When I fell for him in college — his feet were bare, he had a beard and a crazy mop of hair – I never dreamed he’d become a doctor, much less a doctor in the Army. So when he deployed for the first time last October, only months after finishing residency, I had a little trouble wrapping my head around it. We had just survived seven long years of training — it was time for him to start his job as a doctor at our first official duty station. It didn’t really occur to me he’d also have to start his job as an Army Captain in an official capacity.
Nervous didn’t cover it. I was in shock.
Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you jumped into the life of the military wife headfirst and could process your spouse’s deployment in a somewhat peaceful fashion. But if you find yourself tiptoeing toward the waters of your first deployment like a nervous (tantrumming?) toddler, I have a few tips to help you prepare for the plunge.
Go to Therapy.
It’s my firm belief that everyone can benefit from dedicated time with a professional listener, and for military spouses it should be a no-brainer. My therapist was there when I needed someone to hear me say, “I knew he was in the Army but … did you know he’s actually in the ARMY? Like, deployable? Like he could be deployed this year?” She was there to listen with compassion when I told her we had just learned he was leaving in six weeks, and I didn’t know how I’d survive with our two kids in a new environment. She was there to remind me that a deployment is by no means a death sentence, that those deployed are more likely to return home safely than not. Not only that, she heard me out when I needed to vent about the daily struggles of being human and my fear that I was completely failing my children. When you find the right one, a therapist can be a lifeline.
Get a Babysitter.
Or Mommy’s helper. Or a nanny. Or an au pair. Or whatever works for your family and your budget. Find someone to help you out, and take full advantage of the time. Want to stroll the aisles of Target with a latte and your favorite podcast instead of wrestling your three kids into the cart? Want to meet a friend after dark for an adult beverage? Want to crawl back under the covers for an hour? Do it. Leave your guilt at the door. When my husband deployed, we had two kids two and under, and I thought I was going to lose my mind. Thankfully we found an angel in our part-time nanny who came twice a week to let me get out of the house. She helped provide consistency and routine and became an important fixture in our boys’ lives. To be completely honest, I began thinking of this small aspect of deployment as a blessing — after two years on full-time mommy duty, I finally had a break.
Find a Moms’ Group.
For you extroverts out there, this may seem like a given, but for me, the idea of meeting up with other women to make small talk wasn’t much better than staying home with Daniel Tiger on repeat. But we had just PCSed across the Pacific, and I knew from experience that I needed to do the work required to make acquaintances with other moms as soon as I could. I found other transplants, many military, who knew exactly what I meant when I said I didn’t understand why I felt so sad and frustrated when we had just moved to Hawaii, also known as paradise on earth. With all the moving I’ve done in my lifetime, my long-distance friendships are beloved and necessary — but what I learned in the moms’ groups I frequented this year was that friends who are in a similar stage of life as well as in the same physical location can offer understanding and empathy in a way that far-flung friends cannot, try as they may. What began as a patchwork group of women sitting around a MOPS table eating fruit and monkey bread became a local tribe I call on for advice and support. We’ve laughed and mourned and celebrated and prayed together. They encouraged me to try high-intensity interval training workouts, and I encouraged them to try my favorite mascara. We’ve become friends. (Pro Tip: Moms’ groups often provide childcare, which as we have discussed, is a beautiful, beautiful thing.)
Find Something Just For You.
The part-time nanny gig not only allowed me the chance to grocery shop and go to therapy/the doctor/the hair salon on my own, it also allowed me the time and space to remember what’s most important to me as a woman – not just a wife or mother. Runs by the water. Mornings in the hot yoga studio. Hours to write down whatever was on my mind. Time to catch up with friends across the globe. A brand new business that not only sparked my creativity but helped me feel more confident. The time was precious and it reminded me of the woman I once was and still am. Time for yourself can be hard to come by as a mom, but when you feel the stress or loneliness start to creep up on you in his absence, remember that self care is crucial. Make it a priority. If you’re seeing a therapist, she’ll remind you.
Let Go of the Shoulds.
Expectations, man. They can get us into so much trouble. And I’m not just talking about expecting our husbands to be home more often than they can be. I’m also talking about letting go of your expectations of what a deployment “should” look like. For example: Somewhere in my squirrel brain I decided I was going to read a novel a week and lose 20 pounds and apply to grad school and revamp my blog and get up at 5 a.m. every day . . . guess which one of those things actually happened? None of them. I could have picked one, sure, and done it well. But I tried to make myself do it all because didn’t I have to prove to myself and everyone else I was strong and capable?
No, my friend, I did not. I did not need to do all the things.
Figure out what you need to do to maintain your sanity, and stick with that. Does scrubbing your baseboards twice a week make you feel more in control? Great! Does maintaining the house one step above squalor mean you get to spend more quality time with the kids? Great! Do you need to fly home to be with your parents for 6 months or dig in your heels and grow new roots in your new community? Yes and yes. Whatever works for you and your family, do that. There’s no right way to survive and thrive during the time your spouse is gone, so figure out what works, and don’t worry about the neighbors.
Those kiddos need you, mama. As does your husband — when video chat actually works. Take exquisite care of yourself first, and the rest will begin to fall into place.
Before you know it, you’ll hit your stride. (Most likely right before he comes home, so put that therapist on speed dial!)