A few months ago, we embarked on our twelfth move driving from the northern tier to the desert southwest for our new assignment. As I piloted our truck and cargo trailer with the family dog as my passenger, I had ample time with my thoughts. At first, I was trying to mentally prepare for trading feet of snow for a “dry heat”. But ultimately, I reflected back on our time at our previous assignment. How did it go? How did our family handle it? How did my spouse’s organization do during our time there? What could she or I have done differently for our own family and our Air Force family? Is there a Chick-fil-A or In-N-Out Burger at our next stop? All important questions, right? One thing in particular kept dominating my thoughts: Why couldn’t we get more spouses involved in our work and social activities?
To be fair, we arrived at our last assignment in the summer of 2020 smack in the middle of COVID. Obviously, anything non-mission essential was off limits when we arrived. And socializing was at a minimum…and from a distance. That fall, the Spouse’s Club was cleared to host a trivia night. It was a blast! There were probably 60 spouses in attendance, all happy to gather together and enjoy social interaction again. As the trivia game kicked off, I looked around the room and quickly realized I was the only male spouse in attendance. It didn’t bother me at all being the only male spouse there. Happens all the time. I knew we had lots of male spouses on base. Where were they?
I really wanted to try and figure it out. There were the obvious reasons: my spouse was working and I needed to be home with the kids; I have a job and had to work that day; my kids had a sporting or school event; or we were in isolation for COVID. It was the not so obvious reasons that really got to me: I had no idea there was an event going on; I’m new and don’t know anyone; they only do activities geared towards women; I’m not interested; isn’t it just the standard wives’ club? These are all actual responses I got from male spouses.
Honestly, it really bothered me, but I completely understood where they were coming from. I shared these insights with my spouse and my peer spouses. Both had heard similar responses. You have probably heard these responses too. From then on, we tried to account for these challenges when planning events. I would love to say we catapulted from a crawl to a sprint after that. Not exactly. Maybe a slow walk, but better than a crawl. It was progress, and I’ll take it. Gaining one or two more people helps spread the word to others. You have to start somewhere, right? Check out the YouTube video “First Follower: Leadership Lessons From Dancing Guy” if you don’t believe me. So how do we get those first followers? Some of my takeaways (i.e. reflections while driving with a dog breathing in my face):
Communication: We rely on Facebook way too much! Yes, old people like me (I’m 47) use Facebook, but many of our younger Airmen and families do not. Creating a unit page, spouse page, activities page, etc. is fine…if they are seen. How often does someone mention a post from a group or mutual friend only for you to realize it never came up in your feed as you were scrolling? And as you know, there are a myriad of other social media platforms and everyone has their own preference. So, are you supposed to have an account for all of them so you can spread the word? Ask ten people if you can look at all the apps they have on their phone. Each person will have a completely different setup. But they all have a phone. Texting is probably the easiest way to bypass the social media abyss and ensure the information is sent and received. Not everyone wants to give out their phone number. Fair enough. What about email? Consider an announcement app like Remind or GroupMe which they can set up with either a phone number or email. And there is no need for responses. You put the info out there, they see it and decide what they want to do. But at least you know the info got to them. And as a parallel path, ask the Commander or First Sergeant to push out spouse or family event information, as appropriate, directly to the Airmen. If an Airman and spouse both know about it, maybe there is a chance for them to deconflict schedules.
Participation: Every location is limited to the resources of the base and local community. What type of events or activities are possible? And of these, what has the potential to draw the biggest crowd? While I kept hearing that the events were mostly geared towards women, I knew that was not completely accurate. Like social media, everyone has a preference for what activities they find fun and worthy of their time. Painting with a Twist may be stereotyped as a “women’s” activity, but is painting really something only women do? Of course not. I’m not picking on that particular activity, but the stereotype does exist. So, figure out a way to make it neutral with activities that everyone can try. I thought the trivia night was a great event. There is also bowling, cooking class, go karts, axe throwing, glass blowing, trap shooting, roller skating, paintball, karaoke…you get my drift. But more importantly, mix it up! Don’t have the same activity every time.
And for those new spouses that don’t know anyone, drag them along with you. Maybe they are shy. Maybe they are socially awkward. Maybe they are ready to come out of their shell but need that first push. But here’s the catch: don’t abandon them! Keep them by your side until you know they are comfortable and engaged with the people they meet. If you ditch them and they aren’t comfortable, you will struggle to get them to come to future events.
Inclusion: This was by far the biggest epiphany I had. For sure, I want to see more of our male spouses participating. But I want to see all spouses participating. To this day, I listen to peer spouses still use the word “wives” in place of spouse. We are so far beyond that version of the traditional Air Force family. There is quite a difference between the Air Force our senior leaders grew up in and the Air Force our youngest Airman just joined. We have to bridge that gap if we want to retain families. I routinely see Facebook posts on spouse pages that begin with “Ladies” or “Hey Moms” or “Wives of those deployed”. Are they purposely isolating male spouses or those with no children? I doubt it. But I can tell you from the feedback I hear, it does alienate some spouses instantly. Do any of those greetings address a male same-sex couple with children? Nope, keep scrolling. Sometimes I’ll politely ask if their post includes male spouses or Dads. That’s me, so is this information I need? Today’s families come in all varieties and that is truly one of our greatest strengths. We must be deliberate when addressing our spouses and families to ensure EVERYONE is included.
But wait a minute…not every person that supports our Airmen is a spouse! This is a thought that slapped me right in the face (or maybe it was my dog’s tail). Anything with “spouse” in the title (spouse’s club, spouse night out, spouse social, etc.) isolates those that support our single Airmen. Most of our Airmen have a significant person in their life that creates that same support mechanism that a spouse and family provide. Maybe it’s a boyfriend/girlfriend or fiancé, a best friend, a roommate, a relative who lives nearby, etc. I’m not suggesting that we eliminate spouse events. There is absolutely a unique bond that spouses share and it deserves to be nurtured. But the Air Force family includes all those that support our Airmen. We owe it to those people to include them in spouse and family activities when possible. It might allow us to get to know that Airman better and connect them more to the organization. It might allow us to gain a bigger support network for the organization as a whole. The more, the merrier! At the end of the day, we want to take care of those who take care of our Airmen. Our spouses, our families, our friends, our significant others…they are all critical to the health, wellbeing, resilience and happiness of our Airmen. Let’s make sure we invest in them too…ALL of them!
Mark N., Air Force Spouse