Since I’m asking that you trust the information I provide for you, it’s only proper that I disclose my credentials and qualifications. I don’t want you to doubt my experience.
I lived 20 years as a Navy wife and, later, 10 years as an Army Mom. I raised 2 children during my husband’s military career, frequently as a single parent. No matter the circumstances, that’s how it feels. I went to school parties, band concerts, and cheer competitions alone. I watched softball, football, soccer and wrestling much of the time alone. That’s not so bad when you’re overseas. All you have to do is look at the crowd and you’ll notice that most of the audience are moms alone.
In Cuba, lizards fell on me in the shower, caterpillars blew in through my air conditioning vents and tanks drove quietly into our neighborhood while staging mock war games. I’ve been stung by a scorpion, hit with a softball, bitten by a dog and a goose, and I was reduced to tears when my children were bullied after a move to a new school where most of the kids were not ‘military brats’.
I’ve lived in beautiful foreign places and visited ancient ruins. One transfer took us to Italy during the 1991 ground war. I grew accustomed to Carabinieri, Italian special police, carrying AK-47s in the hotel where we were staying. I watched these same policemen bend down on one knee to laugh and play with my Pekingese puppy. They weren’t so tough after all. I cringed when I first realized there were snipers on the roof of the high school our kids attended. Later I grew concerned when I realized the snipers no longer troubled me. The bomb checks conducted when we drove through the gates of the installation didn’t bother me either. After a while they made me feel safe. Secure. Protected. Then we moved back to the States. No more AKs…no more snipers…no more bomb checks. No more security. Change is the only constant in a military lifestyle.
Change is so common to a military family after a while it’s kind of like your favorite slipper – very comfortable. It affects you in the strangest ways. The year my husband retired, we settled in a quiet neighborhood, bought a comfortable house. I didn’t unpack boxes in our garage for 2 years because I couldn’t grasp that we wouldn’t be getting orders, packing up and moving again in a couple of years. I didn’t hang pictures on the walls because in our early years that was frowned on in military housing. As time went by and we began to realize that we owned our home, I started decorating – badly, I might add – and my husband and I would laugh when we remembered our reluctance to nesting, to becoming civilians.
I’ve done my time. I’ve watched marriages succeed and fail, and, at times, I worried about my own. I’ve seen the pain that separation causes and the growth it can bring when people work at their relationships. Love is powerful but it won’t endure without perseverance and sacrifice. That said, if you’re not willing to roll up your sleeves and get dirty, walk away now. Don’t even bother to read the list, because you must have the heart for it. You have to give more than 50% without resenting it. Whatever life brings you, I pray God will cover you with grace, as he has me for so many years. I loved my time as a military wife but, then, I do enjoy a challenge.
Now, for the list I’ve promised…these are in no particular order – except for the first one. Just as the first commandment is the greatest, the first requirement is the greatest, also.
1 – You must love your Service Member Spouse with all your heart – No room for ‘maybe’ or ‘what if’ here. If you have any doubts, qualms, worries, concerns, fears or if you’re just playing a game, call it off. Now. I don’t care if you’ve lost 10 pounds, bought your dress, ordered the cake and sent out the invitations to 500 people. Momma and Daddy will understand and if they don’t, well, I’m sure they’ll recover in good time. It certainly won’t bring about the cost and heartache endured in a miserable marriage followed by an ugly divorce. I know there are people who say they like their ex…I believe they lie about other things as well. Your fiance should be your confidant, best friend, lover, partner, someone who knows you and loves you anyway. And that’s what’s expected of you, too. Search your heart. Pray about this. It’s one of the biggest decisions you’ll make in your life. You’re choosing the father/mother of your children. Don’t create a miserable home…at least not if there’s a question in your mind.
2 – A Military Spouse is self-reliant – The role of Military Spouse is not for whiners or crybabies. Can you change a light bulb? Do you panic when the power goes out or the dishwasher quits working? Can you handle being alone at the vet’s office when they have to put your dog to sleep? Can you care for a sick child, go to work, balance a budget and keep a smile on your face while the car is in the garage? Can you do it for 6 months to a year? Can you take the kids on vacation, go visit your parents, watch your friends with their spouses? Some of these things are minor but some are very painful. One of the hardest for me was seeing other couples together and going home alone. Eating alone. Sleeping alone.
3 – A Military Spouse is loyal – This is not up for debate. Your service member spouse (any spouse, for that matter) deserves your loyalty. He has a job to do and he/she can’t do it if they’re worried about coming home to an empty house. Or even worse, coming back to rumors and furtive glances from people who know you and are aware of your deceit. Don’t you dare betray that person. Imagine how you’d feel if someone betrayed your sibling, your son, your daughter. Trust me, only the threat of prison will keep you from inflicting bodily harm.
4 – A Military Spouse is flexible – like a rubber band my friend. A Service Member Spouse is home one moment and 3000 miles away before you can make a trip to the commissary (you might want to look that word up) and unload your groceries. The fact that you’ve got dinner for 8 cooking and the guests include your parents and your best friend from high school won’t make a tinker’s damn. Put a happy face on it, eat your dinner, accept their sympathy graciously and have a good cry after you go to bed. Nothing trumps military orders unless you have a terminal illness. I know that’s harsh but accept it now. It won’t change.
5 – A Military Spouse possesses a good sense of humor – Yep, after all we’ve covered, you have to roll with the punches, make jokes with the family, refuse to play a guilt card and laugh until tears roll down your cheeks – that last part isn’t as difficult as you might believe. Trust me, your spouse feels bad enough and you need to know that you don’t have a corner on misery. Some of these men and women have responsibilities you can’t even imagine. They make decisions you don’t want to know about. Then they live with them – God willing. So, keep your smile cemented in place and the tears in check at least til the car has pulled out of the driveway. Then you can weep to your heart’s content.
6 – A Military Spouse is reliable – Don’t go thinking you can get lazy and let things slide when you’re alone. It’s a bad habit and it’s not easy to recover from, especially as the months go by and you really don’t have a firm return date. Pay the bills on time. Have a schedule and stick to it. Even if you don’t work outside the home, it’s important that you get up every morning, shower, dress, have breakfast, see people, take care of the house, the errands, the car, the kids and the pets. Living things are always at the top of the list. Fix your hair, put on a bit of makeup, and don’t forget to apply lotion. There are few things worse than a surprise return when you’re sporting alligator hide for skin. Lead a life that’s as close to normal as you can manage it. It will keep your head on straight and help you readjust when your spouse returns.
7 – A Military Spouse is understanding – Sometimes you just won’t know what to say. And, quite frankly, in certain circumstances, words just gum up the works. You’ll feel helpless, frustrated, sometimes angry because your situation isn’t easy either. But a caress, a pat on the shoulder, a hug, smile will help build a bridge you can walk across to close the gap. It won’t be easy so don’t be too hard on yourself when you feel an internal struggle. There will be days when you want to walk away. When that happens I hope you have a priest, a minister or a friend, someone you can trust to talk to. My spouse and I wrote a lot of letters, even while he was home. Sometimes putting things on paper is good therapy. When you read through your thoughts for the second or third time, things that troubled you may not seem quite so important in the big scheme.
8 – A Military Spouse is thrifty – I never knew a military couple that could afford to throw money out the window. The pay is just not that great, so if you think this is your path to wealth and riches, think again, and run like your hair’s on fire. There are many perks that your spouse works darned hard for. Civilians frequently see your healthcare, military discounts, and education benefits as freebies from the government, paid for by their tax dollars. Well, tax dollars do pay for defense. It’s a not-for-profit gig. Unless you’re a defense contractor, but that’s another blog. So, give anyone who’s inclined to complain the address of the nearest local recruiter. He/she should be prepared to get a new look, learn some new skills and stand in line at D-Fac (that’s dining facility for you civilian types). The benefits are there for a cost.
9 – A Military Spouse is rational – Keep a good, level head on your shoulders. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t overreact. Be willing to listen before you growl. Never fight in front of your kids, your neighbors, or his chain of command. Don’t do it. It makes you look bad and it makes him look worse. A military family is a reflection of the service member. Doesn’t matter whether it’s fair or not, and people may even deny it but I will not lie to you about these things. When our kids were teenagers, an unspoken rule in our house was ‘don’t do anything that will hurt Dad’s career’. And they never did. I watched people struggle to control their teens, cry, plead, scream at them. I felt so bad for them, but frankly I didn’t understand it. These kids were running the show. How could that be? A friend told me once that her daughter was constantly calling her at 2 or 3 in the morning to come pick her up from a friend’s house. I asked why she was allowing her out so late and she confided that the girl was climbing out her bedroom window and meeting her friends. I was stunned. After I regained my ability to speak, I said ‘why don’t you nail her window shut from the outside?’. My friend was horrified. She couldn’t possibly treat her daughter that way. I said, ‘well, I guess you’ll keep picking her up in the wee hours of the morning’. Obviously we had different views on child rearing. Our rules were simple. Don’t lie, cheat, steal, misbehave in school or show disrespect. We talked about our expectations and listened when the kids thought we were being unfair. But know this – I was not a perfect parent. When I look at the past in my rear view mirror, there are moments when I cringe. I know if my daughter – or son – had climbed out the window in the dead of night I would not have been able to keep her/him safe. That was my always my bottom line…and they knew I could use a hammer and nails, if necessary.
10 – A Military Spouse is able and willing to create her (or his) own happiness – I can’t tell you of the frustration I feel when I hear a young woman say ‘he makes me so happy.’ I just want to scream. Ladies, he doesn’t have that ability, or at least, he shouldn’t have. You, and you alone, are responsible for creating your happiness. That’s not your spouse’s role. He can enhance your happiness. He can bring you great joy and you may complement each other very well. You know, just for the sake of conversation, let’s agree that your spouse ‘makes you happy’. If that’s the case, do you agree that it follows logically this person could also ‘make you unhappy’? That’s too much power to give up – even to your spouse. It’s not even fair to have that expectation. The next thing I know, you’ll be saying ‘If he loves me he’ll know how I feel, what to say, what I need’. Fill in the blank there. This is probably the dumbest expression I’ve ever heard come out of a woman’s mouth. Believe me when I tell you, your beloved is not telepathic. I don’t know what other powers he (or she) is blessed with but telepathy ain’t one of ’em. Be an adult and be responsible for your own happiness. Be honest with yourself and don’t expect so much from a mere man – or woman.
As I complete this post and review it for launch, I must apologize to male Military Spouses, their female Military Service Member wives, and to the male gender as a group. As I put my list together, many times I failed to include those Military Spouses who are men. I’m so very sorry. I promise to correct this error as soon as possible. In my experience, Military Husbands have a much more difficult time with a military lifestyle than do Military Wives. They are frequently isolated at gatherings while the service member is away and because these male spouses are still fairly rare, it’s difficult for them to build a supportive network of male friends. It will change – as I’ve said countless times, change is something the military offers in abundance.
I’ll leave you with one last pearl because it’s what God directs me to do. Find a church home. Raise your kids in church. If nothing else, you can attend chapel on the installation. As your family grows, the deployments stack up and your to-do list becomes a wish list, God will provide you with a church family you can depend upon. Pray. Walk and talk with God, he’s listening. Talk openly with your family about your own spiritual growth and struggles with faith – we all have them. Faith is a mystery. God’s peace be with you.