Last week, two nights before my husband returned from a four-month deployment (and before that, eight months of two-weeklong trips), I woke at 2 a.m. My son was asleep in his sleeping bag on the floor, having woken from a nightmare hours before. Our Rottweiler was sleeping on her bed next to him. My 2-year-old was sprawled out in my bed, and the pillows I use to protect her from falling were balanced on the mattress.
The room was cozy; everyone was sleeping quietly, peacefully. I was struck, at that moment, that the four of us had been on our own for almost a year, with sporadic visits from my husband. During that year, we made friends, got to know the area, and basically, started a life. At that moment, as I looked around the room in my 2 a.m. exhaustion, I realized that the bed—the room—was full. Physically, there was no more room.
The morning we picked him up, my phone was ringing off the hook. “Aren’t you excited?” everyone asked. “I’m so happy for you!” people said.
I understand why. For them, this is a comforting day. A family of four is reuniting; everything is how it should be. But when you are alone for a prolonged period of time, you actually have to detach yourself from your spouse. If you don’t, you just can’t function, or be happy. So (and my husband and I have talked about this, at length) you just talk when you can, but you rely on emotional support from others, and find your happiness and satisfaction from other aspects of life.
As I was driving to pick him up, and my kids were practically jumping out of their car seats, all I could think about was how this adjustment was going to be so hard. I’ve done this so many times by now. I know what’s coming. My husband and I parent differently. Will we fight about that? Am I ready to share the bathroom again? The bed? Do all the extra laundry and cooking? And, what if we have nothing to talk about anymore? What if we can’t re-establish ourselves as a couple?
It sounds so obnoxious, I know. So when I talked to everyone that morning, I played along. Yes, I’m excited. Yes, it’s going to be great. But it’s scary to let someone back in who hasn’t been part of the family for almost a year. Compromises have to be made. Discussions that haven’t been necessary in months have to be had. A year is a long time to be separated, and people change and grow—not necessarily in the same direction. It’s scary; you have to start over.
I wish I had the innocent excitement my children had. This was the excitement I had as a newlywed. But now, life is complicated. There are so many layers to every decision, and bringing someone back into a family takes work. Of course, it goes without saying that we are blessed and so grateful to have him home. Some soldiers don’t make it, and that is truly devastating.
But homecoming isn’t perfect. The first few days are fantastic; everyone is super nice and considerate, and every moment is spent together. Then, real people emerge. Kids start to have an attitude, spouses bicker, bathrooms have to be shared, and there is tension. You fight about stupid things as you work to shift the balance back to two adults, instead of just one. “Did you make the bed?” “Didn’t you think about picking up milk on the way home?”
And there’s the underlying resentment that no one ever dares to admit: ”Why am I still feeling like I’m all by myself here?”
Amazingly, though, after weeks or sometimes months, the family starts to put itself back together. This is the part I like. The actual homecoming, that’s magical. It’s emotional, but it’s 30 seconds of time. Then, you have to work through the next part. The first two weeks are, “I can’t believe he’s really here! This is so awesome!!” After that, there’s finding a new way as a family—a normalcy that wasn’t there before. You can’t just go back to how things were, because now the kids are older and time has changed things. It is rocky. There are arguments. It’s not the seamless entry that you may think.
There is a conversation you may hear if you listen at preschool drop-off, or the YMCA, or the playground. Spouses will say that a deployment is imminent, that they are worried about how their kids will handle it, where they will live (often spouses move back in with their parents), if they will be hiring help or have family move in during the absence.
But when there is a homecoming, there will be very little conversation. This topic is something we don’t feel comfortable talking about because it seems ungrateful and obnoxious. How do we say we are scared? How do we say we are nervous? We’re supposed to be nothing but happy.
“You must be so excited!” the other person will say.
Watch the spouse carefully. Most likely, she will say, “Yes, we are! It’s great!”
And of course, she means it. She really does.