News | Nov. 4, 2014

Work/Life Balance in the Navy JAG Corps

By Capt. Chris Reismeier

Life-work balance means different things to different people. To some, it means finding an equal place for work and the rest of your life.  For others, it’s a matter of at least finding enough time for “life” that you can tolerate the work.  For dual-military spouses, especially with children, it’s tough.  Military service is a difficult choice for anyone.  It’s a calling that places a set of demands on you that don’t fall into easy 9 to 5 boxes, and it creates a demand for sacrifices.  As a friend once put it, for dual-military spouses, sometimes, it’s more about trying to at least find time for someone to pick up the dry cleaning.  

I’ve been on active duty for more than 30 years now.  My wife and I, a recently retired fellow-JAG captain, have been married for 17 wonderful years.  I’ve come to realize that for us, it’s more about finding a way to make sure that the cost of the sacrifices we make ensure that our shared commitments to each other and our families are in balance.

I grew up in a military job that emphasized the goal of working hard and playing hard.  We went to sea, we left our loved ones behind, and we worked unimaginable hours to meet the demands of operations.  When we got the time to play, we played hard.  We dedicated ourselves to fun as much as we dedicated ourselves to work.  It was a great life. 

Life-work balance for dual-military couples requires work.  It requires the couple to work hard to deconflict schedules, to prioritize, and at times, to talk to our bosses to ask for a little flexibility to meet the demands.  In one instance, my wife and I both had early-hour meetings scheduled with different 3-stars that conflicted with our need to get our young daughter to pre-school.  We talked to our Flags, explained the situation, offered to meet at any other time, day or night, and asked if one or the other could flex with us.  And they did.  They, as good leaders, knew that to be the employer of choice, to retain the kind of experience and expertise we need, sometimes we all have to flex a little.  It was a display of leadership we will always remember – and that simple act of understanding earned a degree of loyalty and commitment from us that it hard to overstate.

To survive and excel as a dual-military couple, it takes work.  It takes dedication.  It takes flexibility.  And it takes realism – realism in that what we are looking for isn’t really “balance,” but “quality” to the “life” side of the balance.  Life is full of choices.  Sometimes it means getting a little less sleep.  Sometimes it takes working a little harder to make room in your schedule for that school play or that trip to the beach.  Sometimes the “life” part has to wait.  Sometimes, the work has to be rescheduled.  But to find the balance, sometimes, you have to seize the opportunities when they fit, and sometimes you have to work hard to create the opportunities yourself.  

Think of it this way:  taking your family to Disney World is a great treat.  The kids (and you!) get to ride the rides, enjoy the parades, stay at a great hotel, and make memories that will last a lifetime.  But the standing in line part?  Forget about it.  Standing in line in the hot August sun in Orlando is no one’s idea of “fun.”  But you do it, because the end result is something that is great.  

Life-work balance for dual-military couples is no different.  On many days, the work part is like standing in line for an eternity in the blistering Florida August sun.   But when your chance on the ride comes along, and you see the world through your child’s eyes for just a few minutes, it’s well worth it.  My wife and I worked at sharing the responsibilities, dividing and conquering, and excelling at what we do best in the military – finding a way of achieving the objective.  If there is one thing I’ve learned in 30 years, it’s that the US military will always – always – find a way of getting the job done.  You want life-work balance?  Plan for it.  Make it happen.  Find little ways each day that sneak a few moments of life into your work.  You find a few extra minutes at work, don’t go check the box scores on ESPN.COM.  Make a quick phone call to your spouse just to say hi, or send some flowers for no reason.  Take an hour to visit to the school for Donuts with Dad.  Make the commitment to “life” like you make the commitment to “work.”  

During one of my recent assignments, candidly, I didn’t have dinner with my family on a weeknight for over three years.  I couldn’t get home in time, and the demands of work absolutely would not permit it.  But each night, I did get home in time to read to our daughter before bed.  I would not give up that quality time than anchored me to my family.  Knowing that I could not get home in time for evenings, I took the morning shift with our daughter, so I got to spend breakfast with her before pre-school and then school.  Now, during my last assignment, I am a geographic bachelor.  We Skype every night.  I get updates on dinner, school, gymnastics, friends, homework, grades, and the dogs.  I get home every weekend and make the effort to have one-on-one time with my daughter playing ball, holding her legs for her handstands, and still, reading each night before bed.  Would I have more “balance” if I had a 9 to 5 job?  Perhaps, but I don’t know that the time I did have with my family would have been of the same quality.  

Personally, I don’t think someone with a 9 to 5 job has any more balance than I do to life.  I think they have the leisure of being able to waste a lot more time.  Wasting time?  That’s not life.  It’s a waste.  You want more balance?  It might be work for you, but the solution is painfully easy:  commit yourself to it the way you commit to work.  We are, after all, the military.  We get the job done.