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Secrets Don’t Make Friends: Getting Personal at Work

There is a lot of discussion in the military community about should or shouldn’t you talk about your military family status at work. For me, two months in to our first deployment experience as a family, keeping the deployment a secret was not an option — nor should it have been. I want to be loud and proud of my husband’s service, with the hopes of challenging the military-civilian divide that we military families so often decry. I’ve spoken freely with my co-workers about the process: him leaving, dealing with the kids, solo parenting, the joys and pitfalls of Skype.

But finding the right balance of personal sharing during this most recent job transition has been more difficult than I expected. Never was that more obvious than a recent work-related weekend trip. It was a great opportunity to get to know my new co-workers and our organization leadership. It was also a great opportunity to make embarrassing pronouncements about my personal life and awkwardly introduce people to my lack of a filter.

When is it too much? Should I have told my coworkers how the three-year-old missed daddy on the very first day? How the one-year-old high fives with daddy on Skype? How my heart breaks when my daughter draws pictures with only three people in it? How the thing I miss most about my husband are his Eddie Vedder and Ira Glass impersonations?

I’ve never been very good at separating the professional and the personal. My first job was 3000 miles away from home. Moving to Los Angeles sounded like a grand adventure, until I realized I would spend my weekends by myself going to movies and driving up and down the PCH. (Side note: OH HINDSIGHT, I would love to be solo driving up the PCH right now. SIGH.) I had a great job at an Internet company where my coworkers took pity on the new girl and invited me to join their families for weekend outings and late night adventures in L.A. They became my home away from home, my family. Have you ever tried to work with your family? Yeah. There were some struggles.

Building from this experience, I tried to keep my private life out of my professional sphere — keep work at work and friends at home. But I continued to land jobs with amazing co-workers, and I wanted them to be my friends. So the guidelines went out the window.

The military life blurs the line between home and work more than anything else I’ve ever experienced. Commanders have intimate knowledge of their underlings, and for good reason: WAR. They’re dealing with actual life and death decisions, they need to know personal facts: who a Soldier is married to, where they are living, how many kids they have, etc. And there are benefits. At our first duty station, I made the most of the fact that everyone knew who I was and who I was with, and landed a great job by networking with my husband’s civilian coworkers.

But with the benefits come drawbacks. Socializing among spouses takes on a peculiar weight and anxiety. You become so-and-so’s wife, not You, Superhero, Esq. You end up talking about their work, not yours, because that’s what everyone has in common. And hovering over every social interaction is the unspoken elephant in the room: rank. Even if you don’t care about rank, you can bet your bottom dollar that someone does. I still haven’t figured out how to navigate that particular minefield.

Now I’m faced with the socializing and sharing question at my new work, not my husband’s. And more than anything, I worry that talking about my family or my kids lowers my professional worth. Confidence is in short supply around here for several reasons, the most obvious of which is my number one fan and cheerleader is a cajillion miles away. I’m sad to say I need someone to cheer me on, to tell me that I’m not an impostor, that I have skills to offer.

My clutch professional cheering section currently involves a community of military spouse attorneys, a select few of which have become close friends that I can call any time, day or night without explanation and they will talk to me about Scandal. I also lean on them for support with deployed spouse relations, usually talking me down when I am over-thinking something (“He gets cranky when I don’t send pictures, then laments that he’s missing when I do! UNGH MIL-WIFE FAIL!”) Even beyond the select few, there are hundreds of other spouses dealing with the same issues that I chat with on message boards and through Facebook. These connections have saved my life in the past year. Seriously, no melodrama.

But it sure is nice to chat with people, real live people who can smell your heavy garlic lunch breath. Until I find a non-skeevy friend finder service, work is it as far as social interaction goes. To help prevent y own narcissistic over-sharing, I think I will propose a safe word to my co-workers. When I talk to much, or start to share things that are too private, they should shout “MARMALADE!” and run away.

Yeah, that’ll be natural.

Josie Beets is an attorney, military spouse, and mom. When she’s not at her day job (which she loves – hi boss!) she is Online Editor of the Military Spouse JD Network. You can also follow her on Twitter @JosieBeets.

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