We share the stories of two inspiring Hoxby women.
8th March 2018
Next time your partner walks in late cursing another broken down train, give thanks that they have just walked through the door at all. Then pause and imagine what it must be like to be a freelancer married into the military. It’s not just the emotional and literal upheaval of deployment, often to places where safety is precarious. There is the cycle of relocation every three to four years, where choice can be an illusion; there is the uncertainty of your next post, often to places were fields of lettuces are your only neighbours; and then, when the dust settles, there is the ultimate challenge of forging your own life, career and identity.
This was the reality for two of our Hoxbys. Brittany Robbins, Partner and Hoxby’s US-based Operations Director, and Clare Feenan, a South Africa-based Projects and Events specialist. Two women who have embraced these challenges with the life-seizing attitude that pulses through the DNA of all Hoxbys. Being a civilian freelancer is one thing, being a military freelancer quite another.
“It depends upon your attitude to it and to life in general,” says Clare. “You can sit there and whinge about it or you can go and find the best way of making it work for everybody. Obviously, if you don’t do it well all that happens is that everybody around you ends up miserable.”
One of the biggest challenges, according to Clare, is that “there isn’t much of a sense of being in charge of your own destiny.” Brittany agrees, “At times it is frustrating. But also your destiny is truly what you make of it and while you might be able to control specific elements of your life, you really can accomplish whatever you want.”
It seems that the best way to thrive is with an enquiring mind and an adventurous spirit. “You must be up for new things and new experiences”, says Brittany, who’s attitude to most of life is “‘Why not? It’s not brain surgery’. There is nothing that we’re doing that can’t be undone. If it doesn’t work out then we just try again.”
And what of that enquiring mind? According to Brittany, whose husband serves in the US Marine Corps, “for me personally it’s a bit of an interesting dynamic being involved in the military so closely. I am not very pro-gun and I am not very pro-war – and I am definitely not a supporter of our current President. So being so involved in such a government lifestyle it has been interesting for me to now see how non-politicised the military is but has meant that I have been able to learn some things about myself as well.”
Given such a forward-thinking worldview, did Brittany know what she was letting herself in for when she got together with her now husband? “Oh gosh, not at all,” she replies without hesitation. “He wasn’t a military man when we met. We were working at UPS together at the time. He had always wanted to serve and he wasn’t satisfied with the opportunities that were presenting themselves. The Marine Corps was something that he really wanted to do and I said, ‘Go for it, that’s fantastic’ and so far so good.”
Clare’s experience was similar. “I had no idea really”, she says, “and honestly when we got posted to Canada somebody said to me, who was probably an Army wife, [puts on an impeccable cut-glass English accent], ‘you did know you were marrying into the Army, didn’t you? And I was like, ‘Um, no.’ I genuinely hadn’t thought it all through and what it might mean.”
Clare’s husband was a helicopter pilot in the British Army and his father had been in the Royal Air Force. “He’s not that archetypal son of a military man,” she says. “He’s not like that at all. He knew he was doing it as a job that was right for him at the time, so it wasn’t so ingrained in the family that I was marrying in to. But ‘think carefully’ is certainly a piece of advice you should give to anyone who is marrying into the army – before they get married!”
Clare and her husband had five years together building their own separate lives before marriage and that sense of creating her own identity was just as important to Brittany. “I’m so happy that this isn’t the life that I got into when I was 18 with my husband,” she says. “I’m glad I had the time to put down roots and establish myself as a person before coming into this military world. It’s very different but I love to explore and we have had lots of opportunities that we would never have had if it weren’t for my husband’s job in the military.”
That desire for exploration combined with the unusual demands of the military can lead to some unexpected postings. Brittany’s latest move into the unknown began with a ping on her mobile. “My husband sent me a text just saying ‘Yuma’ and I said, ‘What the hell is that?!’”
At the time Brittany was based in Michigan, where she had gone to college and then on to begin adult life. It was a place she knew well and loved. “Michigan is a midwest town with fantastic beer and snow and cold weather and I really had a fond spot for it,” she says with lingering affection.
What does she make of Yuma, Arizona? “We don’t really care much for it, there’s not much here. It’s a military town and actually, it’s the nation’s largest winter lettuce producer. So just imagine a whole bunch of military stuff and lettuce fields.” she answers with a stoic humour that sounds a prerequisite for military life.
Clare and her husband certainly can match Brittany’s tale of transition from comfort to unforgiving isolation with their move across the Atlantic to the wilds of North America, “In Canada we were in the middle of nowhere,” says Clare, “the Army base was 300 kilometres south-east of Calgary. I remember driving up to our a little grey pebble-dashed cottage and thinking, ‘Oh my god, what’s my life turned into. Last week I was Monaco working on the F1 grand prix and now this!’”
A strong network can help with the constant moves, not just across states but also across continents. But nothing is guaranteed. “Your support structure is the other families that your husband works with so, if you’re lucky they work with amazing people and they become your friends for life,” says Clare, “but depending on who you talk to you will get some pretty different answers, often to do with how their husband’s career has progressed. They might have been sent to the worst place in the world for two years. You don’t get a lot of choice and that’s why some people would give you a very negative answer.”
Brittany’s pre-military life provided her with a good mix of friends. “However, here in Yuma my friendship base is very much military with some of them being retired spouses. I still go back to Michigan to see my friends there and a couple of women that I’ve met here in Yuma, who have since moved so I’ve been visiting them in their new homes too. Remote becomes the way of life.”
And when Brittany is not traveling or whipping Hoxbys into operational shape she can be found pounding the base in her running gear. There’s only one drawback, the sort of thing that is par for the course for a military partner. “Running around Yuma isn’t ideal,” says Brittany. “We live in a desert and we live on base so so it’s very safe, I never fear running solo with the baby because we’ve got our fence around us.” Clare though, now based in Cape Town, cannot go out running on her own due to the security situation in the country’s second city.
Brittany faces different obstacles to her training. “When I lived in Michigan I was big into trail running,” she says, “and there’s really none of that here. There are a couple of trails but there are also rattlesnakes here – and I don’t do snakes! And I don’t do scorpions or other things that would like to eat me or hurt me. So I don’t have any desire to go and explore the trails here. Michigan has itty-bitty garden snakes but nothing that has teeth and wants to kill you like here in Yuma.”.
Such transitions aren’t easy on the working lives of military partners but, in true Hoxby fashion, neither Clare nor Brittany are the type to merely swing on the coattails of their husband’s uniforms. Inactivity seems anathema to these two. “I hate not working. I’ve always hated not working” says Clare, leaving no room for doubt or questioning.
“I had to give up the job I adored – working in Formula 1 – when my husband was posted to Canada in 2007. We were just married and it was an ‘accompanied’ posting. I couldn’t not go but at the same time I had said that if this doesn’t work in six weeks and I really can’t cope then I am coming back.”
And did Clare cope? She’s a Hoxby, of course she did.
“Actually through an F1 contact I was put in touch with somebody else out there who ran a sponsorship agency. So I did end up doing a lot of work there, and a lot of work for RBS during the Ryder Cup and the US Open, a lot of freelancing stuff so that was fine.”
Brittany hadn’t spent much time freelancing before she became a Hoxby. However, there comes a time when the uncompromising nature of married military life must be accommodated or it will break you apart. “My entire career was working for really large corporations but it was becoming unmanageable with my husband living in a different state. Two or three weekends a month I was either driving my two children (we now have three) and myself to wherever it was he was located, just so that we could have a ‘road’ marriage.”
Something had to give.
“It was just getting to be a lot in terms of how do you manage your life when your heart and your family is in one place,” says Brittany, “and you’ve got this career and your time and efforts are just balancing all of it.”
For such an extreme situation to work you need a switched-on progressive employer. Brittany found she reached breaking point when she asked to become a more remote employee. “It was immediately turned down and frowned upon. We had a large number of remote employees in the field but the organisation as a whole was bringing them back in-house because they believed remote employees to be ineffective and that they didn’t really accomplish much.”
“…I came to the realisation that the corporate world and I were no longer compatible.”
Clare experienced her own form of incompatibility between the military world and full-time corporate world and it was her integrity that pushed her to the freelance life. “I was pregnant, moving, pregnant, moving, moving, moving,” she says. “You can’t in all honesty and with full enthusiasm go into a company and say I am the person you want and really want to work for you when you know full well that in 18 months you are moving again. Some people can do that but I just can’t. And that is why I have told so many people about Hoxby because it is literally a total life-changer.”
Brittany concurs, from the perspective not just of a military partner but also of a working mother, of a freelancer, and of a lover of a fulfilling life. “I absolutely love the ethos of Hoxby. When I first joined it sounded like a cool idea and I was willing to give it a try. I think in the back of my mind I thought I would do it for a couple of years and then when we left Yuma I would probably go back into the corporate world where I had been so comfortable.”
From an hour in Brittany’s company it doesn’t feel like her and a comfort zone would be natural bedfellows. It is a hunch that proves accurate. Could you go back? “No way. Two years into it there’s no way I could go back into that lifestyle,” she says jumping in before the question is complete. “I just can’t imagine having someone else dictate what interested me or judged my performance based on whether I showed up at 6.59 or 7.59 in the morning or marked me down as not being committed because I wanted to pick my daughter up from school or I wanted to go to the ‘Mummy and Me’ lunch. It allows you to live a fulfilling life, rather than trying to live life around your work.”
Clare tried to do just that – to live life around her work – and returned to the corporate world. “I did go back to work full time when the children were one and three and they were still at nursery,” she explains, “and that was doable because my boss did at least let me take off if the kids were sick. I wasn’t going to get paid but I could take off so I could manage it.
“Then they get to school and along come the holidays and it all becomes a disaster. If you ask any parent what they do when it’s school holidays they will all tell you that they panic and, if possible, they ship in granny. I thought I am not going to do that. I am not going to spend my life panicking, there’s got to be another way.”
Clare and her husband ultimately discovered that the other way lay outside the military world. However, it proved a whole lot easier to leave the Army than it did to leave behind the sense of adventure and exploration the Army afforded. After two years attempting a “forever” life in Cambridgeshire, Clare is convinced the military training kicked in and led to their civilian move to South Africa. “I think honestly the two-year thing is so programmed into us from my husband’s time in the army,” she says, “plus we also both moved a lot as children – he was an RAF child and my parents are both medical, I lived in Australia as well for a year and I remember that being awesome – so we were never going to stay put for long.
“And luckily we are both programmed the same or it wouldn’t work at all. My husband left the Army about five years ago now. He then went to work in the City and we moved up to Cambridgeshire and thought, ‘that’s it we’re here now, no one can tell us when and where to move.’
“And then two years later when we were surrounded by all this talk of ‘forever homes’ and with a good social group around us and all of those things…Well, luckily we both believe that the world is there to be explored and it just so happened that on a week’s holiday to Cape Town somebody suggested that perhaps we might want to move here and that they would give him a very good job to come and do just that.
“A month later we just went, ‘Yeah ok!’ And moved over. Thankfully, it was a simultaneous decision for both of us. We were at a point were the kids were at the right age. They are only six and eight now and they adore it out here, they get to go surfing and climb mountains and try every sport possible and go to an amazing international school. For now it works really really well, the only thing missing for me is the work but Hoxby is helping with that.”
Just like Clare, Brittany has one eye on the future and on the life of wonder she wants to provide for her children. If that means embracing the unconventional then so be it, it’s not like military life hasn’t entailed going off-piste at times. “The kids are at school off the base,” she says, “which means they are out in the community but I think homeschooling might be something that we explore in the future as a way of having more freedom with our time. Sometimes you can just do it better yourself! I just think they can learn so much more by being exposed to things rather than just sitting in a classroom with 35 other children.”
Replace “classroom” with “office” and it sounds like Brittany might well be producing her very own Hoxbys of the future. Clare, for one, can see no problem with that, “I wonder if Alex and Lizzie knew it would grow so big so fast. Just changing your mindset as you go, understanding how enthusiastic everyone else is about your concept, about your goal for the world must be amazing – and overwhelming.”