Of all the nuances of military life – frequent relocations, long overnight work hours, always changing schedules, etc. – the thing that can take the biggest toll on a military family’s life is the separation that comes with a long deployment or Temporary Duty (TDY).
With a such a huge military presence in Colorado Springs, I know a good number of you know what I’m talking about. Whether it’s for two weeks or 12 months, the relocation of a service member (who also happens to be the other parent and partner in our homes) is never easy. At best we only learn to manage the difficulties such a separation presents, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who has mastered it.
What I’ve found in our military journey is that there is something much more difficult than the deployment itself. Can you even imagine that? It’s true.
And this thing is talked about so little, even in military circles, that it’s no wonder it’s harder than it seems.
I’m talking, of course, about reintegration.
If the wedding day is just the beginning of a marriage, with all of its planning and grandeur and pictures and smiles, you can think of a service member’s homecoming in the same way. Lots of us meet our loved one at the airport with balloons and clever signage. We have pictures taken of first kisses and the kids wrapping their arms around a uniformed neck. It’s applause-worthy and sentimental for so many.
But that’s just day one.
Just like the hard work for a new marriage comes after the wedding and honeymoon phase, reintegration after homecoming is like an entirely new honeymoon phase, one that doesn’t last nearly as long (especially with kids), and can leave you exhausted, frustrated, and feeling rather inept at this whole marriage and family thing.
To clue you in on what I mean, here are some things we’ve learned during this particular season of reintegration after a deployment.
- People change. Whether it’s been six months or eighteen months, time has passed since the last time this family was a family together. Everyone is different now. These are not the same kids. I am not the same woman. He is not the same man. We have all grown into ourselves just a little bit more and I wouldn’t trade these changes for the world. They mean that we kept living, kept growing, and kept striving to be better; even as we were going through the toughest separation as a family so far. We didn’t clam up and let the time go by in a cocoon of self-pity and despair, and I’m so proud of us. But part of letting life go on and letting ourselves change means that…
- Routines change. In the time that my husband was deployed, I quit my job to stay home with the kids. Our routines changed. Right before he came home, I went back to school. Our routines changed. Enter previously deployed husband. Our routines changed again. Soon, he will go back to work. Our routines will change once more. We are currently in this space of trying to manage the influx of change to our routines, and making room for everyone where not everyone has needed room for the last six months.
- Roles Change. When it comes to raising our kids, my husband is the disciplinarian. I’m the good cop. With him gone, that bad cop role fell on me, too. Balancing the disciplining with nurturing self was so difficult for me that I didn’t feel like I got the hang of it until the very end of the deployment. Then, Hubby came home and took over his role again. This not only confused the kids, but left me feeling pretty silly. I’d been doing it all wrong.
- Relationships Change. But also they don’t. Expectations are important here. You may think that their coming home will be the start of a whole new fairy tale, but in reality, all of the issues you two had before they left are still there, just waiting to resurface. Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to grow together in spite of the distance, but not every couple is so lucky. All of these changes can cause tension and grief in any relationship. So, what’s a couple to do?
I’ll tell you what we did, and hope like crazy that it helps you, too.
- Counseling. Remember all those changes? Most of us don’t just know how to overcome and cope with them instinctively. Sometimes, it takes professional help. If you are fortunate enough to know older couples who have gone through this before and are willing to sit and chat with you, seeking their advice could be more comfortable, and less expensive. For those who don’t have such a couple in their lives, or for those who would feel more at ease talking to a professional, Military OneSource is an excellent resource that will connect you with a licensed counselor for short -term (12 sessions) non-medical counseling for a number of reasons including, but not limited to, marital counseling surrounding the issues of a deployment.
- Communication. This is probably the most obvious and yet most difficult to put into practice. When something is bothering me about the way my husband does a thing that I’ve done differently (and just fine without him, I might add) for the past six months, the last thing I want to do is sit down and have a respectful conversation about gut reactions and how I can better handle mine to reduce the conflict between us in that moment. I’d much rather punch him. Or you know, roll my eyes and huff and puff around the house for the rest of the day. But communication is better. Trust me.
- Cabin Time. After my husband returned from his deployment, we made it a point to get away, just the two of us, for a weekend. We stayed in a cute little cabin just outside of Cripple Creek. We had limited cell service and lots of board games and wine. And each other. Luckily, that was all we needed to really reconnect. Now that we’re back home, we make it a point as often a possible (when the kids are asleep or at least playing together in another room), to put our phones down and play a board game or open some wine and talk about the future. We remember the cabin and we remember how important we are to each other.
The best advice I have for any mom in this stage is to give and allow yourself to receive lots of grace. Communication is key to understanding each other, to helping each other get back in the groove, and to start feeling like the “honeymooners” you really are. We are still in the thick of it, as they say, and I certainly do not have all the answers though.