(For those of you who do not know what shore duty is, it’s a period of time—usually about two years—when they say sailors will be working more of a 9-6 schedule and traveling just a few days out of the month.)
Many of Sam’s conversations about his job prospects for shore duty would take place with more senior officers on the boat, who had the ability to influence the navy’s decisions, while they were all underwater and incommunicado. Consequently, I would not be apprised of these decisions until the day when Sam surfaced. They would be discussing which jobs had opened up, where these jobs were located, what Sam would be doing if he took them, and how soon these jobs would begin. Some positions would start two or three months after Sam returned from deployment, meaning that if he took one of them, we both would spend our brief post-deployment reunion finding a place and moving our joint belongings there.
For months, I was excluded from a conversation that would play a key role in the shape my life, my career path, and our relationship would take. I thought:
Could I start looking at jobs in a nearby city where Sam could be stationed? Or should I contemplate freelance work for the period when my current job ended and I would have the opportunity to be in the same city as Sam?
Would Sam and I be flying from coast to coast every other weekend to see one another and planning Skype dates to accommodate our two different time zones? Or could we spontaneously connect after our respective workdays were over? Would Sam and I have a few months of normal life—of cooking dinner together, watching the John Stewart show and Project Runway in the evenings, and planning Saturday outings to new hiking trails? Or should I scramble to save enough vacation days to allow for maximum travel time later on? The possibilities were endless and I was left contemplating broad hypothetical questions rather than the set of concrete paths that Sam was contemplating with a group of men on a boat.
Job uncertainty is difficult to deal with under normal circumstances when your loved one is around, but it is especially trying when all you have of a relationship is the abstract prospect that you will spend time with each other soon.
During those few months, a growing sense of unease made my already difficult job as an activist more difficult, and I could not help but feel a little hopeless, thinking, will I have to choose between being with my love and pursuing work that is meaningful? Is the report I am compiling right now a culmination of my still young career, or will it jump start me to greater opportunities? If the latter, does that mean continuing to live apart from Sam? I thought of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book, Lean In, in which she advises women “not to leave before you leave”—not to scale back on our ambitions and commitments to our current jobs in anticipation to leave the workforce to devote more time to our families. This makes sense, but emotionally, I found myself in a state of limbo. Leaning in, for me, feels less purposeful if I have to face an impossible choice imposed by people I don’t know.
In the end, Sam and I were more lucky than we might have been. He came into port a few days before the official list of job possibilities was published and handed to him, though he was aware of what might be on it long before that. We had decided that he would say nothing final about our preferences to the navy until we had discussed these possibilities and what they would mean for our relationship. Sam held true to that, presenting me with a list of about 10 different jobs from Japan to Virginia. During my face to face conversations with him during a port call, a surprising thing happened. Rather than feeling as threatened as I might be about the far-flung ports where Sam could be stationed, I felt a sense of excitement at wherever we might end up together. This was because I was at least being included in a decision-making process by Sam, who happened to be in port. The navy had not done anything to make this easy for us. In the end, Sam requested and got a job that put us both in an advantageous place for our careers and our life together.
Why, given the navy's vested interest in recruiting partners into its volunteer work, do they fail to make them part of a conversation that affects them in equal measure? What harm would there be in providing notice to partners who are waiting on shore about what the possibilities are under discussion, and to include them in these discussions? The only answer I can think of is sheer negligence and incompetence on the part of naval authorities.
The navy intervenes in family relationships where they deem advantageous to them. For example, when one woman married to an officer on the boat recently sent him an e-mail threatening to drain their joint bank account and leave if he did not return in several weeks, the captain intercepted the email and “ordered” her to go to therapy. If only the navy made empowering interventions that kept partners informed of decisions affecting their own futures, perhaps such desperate situations would occur less often.