The question comes up often, “So, what do you do?” I stumble over the answer every time. It usually sounds like:
“I’m not really doing anything.”
“I’ve stepped away from the workplace for a while.”
“I’m taking an extended sabbatical.”
The truth is, I’m not exactly sure what my status is. But I do know that the decision we made last year was the right one for our family.
Following a 26 year military career that ended in August 2015, I transitioned into a fantastic new career with an organization located downtown St. Louis. The facility was amazing, the people were friendly, highly educated and professional, and it offered a generous salary with great benefits to include flexible work-from-home options. I spent 11 months as a Project Manager and was then promoted to Manager of the PMO. Despite this, I didn’t feel the leadership style and skills I had developed over the course of my military career was a great fit for the organization’s culture. When a friend and former military colleague informed me of a leadership opportunity as a supply chain regional manager with a major local healthcare provider, I pursued it and was hired in early 2017.
The position carried a lot of responsibility and getting up to speed regarding the expectations the executive staff of my hospitals had of me, along with the collaboration needs of the other hospitals throughough the system, required a lot of time and effort. The challenge suited me well. I had always seen myself as an “all in” kinda guy. I typically left the house at 6:20 am and returned between 5:30 – 6:00 pm. There were also the occasional fires that had to be handled outside of business hours or on weekends. To most career-oriented people, this schedule doesn’t seem too bad. Add in a few hours for catching up on email from home each week and we are still looking at an average work week in the 60 hour range. There was still plenty of time to pencil in volunteer work and family activities.
But our family dynamics were evolving. My wife had gone back to work after staying home for over 18 years to raise our kids. Our daughter got married and moved to Colorado in early 2017 when her husband was assigned to an Air Force base near Denver. They are making a wonderful life for themselves and we couldn’t be more proud of them. Our son was a high school freshman during the 2017-2018 school year and his schedule was full with marching band, madrigal singers, show choir, pep band, Model UN, plays and musicals, and a weekly youth group gathering. With my wife and I working out of town, arranging transportation for him was challenging and stressful. And I primarily let my wife manage it.
We also had guilt about the amount of time we were leaving our son alone each day. He is an incredibly smart and mature young man, but we felt we were asking too much of him. He struggles with depression and anxiety, which he now discusses openly in an effort to help educate his peers and encourage them to seek assistance when needed, and our routine absence was not providing the best environment for his development. Despite how mature he behaved and how well thought out his ideas and logic, he was still an adolescent in an important stage of his development. For this reason, my wife and I began considering how the stay-home-parent option might be the best solution for the next couple years. But which one of us should stay home?
I could think of many reasons why my wife should return to this role rather than me. Each one of those reasons had a dollar sign attached. How would we afford our trips to Mexico, the new vehicle habit we had developed, or the latest & greatest new Apple products? For her part, my wife had a simple request when it was time to make the decision. My family unquestioningly supported my military career for 26 years. They endured moves away from family and friends, and routine absences on my part as my duties led me to various locations around the country and around the world. But my wife simply said, “If I need to quit my job I will, but I do love what I’m doing. Your career came before everything for 26 years, I just ask that you consider mine as we make this decision.” Yes, I’m a pretty lucky guy.
Around this time I had learned of a preacher named Andy Stanley. Since I spent a lot of time in my vehicle each day commuting to/from work and between hospitals, I was always on the lookout for good listening material. His leadership podcast was the gateway into his other ministries like Your Move and his North Point Community Church sermons. I was listening to a sermon series he was delivering about marriage called “What Happy Couples Know” when he made a statement that brought everything into clarity. During the closing statement of the second part of the series, he assigned homework to the congregation by having them ask themselves this question about their spouse, “What can I do to leverage who I am for your benefit because for so many years I have leveraged who I am, and who you are, for mine?”.
I have never experienced one of those “God is actually talking to me” moments, but hearing that statement at that time may be the closest I will ever get. The decision was much easier now, but how exactly are we going to make this work?
Fortunately, we have been mostly sensible with money throughout our marriage. Sure we’ve made some poor choices regarding vehicles recently, but nothing too crazy like buying expensive luxury cars that we couldn’t afford. In fact, I drive a 2015 Ram 1500 and my wife drives a 2015 GMC Terrain. But they are both are paid off. Other than our mortgage, we are debt free. And other than vehicle loans, we have not carried consumer debt like credit cards or some other kind of loan in order to buy stuff since 1994 when we decided to start a family and that my wife would be a stay-home-parent. We saved for vacations, to buy our kids used cars when it came time for them to drive, and paid cash for our daughter’s wedding. So when it came time to sit down and discuss what our finances might look like if I stepped away from work, we didn’t have to worry about a lot of debt hanging over our heads. As a military retiree, I was already entitled to health and dental insurance through the TRICARE network and we easily found affordable term life insurance to replace what I was getting though my employer. We simply had to determine how much our lifestyle would need to change in order for my retirement pay and my wife’s income to cover our remaining expenses.
With the new (and improved?) family budget created and the final decision made, I gave notice to my supervisor and team. Needless to say, the news came as a shock. I was still a bit in shock myself that we were going through with it. Everyone expressed their support for our decision to put our family needs first and the leaders I worked for were gracious to say I would be welcomed back into the organization at the end of this family period, contingent upon organizational needs and vacancies. I’m thankful for this, but also understanding that there are no guarantees.
It has now been 9 months since I stepped away from my career. I can’t really say that I’ve stepped away from work because I have found several things to keep me busy, yet align those activities with my son’s schedule. Besides some volunteer work I perform for our local Band Parent organization and serving as coordinator for Financial Peace University courses at our church, I served temporary positions at our church as worship leader, as Media Specialist when the incumbent was granted a leave of absence, and in the Accountant position when the incumbent needed several weeks off to recover from surgery. I also regularly substitute teach at our local high school and middle school. The income from these sources have funded trips to Colorado to visit our daughter and son-in-law as well as a family vacation to Florida to experience Universal Studios and a visit with friends in Navarre over the summer. I have created some videos for our church as well as videos on some personal interest items that I uploaded to YouTube.
Of course, the most rewarding result of our decision has been the time I have been able to spend with our son. He may not hold the same opinion some days, I am still a parent after all, but I hope someday he’ll appreciate this time we’ve had together. I know he feels I wasn’t present much when he was younger, whether that’s based on the times I was physically absent due to traveling or if he feels I was mentally absent, but I hope to reverse (or at least make amends for) that situation.
I’m not exactly sure the ROI (return on investment) can be calculated through an economic equation, but I already know the benefits are outweighing the cost. I don’t know when the right time to rejoin the traditional workforce will be, or if my skills and experiences will still be sought after, but I am content with whatever the future looks like knowing that I was finally “all in” on my most important job.
So if you’re looking for advice on how to make the most money and accumulate the most stuff, do yourself a favor and don’t take career advice from me.