We’re six months into a seven and a half month deployment. We’ve just recently hit this wonderful stride where everything is going smoothly. Of course, I feel like sharing that fact is going to reign down hell upon my household and Murphy’s Law will once again kick into full force, but I’m going to go ahead and jinx myself, because it’s true. Things are finally going smoothly. We’re not in the midst of any crises. The kids are relatively happy and successful at school. My work is going well. When I talk to DH, things are going smoothly for him. We’re doing well.
Don’t take that attitude as complacency, though. It’s a necessary trait for a MilSpouse to always be on guard and expecting the next piece of crap to hit the fan. That’s just the way it works during deployments or TDYs. When our Service Member is gone, the kids are going to get sick, the washing machine is going to break, the car is going to go on the fritz. But for now, we’re in the “coasting” stage and everything is going well.
During deployments, our crises seem to go in cycles. In my house, we’ve been on a rapid deployment cycle for the last 3 years. DH was deploying for two months, home for two months, gone for another two months. Most recently, though, he’s been on a long trip, and it’s been interesting to watch the way the cycles go the same even on this long trip. The difference is that with this deployment, each stage lasts longer. This is how we do it in my house.
This is the day he comes home and tells us he has orders coming down. We spend about 3 days bemoaning the fact that he’s facing another deployment. We tell the kids that they need to soak up as much time with their dad as possible and we tentatively plan the preparations for him to go.
The Freak Out
This is about a month before DH leaves. We start making To Do lists for him to accomplish before he leaves and realize that there’s no way he can get it all done. We work together to get everything done we can but about 2 days before he actually leaves, we discard the whole thing and play board games with the kids in every spare moment we have left.
This is about two weeks before DH leaves. I start getting distant. We start bickering over every little thing. I’ve heard from dozens of other spouses that they go through the exact same thing, and I’m convinced it’s a psychological defense mechanism. Faced with the imminent separation, spouses start getting easily annoyed with each other because it makes it easier to justify that the deployment is a good thing and that we can actually use time apart from each other. For me, this phase is basically a drawn out PMS session. I feel bad for DH having to go through it with me. The worst part is that I know what’s going on, but I still haven’t been able to stop it! It’s just become part of our routine.
This always begins in my house about 48 hours before his orders begin. We make grand plans for a dinner out, and never follow through. Both of us are miserable. It rubs off on the kids. We all try so hard to enjoy the time we’re spending together, but there’s that nagging sense in the back of our minds that the separation is imminent. The kids have trouble falling asleep at night because they know it’s the last couple nights of Daddy being there. DH and I make plans to have great sex to hold us over during the trip (sorry, TMI). It never happens. We always spend the last couple nights in total melt-down mode. DH always feels like he didn’t spend enough of his last moments with the kids. He ALWAYS puts of packing until the night before and we stay up till 0 dark thirty making sure he has all the gear he needs. We cry together. We share in the sorrow of the family moments we know we’ll lose during the trip.
This is the moment my kids and I are sitting in the car after all the “goodbyes” are said. We’ve either watched DH walk away or we’ve walked out of the airport without him. I know that the three of us look shell-shocked. There’s actually a calm that comes over me because the worst part of a deployment for me is saying goodbye.
This happens when every time, I have a “pull up your boot straps” moment where I accept the fact that we’re going it alone without him for whatever amount of time he’ll be gone. I look at my kids, tell them we have to be “okay” because we don’t have a choice. I tell them it’s my house my rules now. The three of us bond over the fact that we’re now missing the heart of our family, but we’re going to press on anyway.
This is inevitable. Every time DH is gone, our little family has faced some sort of hardship. We’ve had to deal with emergency surgery, mouse infestation, backed up plumbing pipes, dying pets, broken cars, interpersonal conflict, church crises, death of family members, cancer scares, minor house fires … and on and on the list goes. We don’t have a choice. I have to maneuver my way through the tough times even though DH isn’t here to bail me out or hold my hand. If I don’t handle/manage it, the kids are left in chaos. These are the types of things through which we are forced to just tread water. Sometimes, it’s easier than others. Sometimes, I feel like it’s never going to get better. But it’s amazing how resilient you can be when you’re facing trial by fire.
This is the stage we’re currently in. We’ve gotten into the “flow” of things. We have consistency and a routine. The kids are used to following my rules vs. DH’s style of running the household. We talk frequently about how much we miss DH, but the three of us all feel comfortable with where we are right now. It isn’t as though I like going it alone while he’s gone, but when we’re in this stage I don’t feel as though we desperately need him to come home or we’re all going to kill each other. I’m constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop and something terrible to happen, but I’m also enjoying the ease at which we’re maintaining for now.
This always hits me about a month before DH is supposed to return home. The kids figure out that it’s getting closer but we’re not quite counting down the days. DH and I start to make plans for when he’s back. We begin building lists of projects he needs to complete when he’s home. We typically plan some type of family trip to celebrate his homecoming. We’re mentally trying to stay in the Perseverance stage, but we’re starting to get excited over the fact that this whole thing is almost over!
The Freak Out II
This happens anywhere from 3-6 weeks before he gets home. In addition to the positive anticipation, I typically go through a bit of anxiety over the fact that he’s coming home. He’s my husband, and I love him dearly, and I want him to come home. But I know that having him home and putting the family back together takes work and willingness to adjust and it comes with another set of problems. This recent deployment has allowed me a little window into what other families go through with long deployments. DH and I haven’t really talked much in the last six months. We speak over FaceTime, and we “see” each other daily on the iPad. But we don’t really talk. It’s very difficult to have a real conversation even with today’s technology. The wireless in his room is always going out and his schedule is such that he can only speak during the hours that the kids are awake, so they’re always crawling all over me and interrupting when we’re trying to speak to each other. So it leaves a void in our relationship. Our closeness suffers when he’s gone. It’s obvious that something like this would happen when you’re 7,000 miles and several time zones apart. We’re living completely different lives. I absolutely FREAK OUT over the fact that I know my world is going to be turned upside down again. I am thrilled that he’s coming home because I want to live my life with this man I married, but the reintegration period comes with its own set of issues and can easily cause trauma on a family unit if it’s not carefully managed.
For me, this is usually about a week before I expect DH to return home. Deployments over the last 5 years have come with return dates that are +/- 2 weeks. So I never truly know when he’s going to return. He’s been known to show up on the air strip and call me from the transport bus when I wasn’t expecting him for another 2 weeks. But I’ve always done my best to prepare everything for his return. The dynamics of our relationship are such that he’s more of a neat freak than I am. When he leaves, I allow more disarray in the house than I demand of myself when he’s gone. So, the laundry is in piles and the dusting hasn’t been done for weeks and the kitchen cabinets are pouring out because of disorganization. I try really hard to fix all that before he gets home. It’s almost like when you’re just dating someone and want to make a good impression. This man is stuck to me no matter what cause we’re married, but even after 11 years of marriage, I still attempt to impress him with my skills (housekeeping, child rearing, cooking, etc.) So, the kids and I spend the last weekends before he’s supposed to get home cleaning the house from top to bottom. Hilariously enough, we both go through funny little grooming rituals too. I know he always cuts his hair right before he leaves. He tries to look good for when he lands, but after 36+ hours flying and several time changes and lack of sleep he always looks disheveled (don’t tell him I said that, though). I go through my own preening too. I try to plan for what outfit I’m going to wear when I pick him up and I make sure I do all my working out so he comes home to a HOTT wife. Of course, after several months in the desert being forced to be a sex camel, I’m pretty sure he’d be happy if I showed up at the airport in a paper bag. But I do these silly rituals for myself, really.
This is the moment I see him walk off that plane or transport bus. We ride this high for all it’s worth. We’ve experienced this in surprise when we didn’t expect him home yet. We’ve had to postpone this when flights were delayed or he didn’t make it home when he was supposed to. The kids are SO excited to have their dad back. We go through the rituals of the gifts he gives to the kids when he gets home. We all hang off of him and cling to him as though he’s going to float away if we don’t hold him to the ground. I’m constantly taking pictures of him with the kids soaking up the fact that my family is back together. This stage never lasts as long as we want it to.
This almost always happens about 48 hours after DH gets home. The poor guy has been traveling across international time zones and hasn’t slept in days and has been pushing through desperate to get these moments where his family is back together. Truth is, though, that he’s not used to being around kids and hasn’t had physical contact with anyone in the last several weeks or months. He can become easily overwhelmed with our excitement. My kids are FAR from quiet individuals. DH wants so badly to run through the house and play and wrestle and soak up his family, but it’s a more difficult transition than people in the civilian life understand. We’ve all been living very separate and different lives. The three of us don’t understand what he’s been through and he doesn’t understand the struggles that we’ve had as our little unit. It’s easy for us to treat him like an outsider in his own family, and that just can’t be easy. He’s told me before that he can sometimes feel like he doesn’t have a place in the family or that we are just fine without him. Nothing is further from the truth. We want him here SO desperately, but we have learned how to cope with him being gone. It’s tough to make it through this period of discomfort and readjustment to being a full family again.
This is when we create our new normal. It’s going to somewhat resemble what our family picture looked like before DH deployed, but there will be subtle differences. Relationships have changed some. Kids have grown up some. Circumstances have changed all of us. For some families, this new reality will come with PTSD and trauma. Luckily for us, we haven’t had to face that personally. But it’s tough on military families to go through the acceptance of the new reality. All too often as couples we try to go back to exactly what we looked like before the deployment happened. We cling to that. But that’s unattainable. We can’t expect things to be exactly the same as they were before. Those of us who stayed at home had to face and overcome challenges as a result of our family being disjointed. Our service member had to deal with being away from his/her family and missing the mundane, every day events and the big important circumstances. It’s sometimes hard to accept the new reality. But the truth is that military families really need to accept it quickly so they can enjoy the time they do have together before the next deployment cycle starts all over again.
So, this is what we look like. Do you find that your experiences at all resemble these stages? What’s the hardest stage for you?
About the Author
Joy Draper has been an Air Force wife for the last seven years. She serves as a Key Spouse with her squadron and has been actively involved in the development of the Spouses Resilience Program at Offutt AFB. She has been married eleven years and has a ten year old daughter and five year old son.
Joy’s family has been through nine deployments ranging from 60-220 days. She is actively involved with the Military Spouse Advocacy Network as the Deployment & Reintegration Coordinator. She blogs about parenting, deployment and reintegration issues, and the reality of what life is as an Air Force family. You can check her blog out at throughitallandthensome.blogspot.com or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.