Forced Pivots and Finding Purpose as a Military Spouse

Being strapped to a polygraph machine may have unnerved most people, but sitting across from the FBI interrogator, I felt nothing but elation. After 14 years of waiting, this was the last hurdle that remained between me and my dream job. Every click and scratch of the needles as they glided across the paper gauging my responses to the barrage of questions was bringing me one step closer to the end of a long journey.

Though I was coming to it over a decade after graduating from college, I was finally tripping merrily along the path that I had laid out for myself. My husband’s military career had finally brought us back to my town—Washington, D.C. With this FBI interview, I was picking up where I left off before the military had sent us to assignments around the globe. Mentally, I was already checking off that “get an adult job” box.

The weeks following that final step of the polygraph test dragged on interminably. After years of doing volunteer work or working part-time jobs paying low hourly wages, I started envisioning how a real job with a salary and benefits would change our lives. When the call finally came, I had already whipped myself up into a state of anticipation. So close to the realization of a lifelong dream, my nerves were on a hair-trigger.

“Congratulations on passing the interview, Ms. Hoppin. We would like to offer you a position as a counterintelligence analyst with the FBI.”

Yes! Euphoria! But wait, he wasn’t done talking…

Someone else had been offered the D.C. job, but they wanted to offer me the exact same job in a different location.

Are you kidding me? Six months invested into this interview process and this is where we ended up? He had more to say, but I rudely interjected because I already knew what was coming next, “Is this job in the DC area?”

“No, but I think you’ll be happy with it.”

The tears were already welling up and I could feel the lump in my throat as I barely choked out, “Thank you, I appreciate your consideration, but I’m not in a position to move for the job.”

I know he was confused, and I was probably glossing over some niceties, but I had to get off the phone before I lost it.

Hoppin, founder of the National Military Spouse Network, making a TV appearance.

Hoppin making a TV appearance. Courtesy of Sue Hoppin

I was a good military spouse. My husband’s job took precedence, and I knew I had to be the stable parent for our son until he was in school full time, so I waited my turn. But this was supposed to be my time and once again, his career effectively torpedoed mine before it had a chance to take off.

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Like many girls in my generation, I grew up on a steady diet of fairy tales, rom-coms, and happy endings; but when I met my Prince Charming, my professional life went to shit. Starting a career in my 40s had never been in the vision of how I thought my life was going to play out. I was supposed to go to law school or get a job in government, and start putting my degree in international relations to use. My language skills were finally going to come in handy and I would be surrounded by people doing interesting, meaningful things. This last disappointment was a huge setback. I had already invested 18 months just looking for a job. Now I couldn’t take the one I was offered and wanted. Eighteen months searching for a career, a purpose, the same amount of time we could be assigned to a duty station before getting orders to move to another one.

Toward the beginning of the job search, I had met a lobbyist working for a military-focused nonprofit. Intrigued, I had passed along my résumé and asked her to keep me in mind for any volunteer opportunities. Since I had already started the interview process with the FBI, I wasn’t looking for a job. That didn’t stop them from calling me twice to ask me to come in for an interview. I finally called back. I was just ready to work. I didn’t even care what the job was. A quick round of interviews and a couple of weeks later, I found myself working an admin position. With a master’s degree. And grateful to be doing it.

Sitting at that desk, effectively taking on the role of the gatekeeper for our department, I struggled to find enough work to fill up an eight-hour workday. While I was happy to be finally gainfully employed, I was bored. Before long, I had automated my job and worked up a proposal for my boss.

The association had a problem. It was losing its core membership of WWII veterans and needed to rebuild its roster with Post-9/11 servicemembers to remain relevant. Unlike retirees, those in active duty were not necessarily interested in the offerings. But their spouses were. Since they were paying me anyway, why not let me pilot some programs to help them reach their goals?

Hoppin, founder of the National Military Spouse Network, with friends and colleagues in Washington D.C.

Hoppin with friends and colleagues in Washington D.C. Courtesy of Sue Hoppin

Five whirlwind years followed that resulted in my creating a military spouse program. We developed award-winning publications, held events, drafted legislation geared specifically to military spouses, and created a Military Spouse Advisory Council. I had infiltrated a male-dominated organization that had ignored military spouses for the first 75 years of its existence and managed to make our population relevant to them.

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Quick promotions followed and with them, seats at progressively bigger tables. I went from being the administrative assistant to briefing the board. They literally broke down walls to build me an office and promoted me to the same level as the retired male colonels that made up the bulk of the association leadership. Finally, after all the stops and starts, I had gotten the job, the office, the salary, the benefits, and the prestige.

But it came at a cost. For every promotion and accolade I received, I endured at least as many humiliating meetings that ended with people screaming at me across a table because we were effecting change at a rapid rate and not everyone was on board. I remember one meeting in particular where I was being called to task by a director slamming his fists so forcefully on the glass top of the conference table that I was afraid it was going to shatter. He loomed over me, screaming, his face getting redder by the minute, spit flying out of his mouth as he tried to make some point I couldn’t hear because I was mortified to be getting chewed out in front of my peers.

Hoppin leading a discussion on policy changes required to remove the barriers to military spouse entrepreneurship.

Hoppin leading a discussion on policy changes required to remove the barriers to military spouse entrepreneurship. Courtesy of Sue Hoppin

Every success would come with more pushback. I was addicted to the impact we were having, but worn down by the constant battles, processes, and limitations of being a cog in the machine. How could you simultaneously love and hate something so much? I was not in a good place. But after 14 years of resenting my husband for dragging us around the world to assignments where I’d have zero career prospects and all the arguments about lost opportunities, like the FBI, I sure as hell was not about to admit that maybe I wasn’t cut out for the workforce.

At the time, I had a mentor recognize how miserable I was. He told me that my idea of what a meaningful career looks like was entirely off and that I didn’t need a traditional 9-5 job filled with office politics at a large government entity to be successful. He went on to say that I had a very specific superpower that allowed me to connect dots that other people couldn’t even see. I had never considered having such a skill set and wouldn’t be able to name it anyway, so until that moment, I certainly didn’t value it. But, if smarter people thought I had something to offer, I knew I could make the jump from the traditional workforce to entrepreneurship.

I founded the National Military Spouse Network in 2010 to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location. My very first client was the Air Force’s Air Combat Command. Associations and corporate clients followed. I had found my niche and was finally hitting my stride.

Family night out at the HillVets100 where Hoppin, founder of the National Military Spouse Network, was recognized as part of the 2018 class

Family night out at the HillVets100 where Hoppin was recognized as part of the 2018 class. Courtesy of Sue Hoppin

In the past decade, I have been honored to have been called on multiple times to advise the White House, congressional members, nonprofits, and corporations. I was the first Asian American appointed to the Air Force Academy Board of Visitors and younger than my peers by at least a decade when I showed up on Day 1, anxious and wondering what I could possibly offer. Six years later, I finished serving a term as vice chairman.

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With the benefit of hindsight, I can now clearly see that things didn’t start coming together until I spent some time figuring out what was really important to me. I wouldn’t be comfortable with where I am today without a certain level of self-awareness that stemmed from trying to make sense of all the forced pivots. Military spouses today represent the gamut of generations and experience, but one thing we all understand is a pivot.

How many times have we been forced to zig when we wanted to zag? What I didn’t understand when I was in the middle of a crisis or transitional period was how my pivots actually led me to a better career than one I could have imagined for myself. I pushed through the insecurities of reentering the workforce and found my passion. But the pivots I hated, resented, and fought against led me to a life of purpose, which is what I had been seeking all along.

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Sue Hoppin

Sue Hoppin is a nationally recognized expert on military spouse and family issues working to bridge the cultural gap between government, private and public groups, and military communities. She is an advocate, published author, and consultant with more than 20 years of experience and expertise in military community programs. Hoppin is also a War Horse Writing Seminar Fellow from 2018.

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