Solo parent

Week 15 – Managing Your Career as a Solo Parent Service Member

Navy Seal and motivational speaker David Goggins is always running, and always shouting. Who’s gonna carry the boats, son? Who’s gonna carry the logs? He shouts at you, and he shouts at me. In his books, interviews, and footage on social media, he shouts at everyone. It’s his mantra to unleash what he calls his “inner dog,” and daring us to do the same.

Consider the philosophy behind what you might see of a dog like Goggins.

“We all need small sparks, small accomplishments in our lives to fuel the big ones,” he wrote. “Think of your small accomplishments as kindling. When you want a bonfire, you don’t start by lighting a big log. You collect some witch’s hair—a small pile of hay or some dry, dead grass. You light that, and then add small sticks and bigger sticks before you feed your tree stump into the blaze…”

Small sparks start small fires that build big heat. This is Goggins’s rallying cry, to those ready to listen: your mission, in what limited time you have, is to build radical agency.

Your agency is your capacity to actively and independently choose and affect change. Your agency is your free will or self-determination. Will you let pain stop you? Will you listen to people who say you’re not up to a challenge? Will you let your life be led by fear? Will you prioritize staying comfortable, on the couch? Or will you demand more of yourself? “We’re either getting better or we’re getting worse,” Goggins says, dusting nothing with sugar. “The Buddha famously said that life is suffering. I’m not a Buddhist, but I know what he meant and so do you. To exist in this world, we must contend with humiliation, broken dreams, sadness, and loss.”

The military’s solo parents took an oath to protect and defend America against the enemy, no matter the cost. But “carrying the boats” isn’t just about national might. Who’s going to “carry the boats” at home? Supporting and caring for our children—not only financially, but emotionally and spiritually—is just as rich an honor.

Chances are you didn’t foresee being a solo parent when you joined the military. The vision you had for your career when you first enlisted may be very different now than it was before.

So what now? How can you juggle your commitment to your country with your commitments to your kids—especially on your own? Your days are already long, with time away and little for yourself. The sacrifices are many, from getting up at the crack of dawn to take your kids to school or daycare; leaving your child in the hands of others for weeks or months at a time, or missing out on important events or milestones. And when you are with them, the pressure’s on to be superhuman.

You may already feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and constantly torn between doing your best possible work and caring for the ones you love the most. You’re not alone. Thousands of other solo parents are serving and wrestling with these challenges daily. In a field where the mission comes first, deployments are inevitable, and extended hours are a given, your home life may feel stretched at best.

First, take a breath and remember this is familiar to many. It’s also ground that your fellow service members have successfully navigated. Today, we’ll take their advice on their strategic thinking and careful planning, and how they share their burdens with others. We’ll explore how to manage and grow your military career without having to compromise the kind of parent you want to be.

Share Time:

Share a time when you had to put the military before your family—or vice versa. How did it impact you?

Whether you’re eyeing a promotion or are looking to master new skills, start by taking stock of where you are and where you hope to go. What sacrifices will you need to make to get there? Will it mean putting in longer hours, moving to another base, or giving up time with your kids? How will it affect the delicate balance between your military and family life? Do you have the support you need to make it work?

Then think about the big-picture goals that would make all the logistical shifts worth it. What do you hope to achieve, both personally and professionally? Will this opportunity bring you closer to the leader and role model you want to be?

As a solo parent service member, any decision you make must be viewed through the lens of what is best for your child or children.

“Once I had my son, my priorities shifted,” explained Army Major Danielle Killian on the Women of the Military podcast. “At the end of the day, I’m going to take this uniform off, and I’m not always going to be Major Killian. I’m always going to be Mom—and my relationship with my son is the most important thing to me.”

Putting Your Plan into Action

Once your goals and motivations are in sight, translate that into daily commitments. If you want to advance in your position, always be working a rank up. If you feel like others are getting promoted ahead of you, be patient and focus on being as proficient and efficient as possible at the job you have right now. Figure out what courses or training will help you earn the promotion points you need to move ahead. Sign up for leadership training courses such as the Basic Leader Course (BLC) or the Advanced Leader Course (ALC). If you can’t attend in person, ask about a correspondence course or remote training.

Backwards-engineer your goals, starting with what a successful career would look like to you and working your way back until you reach where you are right now. And there it is—from one point of view, you’ve made a to-do list starting today. From another, you’ve gathered a bundle of witch’s hair to start a flame.

Share Time:

What’s one action you can take right now to put you a step closer to achieving a personal or professional goal?

Maximizing Your Time

There are never enough hours in the day. Stay focused on your north star— the anchor in your life that inspires, motivates, and pushes you forward. Instead of getting frustrated with your hectic schedule, look for areas where you can save time and tackle the most critical tasks first. Distinguish between what is essential and what is noise that distracts you from your goals.

Familiarize yourself with the battle rhythm in your unit—activities and events that frequently reoccur—to streamline communication and decision-making. Then, establish a similarly predictable rhythm for your household. Merge work and home calendars to head off scheduling conflicts, keeping loved ones in the loop. Put every predictable factor to work, making as much of your logistical world as visible and transparent as possible.

Take advantage of half-hour to hour increments of downtime to squeeze in a work task, connect with your kids, or get some fresh air. Prioritize your kids, and prioritize what lights you up—whether it’s a good sweat or progress towards your goals. Let the laundry go one more day if you need to. None of us are superhuman. Go ahead and drop the ball now and then, if it’s in the service of balance.

Strengthening Your Chain-of-Command Relationships

Develop strong relationships within your unit—particularly within your chain of command—to be upfront about your status as a solo parent, especially if you don’t have family nearby. Some commanders will be more family-oriented and empathetic than others, but you won’t know until you initiate those conversations.

Positive relationships are a two-way street. Ask yourself: Am I showing up in a way that earns the trust of my superiors? Am I contributing high value for my team? Whether it’s by your attitude or aptitude, make sure the answers to both are a resounding Yes. That’s when you’re clear to ask for flexibility in return. You might work from home now and then, or adjust your start and end times to better align with your kids’ schedules. Delegate some work when you have to, but don’t expect others to constantly pick up your slack
when you are absent. Set clear expectations between you and your superior, and with your team, while being considerate of their needs.

Share Time:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how much are you willing to talk about what is going on with you personally with your superiors or team? One is “I’m as secretive as someone in witness protection,” and ten is, “My life is an open book.”

Building Your Support Network

To advance your military career as a solo parent, rally your resources. Most branches of the military offer daycare, after-school, and other kid-friendly programs for your children, as well as family support groups and counseling to help solo parents with stress management, work-life balance, and more. It may also be helpful to find another solo parent you admire in a higher rank who can serve as a mentor—another mother if you’re a mother, or a father if you’re a father. They can offer advice, encouragement, and insight.

Enlist your biggest supporters for help with childcare, school or sports pickups, running errands, cooking dinner when you need to work, or just providing a listening ear when you feel overwhelmed. Lean on your parents, siblings, or close friends to extend your care of your kids and yourself as much as you can.

And lean on yourself for small sparks, backwards-engineering, and radical agency—one day at a time, starting today.

“By the time I graduated, I knew that the confidence I’d managed to develop didn’t come from a perfect family or God-given talent,” Goggins explains. “It
came from personal accountability which brought me self-respect, and self-respect will always light a way forward.”

Further Action Step:

Brainstorm ways you could better manage or grow your career. Do some backward planning—a picture of where you would like to be. Then write down the action steps or sacrifices closing the gap from where you are right now. Think about how you manage your time and your work relationships. Where can you make improvements?