It is often with a small jolt of surprise that I remember I am a “senior spouse.” When I was a soldier back in the early 1990s, this term conjured images of a coiffed, middle-aged woman clad in tasteful Sag Harbor separates. She was the epitome of poise, good judgment and wisdom. Not to mention a paragon of correct etiquette and graciousness. In other words, not me. And quite frankly, not anyone I knew.
Here we are, 20 years later, and thankfully, senior spouses are part of a diverse group that now includes men. The lifestyles of senior spouses in today’s Army are as varied and interesting as snowflakes—you’d be hard-pressed to find any two that are the same.
First of all, what makes someone a senior spouse? Most sources indicate that he or she is loosely defined as the husband or wife of an E-7 (Sergeant First Class) and above, in the non-commissioned officer ranks, and an O-5 (Lt. Col.) and above for officers.
Despite the ubiquitous title of “ma’am,” senior spouses today can run the age-range gamut. Some are second wives and just beginning to have children while others are empty-nesters or raising teenagers. They defy the tired stereotypes of yesteryear, (such as the spouses who volunteered purely to advance their husbands’ careers.)
Being a senior spouse in the 2014 Army means volunteering for anything that interests you, or not volunteering at all. It means working a traditional job at an office or working from home or perhaps being a stay-at-home mom. It can involve having children or not. Some senior spouses are caring for elderly parents as well as their own offspring. Many are pursuing degrees and have creative hobbies on the side.
For a long time, I held fast to an antiquated idea of what a senior spouse “should” be (at least as it pertains to me.) This mythical creature could recite Army regulations verbatim, host effortlessly chic dinner parties and didn’t suffer a moment of insecurity. Her house and children were impeccable. And bad hair days? What were those? Of course I realize how ridiculous this is, especially now that “we have become they,” as my husband and I joke.
I have come to accept that not knowing everything about the Army or its rules of etiquette doesn’t mean that I’m a failure at this senior spouse gig. I can acknowledge that not knowing is OK but being willing to find the answers when necessary is what’s really important.
I’ve learned that my real purpose in this role is not to set the perfect table or know how to write a proper party invitation but to be a conduit of information and assistance to the other spouses in my husband’s unit should they need it. If I can help another wife locate a good counselor for her son or point someone to appropriate money-management classes when the bills start piling up, then I feel like a tremendous success. Or maybe I will be called upon to make a meal for a family with a deployed soldier. If I’m really lucky, I get the opportunity to simply listen to someone who needs to vent. For truly, the Army is about people—it’s that simple.
Senior spouses can make waves in ways that younger wives may not have the confidence or know-how to do. Let’s face it—there are myriad small injustices that go on in an organization as large and unwieldy as the U.S. Army. If I am dealing with a problem, I can pretty much guarantee that others are as well.
The senior spouses I am privileged to know and call friends are a fascinating bunch with a wide range of skills and life experiences. They each give to the Army in their own special ways and never cease to amaze me with their creativity, strength and resilience. Does this mean they never doubt themselves or make mistakes? Of course not, and thank goodness for it. Studies show that while we all crave some version of perfection in ourselves, we are most drawn to people who are flawed and “real.”
I am humbled to be a part of this group of women and men who have so much to offer. When we senior spouses get together, we can accomplish just about anything. Long live the senior spouse!