, we get groceries and I take her home. A neighbor helps her retrieve her car the next day. Everyday, for the next several weeks I thought about her. I know she felt like me... lost, left out, looked over, left behind. When your clear path from "A to B" takes a solid detour, you reach for the "oh shit" handle. I continued to work in the office and time and time again I witnessed the gap that had been created in this lifestyle, and so I took on a new project. I was going to help build a community for these wives so we didn't have to feel bad on our road to finding our place. By this time, we were in our second deployment with this Infantry battalion, and so more wives like me were ready to build a network too. I met one of my dearest friends and Marine wife mentors. We had been in the same battalion through the first deployment, but tragically found that the very same gap had kept us from banding together. That was about to change. There is a lot of power in numbers, especially if those numbers include Marine wives. We emptied the battalion library, because let's be honest, it wasn't getting used. We turned it into a Kid's Closet. (A place to help young families get started.) I reached out to local businesses to give us donations of nice toys, clothes, equipment, baby beds and baby supplies. Our little group washed clothes, sanitized toys, gave donations and organized every item donated. I started to do my office hours in the library to get ready for our grand opening. By the time we reached our opening day, those library shelves were full. And the best part, we successfully operated off of the "take a penny, leave a penny" principle. (You need it? Take it. Return it when you are done.) It was a hit! In all my life I won't forget the young Marines coming in to shop for their expecting wives. It was precious. Every little bit helps. More importantly, it supported the idea that they were not alone, and there were people who were committed to helping. So, we kept going. We started to host Craft nights for the wives in the battalion conference rooms. We would go to Walmart and clean them out of hot glue, ribbon and wire wreath frames. I would give a little tutorial and the group would spent the rest of the night laughing and inflicting 3rd degree burns on their fingers. I really should have created a consent form in hindsight. It was a really special time. Yeah, the deployments and separations were hard, but we had a purpose, and we all became masters of "the pivot." We'd network and encourage one another in all our endeavors.This was my jumping off point...
Remember that neighbor that showed me the ropes? She also took me to my first Wive's Club meeting. Imagine a "U Shaped" desk full of women who are over qualified and under utilized. Ladies & Gentleman, THATS a Wive's Club. Lawyers, Doctors, Accountants all just trying to put on a Craft Fair and a Bingo Night to raise funds for Children's Scholarships. It's a sight to behold. I have always wanted to call Andy Cohen at Bravo TV and say, "Dude, you have no clue that there is a Real Housewives gold mine in North Carolina. My friend and I started off as "The T-shirt Girls." Meaning we designed the yearly t-shirt and sold odds and ends with our logo. It suited us, we wanted to sit back and cocktail but we also wanted to be a cog in the machine. (It was a machine.) In 2 years time I was Head of Fundraising. I did such good work they rewarded me with more work and elected me as President. I don't think I ever worked so hard in my life and I know I have never been more humbled to be working alongside those brilliant women. They were kind when I was overzealous, and supportive when I was learning the process. That year, my house on Pender Street became a revolving door of wives coming for meetings, projects or celebratory cocktails. Zac never knew who was in his house at any given moment and so he would often enter with a grin, shake his head, grab his food and head for a quiet place. By this time I had had Arden, and so at club meetings we would pass her around the table to see who could get her to sleep the fastest. It was everything you hope for in a community, and it remains one of the best times in our Marine Corps life.
That spring, I was invited to an auction to support a military non-profit... yep, you guessed it, The Semper Fi Fund. The more I heard, the more I saw, the more I wanted to be involved. They got it, they understood the need. You see they were founded by a small group of wives sitting around a kitchen table one night. They too saw the gaps that the government could not fill. So they started with care packages for returning service members who, after critical surgery often had no toiletries or clothes. From there, their organization grew, became official, and had become one of the top rated military charities in America. They would say, "we are the greatest organization that you never heard of," because all the promotion is word of mouth, grass roots and such. Attending that auction changed the course of my professional career. That evening I met some of the most important people of my life, and through them, I was offered a job with the organization. A paying job. Though at the time I was being interviewed, I had no idea they were willing to pay me. After discussing the objectives of the job, they mentioned my wages and I had to cover up the receiver so they could not hear my raucous excitement. I looked at Zac, "Babe! They want to pay me! You don't have to pay for me to volunteer anymore!!" His big brown eyes glazed over. I think he was in shock that he would not have to foot all my volunteering bills. Obviously, I took the job. I couldn't say "yes" fast enough. I was like that eager date that just wants to get to the kissing part. I was all in. That was 2014.
(Reality hits.) You know, it's hard to be a non-profit event planner when you can't go to any events due to a global pandemic. Did those words just come out of my mouth? Global Pandemic? Who saw THAT coming? Every business from the big ones to the small ones have had to tighten their belt in some way. I was overjoyed my bosses wanted to keep me on after I moved overseas. They were willing to be flexible with me and I felt very humbled. However, when we realized the pandemic was not going away any time soon, my role had to, well,... pivot for the time being. Now, this does not sound THAT dramatic, right? I can see it now in black and white and I know I'm quite lucky to have a job at all. But in that moment, I thought I had lost my identity. I felt 25, lost, lacking, left behind. How had 10 years been so long ago, and yet, the emotions I was feeling were all so fresh and real and waiting at the surface. This is not where I thought I would be. In my mind I felt like... Wait, I'm not the full on working girl? I'm not a big contributor to our family? Who am I then? I could barely look Zac in the face the day I had to tell him. In fact, I am tearing up right now just thinking about that conversation on Baker Street. I found myself, literally hanging my head from shear humiliation. I couldn't look at him, my husband who is so successful, while I had hit a speed bump. He had to take my face in both his hands and reassure me that he didn't care, we would be just fine. I was searching to see if he really meant it or if I had failed him. Instead, I just looked at him and thought, "Man you really know how to pick em' don't you?"
That night, after the initial hurt had set in, I did what I have been doing for about a year now when I feel low. I took out my journal and began flipping through my old poems and notes to see how far I had come. I often doodle in this book while I am waiting on hold and since we arrived in the UK, I spend a mass amount of my time on hold for something or other. These "hold notes" are always random and make no sense. I kept digging. Near the back of my journal, past some of the ripped papers I found a logo I drew with the words, "Change the way we give" and "Taking the Guess Work Out of Gifting." I held it up to the lamp light like it was the first time I had ever really LOOKED at it. (Even though I was it's artist.) I closed my eyes and said to myself, Baileigh, there is no time better than right now....This is right where I need to be.
(Part 2 to follow)
To all of you in this story, I tried desperately not to use your name but you know who you are. I hope you also know how much I love you. To my neighbors and friends that became family, my "Wives Club Family" and my "Work Family", you continue to support me at every juncture in my life and that has left the biggest impression on my heart. Above all things I want to share with the world the force that is you and your spirt. I am honored to stand in your ranks. I want to make you proud, and so I am taking everything you showed me, everything you taught me, on this journey to build something.
Sorry these pictures are so awful, this was before the Iphone 11.
Stay tuned. Happy New Year Y'all, part 2 is coming.
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