She is the sponsor, I am the dependent

by Thomas Panker
Stripes Europe

We all make assumptions based on stereotypes and experiences. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to following the lead of my superstar wife, an Army civilian employee with a Ph.D. and an additional doctorate degree … not to mention a great singing voice.

When the prospect of moving our family overseas for an enticing position in Germany arose, we debated the plusses and minuses. We carefully considered how it would affect our careers, financial outlook, and what impact it may have on the children. Ultimately, we agreed there was too much in the experience to pass up, so we went for it — which meant I had to resign from an executive-level position at a distinguished University. Auf wiedersehn!

Having settled into our quaint village at the base of the Donnersberg Mountain, it’s easy to see that I am the only father who regularly drops off the kids at the local German kindergarten and waits at the bus stop for my daughter whose similar school is in a neighboring town. I have embraced this duty at home and abroad, but I also recognize it is not the norm. I proudly shuttle my kids to MWR activities (ballet, football, gymnastics), play dates, the pool, Girl Scouts and doctor appointments. My daily routine duties also include grocery shopping, dinner preparation, reviewing homework, refereeing altercations and braiding hair. All have varying degrees of success, but each is done with collective care.

Any time I fill out a form or deal with administrative personnel, I am reminded that she is the sponsor and the one that enables our family to foster these experiences of European living. We must also keep in mind that any misconduct by family members also filters through sponsors, and in some cases, their command. So, driving 57 in a 50 or smoking in the boys bathroom crosses more desks than one may realize. There are other challenges we face, too.

At first, it was liberating to be free from the unrelenting traffic around Washington, D.C. and enjoy shuttling around the aesthetic rolling greens, sloped vineyards, year-round stacks of firewood and fields of golden rapeseed here in Rheinland-Pfalz. There isn’t even one traffic light to navigate as my wife coasts to work a mere 15 minutes away. But I have more hours in the day to occupy my mind, and as the months have passed, voices inside my head have begun to question this new routine. I have to debate if this is a welcome break from the grind or an over-extended gap year creating a cavernous hole in my career. Time will tell.

My dependent status means she had to handle all of the household goods arrangements, official passport applications, I.D. cards acquisition, utility reconciliations, etc. I wanted to help, but I was situationally ineligible. Any spouse, regardless of gender, would be in this predicament. Even after diligent planning my other assignments, we still trip over bureaucratic wires, like the time I tried to take care of the car inspection on base. The vehicle passed all the standard requirements, but when it came time to complete the new registration, it required her signature, which meant she had to drive all the way down from Sembach to make it official.

Overall, embarking on this great adventure together has been uniquely rewarding. I was willing to pay the price, but I will not count the cost. Many other professionals at similar stages in their career may face the same conundrums of finding a relevant job in a somewhat limited marketplace versus taking a new path of employment. For spouses like me, we may simply choose to work on parenting.

My friends often needle me these days, expounding, “Let me get this straight. You live in Europe, the kids now sprechen Deutsch, you get quality time with them at a fun age, the family travels incessantly, the beer is awesome, and you’re staying in shape and on top of the finances. Sign me up!” But I owe it all to her, my sponsor.

It’s an honor to attend official events as her plus one and boast that I have sought new paths in regards to vocational and domestic pursuits. She travels for work a lot, but knowing I am holding down the fort at home makes her TDY schedule less burdensome. We each must take care of our respective responsibilities to make this arrangement successful, and it is an honor to serve in this very distinct manner as her counterpart. So, I drive slow and count our blessings.

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