To Have and to Hold: The Commitment of a Military Spouse

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Today, we’re diving into the other side of first responder life. And since we’re focusing on our military this month, we’re getting an inside look at what it’s like to be a military spouse.

Our friend is Paula, Navy wife and mom of three. She and her husband have been married for twelve years and going strong, but it hasn’t been easy.

FRC asks what it’s like, how moving around affects their relationship and family life, and how they stay level through all the ups and downs of military life.

FRC: Set us up. What’s the broad view of your life as a military spouse?

Paula: We’re a Navy family. My husband is a submarine officer. This means on a sea tour (usually 3 years), he can be gone about 75% of the time. About half of that time is dark, which means no communication at all. When they are not dark, you’ll get sporadic emails and you number them because they don’t come in order. When he’s home the days are long. He goes in at 05:30 and gets home around 19:00. Depending on the shore tour (usually 2 years) there can be some travel or they could be home all the time. We decided before we got married that I would not work while our kids were young, so I’m a stay-at-home mom, the most exhausting job I have ever had.

FRC: How have you handled constantly moving around over the years?

Paula: This is such a huge question. My initial reaction is to take a deep breath and simply state the word, “well.” We have handled it well. My husband and I have been married for 12.5 years and have lived in 8 houses.

I could write a whole book on the emotions and physical actions taken, (and people have) to accomplish these moves. This simple question elicits knots in my stomach. There’s a mental game I have to play, being negative to stay positive. “Well, I didn’t like the appliances anyway, let’s move.” “This wall pisses me off, I’m done with this place, I’m out of here.” Like I have a choice, it’s a little joke my husband and I bring into the situation to keep laughing. Because if I weren’t laughing I’d be crying. 

Once in a while, you leave a paradise and you can’t think of a single reason why you would want to do that. But you take a deep breath with the understanding that it was never yours. You pack your stuff and go. Your spouse and your kids are your home, and as long as they’re going with you, the physical building, the neighbors, the town, the community… was only ever temporary. When you move to a new place, you keep that in the back of your mind.

The physical act of moving is annoying. We have movers pack our items but there are certain things that you have to prep ahead of time. What are you going to want/need for the next two months? Set them aside. Valuables? Set them aside. What items do you never want to unwrap from 10 lb of paper again? Toss them. Get creative with meal planning to thin out the pantry. The mental load is exhausting.

Then the cleaning starts. You are cleaning till the minute you hit the road. You try to organize things before they get packed so it’s not chaos on the other end, but it always is. When I want to find something, I know where it was two houses ago… It’s so frustrating! The stress is unreal.

Then there’s the money. Every time you move it costs money to make the house your own. Whether it’s little decorating things here or a usable faucet there, a garden… You put money into your house when you first move in whether it’s yours or a rental… That adds up.

It takes about four months to finalize move-in. And you look at it all and you say I’m going to do this again in 14 months.

PCS: permanent change of duty station, AKA: moving.
“What’s the difference between PCSing when you first get married and 10 years in? Ibuprofen.”

FRC: What’s it like trying to be “temporary” in a new community?

Paula: You would think that would make it hard to make friends knowing that it’s temporary, but when you move into a new place you play a new game: be positive to be positive. Knowing you don’t have much time, you latch on and make friends fast. They help you learn the new area and you put out your little roots.

So while you’ve been moved away from family and friends you never feel alone because of your military-issued friends. You always have something in common with them and it forms a tight bond.

I’ve got one friend I’ve happened to be stationed in the same place multiple times. I pulled up to her house and had the thought in my head that she’s my sister. Then I thought, “No silly, she’s not my sister, she’s my cousin.” I sat in my car and tried to figure out which side of the family she was on. After several seconds, I realized she’s boat family. She’s not blood. I was dumbstruck. Simply dumbstruck that she is not blood.

Those are the bonds you make in this community.

FRC: What’s the positive side of moving?

Paula: There are so many positive things! Getting to live in eight different houses! Getting to rearrange furniture all the time. Not agonizing about where you hang the picture, because it’s not staying there for long. The grass does not grow long before you’re doing something new and exciting. Being introduced to so many different people, you learn so many things you wouldn’t have otherwise: recipes, activities, experiences, places to visit, creative ideas, hobbies… Anything you think of, somebody can put you in contact with somebody who’s done it because the network is huge.

Traveling cross-country, you barely need a hotel. I’ve got a friend in every state. They’re willing to bend over backward for you because they know, they’ve been there and done it. Military spouses are willing to give you the shirts off their backs to help you. The kindness and support is awe-inspiring. The sense of community is powerful…

I have a friend traveling cross country right now spending one night at another spouse’s house who just got out of surgery the day before. Most people would be like, “Now is not a good time,” but she’s like, “Yeah let’s roll with it, this is the time we have, I got you.”

FRC: How do you handle extended family?

Paula: It’s hard to talk about being far away from family because I’m afraid if I think about it hard, I’ll realize what I am missing. With moving, you can be sarcastic and joke about it and find the pros. [There’s] a gaping hole missing from your and your children’s lives. Month after month, year after year, holiday after holiday, birthday after birthday… and there’s not a whole lot of positive stuff you can say about it.

So answering this question is a little hard because I don’t want to be only negative about any aspect of our life. We talk on the phone, you can video chat—we don’t tend to, it’s just not our thing.

It’s super awesome when grandparents come to visit. They get to see a new place and you get to do fun touristy activities together. But everybody gets travel burnout. I’m so sick of flying, I don’t want to travel to see anybody. The grandparents pick up the slack.

Packing and flying, staying in someone else’s house, it’s hard. It’s exhausting and it’s expensive. The first few times you do it, you’re like, “I’m busting $4,000 for this little vacation to see the grandparents.” By the fourth time you do it, you’re thinking, “I want to be in a different location when I vacation. I don’t want to go to the same place every time I travel. Every. Single. Time.”

If I’m going to bust $4,000 I’d like to see something new. But then you have guilt because you had time off, and you didn’t go see your family. You feel like a bad person. So, I kind of do the monkey doesn’t see, hear, or speak about being far from family. It’s much easier than going down that rabbit hole.

FRC: How do the kids handle all the moving?

Paula: Our boys are 10, 8, and 5yrs. I don’t know how they will answer the question, “Where are you from?” I think they’ll just pick their favorite house and use that state. The eldest has gone to 5 different schools (not including COVID homeschooling).

This last move, 8 months ago, was the first time that they’ve been mature enough to understand what’s going on and care, but they did really great. They knew that we would be moving close to some old friends and they knew that we were coming off a sea tour and Daddy would be home now.

They get excited to get a new house and they have each other. They’re very good at rolling with the punches (so far).

We had to leave some next-door neighbor friends and surrogate grandparents and we had an amazing Church community. That was hard to leave but you just look at the positives, the new people you’re going to meet, the new friends you’re going to make. It’s all a mental game and we are so blessed to have a strong family. We all love and support each other and roll with it.

FRC: How do you handle your husband’s absence?

Paula: This is another cover your eyes, ears, and mouth, pretend it’s not happening question. How do I handle my husband going to sea? The first thing I do is clean. I remove every trace of his having just been there. This sounds horrible, but bear with me! If I leave a piece of him lying around—his coffee cup, his dirty sock—then I feel his absence acutely. We have pictures of Daddy all over the place. I used to print pictures and tape them to the walls at children’s eye level.

We don’t change any routines. We still go to practices, have movie nights, and go to bed on time. But I try to make the house feel like it’s not missing someone and I normalize the fact that he’s gone. This only goes so far. I remember my eldest at 5 or 6 telling me, “My friend has a Daaaaaad!” Boy, that broke my heart! I remember the first time he realized that other people’s dads don’t disappear for months on end, he was like, what the heck?! He asked, “Does Daddy have to do this?”

That was a tough question to answer… Yes. No. He chose to do it. Now he has to. But he’ll choose to do it again and again. 

One phrase that people say that drives me nuts is: to take solace in the fact that my husband’s doing what he loves.

No! Just don’t!! You don’t know what you’re saying. Not a helpful phrase. Not a true statement. I am what he loves. His job is what he does for the country, that he loves. This sentiment serves a purpose. I understand that. People don’t know what to say. But no, make no mistake, he is serving the country. Not playing. You cannot honestly believe that being locked up in recirculated human exhaust for 6 months with no fresh vegetables or sunshine is “doing what he loves.” There is a job that needs doing and he is damn good at it.

A lot of people will do a countdown. I don’t tend to do that because dates are classified. Also, sometimes they change and I never want to have to add days to the clock. I try to do things that I wouldn’t normally do when he’s around: binge-watch girly TV shows, go places he doesn’t enjoy, make crummy dinners… I almost always start a new project when he goes. Gives my mind something to think about.

FRC: How’s the communication for you and the kids with your husband?

Paula: We write Dad emails almost every day, and tell him silly things, stuff on our minds. Because the boat’s usually dark (out of communication), we don’t usually get emails back.

There are no fresh vegetables after a week on the submarine. They don’t even have enough air, they have to burn oxygen candles—yeah, those are a thing. There is no phone. I can’t email him pictures, too many megabytes. Text only and they ask you to delete the history to save data.

So how do we stay in contact? Numbered and dated emails because they’re delivered sporadically, received out of order, and sometimes lost. You have to be very patient when you ask a question because it might be a couple of emails before he receives it and responds. When the boat is dark, they do not receive or transmit emails and they might be dark for two or three months. It can get very lonely. I take lots of pictures to show him when he gets home.

FRC: What’s it like when he’s home?

Paula: One thing that shaped the family dynamic because of his sporadic and extended absences is that he cannot answer questions, make major family decisions, be the disciplinarian, or fix things… He’s not in communication. As a result, I’ve got some serious big girl pants. I am used to making the decisions so much so that when he comes home and I have to share that, it can be a little tough for me to swallow. I get a bit selfish, always having things my way.

When he gets time off, very often we fly out to see the grandparents. But we’re always living in a new place so there’s usually something local to explore. While he’s deployed we explore and then when he comes home we take him to our favorite new spot.

FRC: How do you prepare for deployment?

Paula: In the month leading up to deployment, the wives get crafty. We put together calendar squares and halfway boxes. Each spouse or significant other will get a few dates they are responsible for. They will make a collage of photos, memes, or jokes for that date. All of them get compiled into a calendar and the guys do a drum roll at midnight as they flip the page to see what’s the next calendar square.

Sometimes they’re funny or embarrassing. They’re a lot of fun. Halfway boxes are basically a present for the guys to open on halfway night. They’ll have snacks, photos, and some silly toys like helicopters or remote control cars. It’s something to distract from the fact that they’re on a boat. Port calls are fantastic when you can get them, but expensive because you have to fly out and stay in the hotel, and port calls often get canceled. 

Sea tours…
A common dialogue here is him saying he doesn’t remember that and me saying, “You weren’t there.”

FRC: How has military life affected you overall?

Paula: I love the military lifestyle. I also can’t compare it to a civilian lifestyle because I’ve never had a family as a civilian. I think the perks of seeing new places, meeting so many new people, and being introduced to so many new things by those people are worth any drawbacks. There’s something nice about having the military be the scapegoat for not liking the situation you’re in. For one thing, it’s temporary for another, it’s not your fault. You didn’t choose to move there. Don’t want to leave? Upset about that? Not your fault either.

Kind of rough to say that there are pros and cons to your husband being gone, but there are.

I get the whole bed to myself, I don’t have to compromise, I can watch whatever TV show I want till however late I want, and my half-drunk beverages don’t get dumped out.

The cons are I go to bed cold and scared every night. Seriously, when he’s gone my mind thinks the stupidest things. I see the house’s shadow and “caped man on my roof,” is my first thought instead of “chimney.” Everything is my responsibility. Every kid’s squabble, the dishes, the trash, the doctor’s appointments, the losses…

You’re without your other half. You have to lean on your boat family. It’s good to have family on other boats too, because sometimes you need to lift something heavy and you need a rent-a-husband. Got a friend on a boat that’s in? You’ve got yourself some lifting power.

FRC: Any advice for new military spouses?

Paula: Don’t be afraid to say yes! It is the most inclusive group of people! With such a huge variety of people, you will find great friends. So much to see and experience. Go everywhere and do everything, and be involved in your command’s family groups.