When we got married, we kissed under a sword arch. My husband was dressed in his freshly pressed dress whites, and he looked spectacular. We danced for hours.
Everything in the beginning is hidden under a facade of perfectly pressed uniforms, gallant tradition, floor-length ball gowns and romantic overtures. That’s all I saw. I knew he’d deploy. I expected the traveling and the exhaustion. But now, seven years later, I’ve changed. I look at things differently now. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. We are always at our limit. One of my close military wife friends said this to me, and I have never forgotten it. Just because we appear to have it together during tough duty stations (see number No. 7 below), laughing things off and trying to make the best of everything, we are always at our limit. We have to look like we have it together. There are times we are raising our kids alone, and we cannot, even if we wanted to, get ahold of our husbands—for weeks. So we have to have an answer for everything, or at least know where to find one, and that amount of stress is crushing.
2. Leave us alone. Don’t read too much into this one. We are happy to help out a friend, do someone a favor and generally be a good person, of course. But, especially during deployment and particularly difficult duty stations for our spouses, we cannot do too much outside of continuing to do what we’re already doing. And (see No. 1) even though it looks like we’re doing great (and sometimes we are—see No. 4), sometimes we’re just barely holding on. Don’t ask us to make elaborate plans, take elaborate trips or do something that you know is going to create stress. Every spouse has a few things that cause stress for her. Don’t add to the issues by asking her to do what you already know she doesn’t want to. Just leave her alone. If we can attend events or go on vacation with you, we will let you know. It’s not about you. It’s not.
3. We are tired. So tired. We are always getting up in the middle of the night, always taking the dog out, always getting up with the kids, changing every diaper, washing every dish, taking out every trash bag, and making every meal tired. It’s exhausting. Single parents, man, you are amazing. Amazing.
4. To deal with Nos. 1,2 and 3, we have a system. This goes back to No 1. In order to feel in control, we make a system. This system is based on preventive maintenance. It keeps us sane, it holds things together, and it makes us happy and keeps our kids on the right track. So, we don’t often change our system around. It’s a matter of keeping things status quo, so we can handle anything unpredictable (and there’s always a lot of that). When we do deviate from the system, there’s always a huge fallout. And who has to pick up those pieces? Right.
Obviously, we have fun and enjoy our children. In fact, they are often the best distraction from tough duty stations. Children are amazing—funny, silly, and so resilient. Love the kids. Need the system.
5. We have to handle the kids’ sadness. Here’s another curveball for Mom. Everything’s going great, the system is working well, and then, one of your children remembers he hasn’t seen his dad in two weeks. Or a month. Or three. And he cries. Or he acts out. And we have no idea what to say, because we have no idea when he is returning. We try various cute tricks: every day a Hershey’s Kiss from daddy, a calendar or a countdown necklace. But it’s all just a sad reminder that someone is missing.
6. We need friends. Not just “Hey, how are you?” friends who ask in passing and never care for the answer, but true, sweet friends who will look us in the eye and say, “Really, how are you?” and care about the answer. We don’t necessarily need anything but someone to acknowledge how hard this life can be, and that sometimes, we just need to talk. Yes, we knew what we signed up for when we got married. But it’s still hard.
7. Our husbands miss a lot. Even when they are “home.” That’s another joke. “Home” can mean not on deployment, but constantly traveling. Funny, isn’t it? Home can mean not traveling but working 14-hour days. So we moms take kids to school concerts, sports games and put them to bed at night. Just because our husbands aren’t deployed doesn’t mean they are available, which brings me back to No. 4.
8. The military “controls” more than you think. Although we have some say over where we live, we don’t have too much. We move every two or three years, and we don’t always get our first choice. We plan to have our children around the time our husbands will actually be home and available. (And sometimes that doesn’t work either!) We plan family vacations and weddings around these schedules as well, and often, they get canceled or postponed. I know more than one military couple that eloped after their elaborate wedding was canceled due to a last-minute trip.
9. Our marriages struggle. The distance, the stress, the overworked and exhausted husbands, the PTSD, or worse, the missed opportunities for husband/wife time all take a toll. Eight years ago, before I moved across the country to be with my then-boyfriend/now-husband, a coworker warned me. She said she was married to a man in the military, and they got divorced because, ultimately, the stress and distance was too much for her and her husband to handle. There’s not a lot of time to work on or even enjoy the marriage. Fortunately, the military encourages a few incredibly romantic evenings such as balls and homecomings where you can touch that magic, but they are not representative of our actual life.
10. Yes, it’s way harder than we thought, but most of us wouldn’t give it up. There are some things that are really freaking cool. Have you ever watched a ship pull in from deployment, or watched a change of command ceremony? A military wedding? Never a dry eye.
And our kids? They’re resilient, resourceful, smart, kind, helpful and persistent.
I wonder where they learned that.