For many people, saying “I do” doesn’t automatically mean declaring, “Bye, Felicia” to the rest of your family. Unfortunately, this is kind of a given for the military spouse. Suddenly, in swoops a handsome uniform who sweeps you off your feet, and then you and your new spouse are off to form roots in — what seems to your family — every possible place other than where they are. It’s nothing personal, guys — it’s just military life.
It’s a difficult pill to swallow for us — as military spouses, to be pulled away from our families, but can be even harder on those we are leaving, especially if we don’t come from military families. For those extended family members currently missing someone off on their military adventure — or those who know it’s coming, let’s help you through it with some guidelines and understandings.
Life Together as We Know It
Gone are the spontaneous texts like, “Family lunch this Sunday! Bring a side to share!” Life as you once knew it is now more consistently filled with texts like, “We had family lunch last weekend, guess who’s pregnant?”
Both parties have to get this and grasp it quickly, before any blame or guilt starts to creep in. As military spouses, we will rarely be on the cusp of cutting-edge family drama anymore, and we can’t get upset when we’re the last to learn about something. At the same time, family members, don’t try to guilt us into visiting more often.
Also, try to refrain from always living on the hope that your military member will get stationed near you. Military families simply go where the bases are, and even if you live in a popular military site, don’t assume your service member will be there (crush dreams…check). Besides, a new duty station could become your family’s new favorite vacation spot!
This is for both sides: Keep your family informed as you get information. It may seem that military families, who are torn away from their homes every several years, are the perpetual victims, continually needing support. But, there are plenty of circumstances when your extended family, left behind, desperately wants your presence, too. Send pictures, Facetime on holidays when you can’t be there, email, send carrier pigeons, try to do everything possible to remain connected. Even if we don’t have an ounce of homesickness, we can be sure someone back home is missing us.
Semper Gumby, Always Flexible
Just as every unit is a little bit different, every family takes on the military lifestyle in a unique way. While one spouse may drive straight to the airport to head home after kissing her husband goodbye for deployment, another may find more solace in the home and community she’s built at her current duty station. There really is no precedent for how each person should handle being a part of the military, and it’s not fair for any relative to place expectations on how a military family should operate.
Irony fans, how much would you love to get this written in stone: “There is no such thing as set in stone,” — like, really badly, right? And it seems that when it comes to scheduling, this is difficult to comprehend for the everyday civilian. We will rarely be given more than a month’s notice of holiday break time, so please don’t be frustrated with us when you’re trying to make family Thanksgiving cruise plans nine months in advance. Even when we do get the block of days figured out for our holiday schedule, and we boldly go as far as sharing our itinerary with you, always assume something will change.
Fear of the Unknown
If unreliable schedules are the number one given in military life, the hypothetical question is number two. Military spouses constantly worry about our spouses out in the field, on training flights, and during deployments. When they aren’t in our arms, our minds can wander.
But, we aren’t the only ones who worry. Sometimes we forget that moms, dads, sisters-in-law, and great aunts of service members worry too. One such family member admits, “I guess the most difficult thing for me, having someone I love in the military, is worrying about those they might leave behind.”
Surviving as a Unit
The military family must operate as one unit to conquer the struggles of military life. Military families include parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, and everyone in between, but we don’t always talk about struggles you face. One Marine Corps mom explains that the most difficult struggle is the distance itself, and thus, emphatically pounced on the importance of doing life together via any mode possible.
Even though distance separates you, social media is at your fingertips. Keep the family updated (as much as possible) on what your future looks like, such as estimated deployment dates or next steps in training.
Extended family members, you might wrestle with what you can do to support your service member and their immediate family. We sometimes forget that you aren’t necessarily extended family of experienced military veterans, and you may have no idea what this lifestyle is like. We know we can’t expect you to know what we’re going through and support us effectively if we don’t keep you in the loop.
Remember, every individual, every family member reacts and copes with this military lifestyle differently. But when the family comes together as a unit with a better understanding of what is to come, they can set healthy expectations that will not only reduce future stress on the service member and their family, but also serve to unite the extended family as a support system, whether under the same roof or thousands of miles apart.
Photo credit: Renee Dolan Photography