Editor’s Note: As part of the Center for Deployment Psychology’s ongoing mission to provide high-quality education on military- and deployment-related psychology, we are proud to present our latest “Guest Perspective.” Intermittently, we will be presenting blogs by esteemed guests and subject matter experts from outside the CDP. This allows us to offer more insight and opinions on a variety of topics of interest to behavioral health providers.
As these blog entries are written by outside authors, one important disclaimer: all of the opinions and ideas expressed in them are strictly those of the author alone and should not be taken as those of the CDP, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), or the Department of Defense (DoD).
That being said, we’re very happy to offer a platform where we can feature these individuals and the information they have to share. We’d like to make this an ongoing dialogue. If you have questions, remarks, or would like more information on a topic, please feel free to leave comments below or on our Facebook page, and we’ll pass them along to the author.
Many years ago, I just had one name and one role. I was Katie. That’s who I was, and that was all. Throughout this journey of life, I have adopted and adapted to other names and other roles. I have been Airman, Miss, and teacher. About ten years ago, I became wife. That was a major role change on its own, but I added “military wife” to it as well. Having been a military member myself, the military lifestyle wasn’t so hard to adapt to until I added my next name, Mama.
Being a military spouse and mom has been my most challenging role. Let me begin by saying that the military has provided a very good life for my husband, me, and my kids. We have been well taken care of, made amazing friends who became family, and always known the next paycheck was coming. We truly have been blessed.
That being said, the military life has provided some very unique challenges as well. I often say I am a married, single mother. Because of my husband’s duty assignment, he has been deployed about nine months out of every year since my son was born six years ago. Every military spouse becomes very familiar with the emotional cycle of deployment. There is the anticipation of the deployment, the actual time away, the anticipation of the end of the deployment, and finally the reintegration home.
For me, the most challenging two stages are three specific times during the actual time away and the reintegration. The time he is away is when I feel like a married, single mother. I make all the decisions and keep our home running smoothly, but have to keep in mind my husband’s desires as well. What I do when he is gone, affects him as well.
Frequently, I am the only one who is there to make breakfast, pack lunches, do homework, entertain, keep up with the housework, read stories, and tuck kiddos in to bed. I wipe the tears and patch the boo-boos. I am also usually the only one who gets to have the tea parties, take day trips to the beach, read nightly books, and get to see the kids grow into their own personalities.
Day three, week three, and month three always seem the hardest. On day three, the kids realize that Daddy is gone and there are lots of tears and talks. Around here, on day three, we try to keep very busy. We do something fun, schedule a play date, have dinner with friends, and build in extra time for snuggles at night. The best things about day three are that it is soon over and kids are pretty resilient. Usually by the next day, they have recovered and every day gets better as they settle into routines. We Skype with Daddy when we can, talk about him every day, and keep him in our prayers each night. We normally have a paper chain with each link being a day of the deployment. In the evenings, we tear off a link and know we are one day closer to Daddy’s return. (Sometimes, after the kids have gone to bed, the chain gets a few links added as the return date gets extended.)
Week three I am almost in the swing of things, but not quite used to doing it all. Week three is my challenge because I haven’t settled into the routine yet and am not quite used to being 100% in charge again. This week really is my week to just push through. The kids are a little squirrelly, and I am a little shorter-tempered. I guess the feelings during this week are a little hard to describe, but I am always really happy to see the end of week three.
By month three, I am totally in the rhythm of deployment. Kids are clean, fed, and happy. By this time, I am used to doing it all, but I am starting to get tired. I want a break. I want to cry. And there are days that I just want to run away. Month three is always the month when I find myself reaching out to other military wives who really get it and have been there. This month is where I have really come to realize that the military wives I am friends with have actually become my sisters. These women take my kids for a day, take me out of my house, or just sit on the porch and drink coffee with me, often sitting silent because they get it, they know what I am feeling, they don’t need to ask.
The interesting thing I have noticed over the course of this ride is that other wives tend to be in the same emotional place at the same times during their own husbands’ deployments. You begin to recognize where another wife is in terms of the deployment. I make sure to reach out to my friends when their husbands are away on the same terrible “threes” that I struggle with. As wives, we make it work. We find connections and support. Without those we won’t make it through. With connections and support from other people who get it, we can thrive even as married, single mothers.
The second phase that poses the greatest challenges is the reintegration. This is when my husband comes home and we have to figure out how to be a two-parent household again, and I have to relinquish some of the daily control. I think I could talk about the challenges of this transition for another 1000 words, but I’ll try to keep it shorter than that.
Think back to the time you first moved in with someone you loved. It was so exciting! You had someone to talk to in the morning. You got to lie down next to someone at night. There was someone there to help with the chores and the daily stuff. It was perfect! And then the newness wore off. After a little while you realize you are sharing your space, they have different ways of doing things then you are used to, your “right” way may not be their “right” way. You have to figure out what the new normal is. You find the way you do things together, somehow merging bits of each of you, hopefully without losing either one completely. Now that you have that in your mind, imagine doing it every nine months. That’s what the reintegration is like.
While my husband is gone, I have all the responsibility, I get to make the rules, and it’s all my way. Then my husband comes home and we all have to get re-used to each other. There are a lot of growing pains all around. My kids have to get used to Daddy’s way and he has to re-learn where they are now, what they are interested in, what they can do, and what they can’t. He has to find a way to meet them where they are now, and it isn’t always where they were when he left.
As for us, well, we have to date each other again, and really that isn’t so bad. I have to learn to let go; that’s a much bigger challenge. I have to let him make decisions, respond to the kids’ needs, and take over some tasks. I have to keep myself from stepping in and taking over. I have to let him be a parent and a husband.
The only things I have found that helped ease this transition is a lot of prayer, patience, and a survival note that I make for my husband when he gets close to coming home. The survival note includes the kids’ schedules and things they say that he might not understand (kidisms). For example, my son used to call his favorite show, The Cat in the Hat Knows A lot About That, “Go-Go”; or my daughter calls her favorite blankets “blue pop ups and lollipops”. My husband would never have figured those ones out without the note. I also make sure he knows what channels the cartoons are on, what their favorite outfits are, or what they like to eat or don’t eat at all. These survival tips help to give him a starting point so that it’s not quite like jumping into a cold lake headfirst.
Once the initial reintegration is over, we settle in like a regular family and enjoy the ride; at least for the next three months. Then we get to do it all again.