I have been the wife of a soldier for fourteen years and for almost four of them, my husband Kirby and I have been separated due to deployments, schools and training. I have always joked about our separations being the only thing that has kept us together, but in truth they have all been difficult to get through. I had to learn the hard way how to handle times of separation while staying sane and along the way I made every rookie mistake in the book. The following are some of the things I’ve learned.
This is the biggie and, with the exception of having affairs, the most often mentioned reason for military marriages breaking up during or after deployment. On Kirby’s first deployment with the National Guard I had two toddlers and an elementary school aged child at home and I was ill-prepared to handle being both mother and father to them. My favorite way of handling my depression and low points was to hit the mall. I spent that year on an extended shopping spree and while I didn’t take us all the way to financial ruin, I had some pretty hefty explaining to do upon his return about why all of the credit cards were maxed out.
When you are the one handling things on the home front, being fiscally responsible is vital. Before your soldier leaves sit down together and create a budget and spending plan, if you don’t already have one in place. Also discuss how much of your spouse’s pay will be going into savings; in our hometown, manufacturing is the biggest industry and a lot of the Guardsmen in the company were making more money being deployed than they were in their civilian jobs. This was a great opportunity for many to increase their savings; however, what really happened was the increased pay created problems for some of the families, and there were five divorces in the company that I know of as a result of financial mismanagement during the deployment.
If you do start to soothe yourself by shopping your troubles away, first and foremost, be honest with your soldier. Don’t wait until they get home (like I did!) and see the maxed out credit cards (at the least) or a home in foreclosure (at the worst). Discuss your depression with a counselor or pastor, friend or family member. There are better ways to handle your depression during deployments and those ways won’t create a burden of stress on your soldier at a time when he needs to be focused on mission readiness.
Throwing the rules out the window
It is really easy to let certain things slide when your soldier is on deployment and some things are totally harmless. Maybe you are a bit of a slob while your spouse is a neatnik; you might decide to let the magazines stack up on the floor instead of going in the basket and you may choose to do laundry once a week instead of every day. Those changes are harmless and not likely to cause anyone in the household long-lasting ill effects. But total anarchy is a different story and the adjustment period upon your soldier’s return will be much bigger.
We always had a strict bedtime for all three of our kids. I was a stay-at-home mom (which I still maintain is the toughest job on the planet!) and after 8 pm was “hubby and I” time. But with hubby away, it was much easier to give in to those big sad eyes, asking to stay up “just five more minutes, please?” And then, next thing you know, five more minutes has turned in to two hours. This can seem like a good idea at the time; those long evenings can get lonely and it’s nice to have some human companionship. But as time goes on, you’re giving in to more and more and those changes are hard to undo when Daddy or Mommy come home.
Try to maintain consistency in the rules with your soldier gone. Keeping things like curfews, bedtimes, family dinners at the table and homework right after school will give your kids much needed consistency and routine. There will also be no scrambling to get everyone back on the same page before the return of your soldier.
Forgetting to take care of yourself
This was one of the hardest things for me during past deployments. With so many additional responsibilities to handle alone and the sometimes overwhelming feelings of loneliness, it can be easy to forget how important it is to take good care of yourself when your soldier is gone. Getting the proper amount of sleep, eating right and exercising and taking time to be alone to rest and recharge your battery will keep you feeling good during a tough time.
I gained 20 pounds during the first deployment and it took me almost a year after Kirby’s return home to take it off again. This was due in part to my letting my exercise routine go (I’ve always been one of those “I’d rather workout and eat what I want” kind of people!) and also because I was so down that I was eating my emotions in the form of cookies and ice cream. I’ve since learned that staying on track with your exercise and eating plan is vital to staying emotionally healthy as well. All those endorphins that are released during a workout really do make you feel good and working up a good sweat is the best stress reliever in the world. Exercise is also the best sleeping pill in the world and you won’t have any trouble getting a good nights’ sleep.
Taking time for yourself can be tough, especially with little kids and often no family around. I had an arrangement with some friends who were also moms; every week we each took a day where one of us had all of the kids and the other two got three hours alone. Sometimes I used that time to catch up on housework or bill paying but most of the time I went to the park with a good book or on rainy days, the library. Sometimes I just went home and took a much needed nap. After having a few hours of “me” time, I was more than ready to pick up the kids with my battery recharged and ready to take on whatever curve balls life threw at me.
There are plenty of ways to mess up when your spouse is on deployment. Luckily I never strayed into the really serious ones, like extra-marital affairs (though sadly, that’s not at all uncommon) but other than that, I really did everything possible wrong during that first deployment. I’ve always looked at life as one big learning experience and I learned from those mistakes. Subsequent deployments have still been difficult, as missing your best friend, lover and the father of your kids is never easy. But I have learned how to be a better wife and mom during those separations and as a result, our family is stronger than ever today. Keeping the home fires burning is one of the most difficult jobs we military spouses face, but the pride that we have in our soldiers makes doing the right thing that much easier.