A friend of mine was recently featured on a military spouse blog (check it our here: "Salute to Mom: Lindsay Castiglione"). I loved the interview and her honest answers. Military life is hard and we depend so much on strangers at often challenging points in our lives. She was asked what she found surprising about military life and she mentioned the support of the military community. Amen, sister! The military community has carried us through some of the hardest times in our lives. I will never forget the loneliness surrounding our first miscarriage and the light that was brought into our lives by the Sunshine committee from our FRG. The intervention of the Sunshine committee at that point in time changed the course of my life forever and gave me a passion to write to and inspire military spouses. Since arriving at our new duty station, we have had hardships and challenges and have been tremendously underwhelmed and disappointed at the lack of support from our military community. So much so that I have pulled back from all military social clubs-- including our FRG-- until I find my solid footing and am able to handle future disappointment, if it were to come again. While we have overcome our hardships and I have addressed my resulting depression, I still feel I am not emotionally ready to handle more disappointment if I were to turn to the military community for support and be let down again. As a military spouse for over 10 years, this disappointment has been hard to process. It feels like a rejection-- even to me personally. I have spent a lot of time wondering what I did wrong and beating myself up for the subsequent anger and bitterness when time after time I struggled through things that at past duty stations I took for granted. I've struggled with how to write about it too, mostly because over the past year and a half my words were clouded with anger or my mind couldn't see a positive spin on the situation. Now that I have broken through the depression and am getting back into the swing of life, I was inspired by Lindsay's interview. Because it is true-- the military community is amazing. I have viewed my blog as an honest and personal glimpse into life as a military spouse from the mouth (or fingers, as I type) of a seasoned military spouse. Lindsay said, "I love how other spouses are willing to drop whatever they are doing and help another however they can!" So, here you go, friends. It is dinnertime in my house. I just read Lindsay's interview and now I have barricaded myself in my bedroom with my laptop to talk to you all about how to survive a duty station when you do not have support.
1. What do you have to accomplish each day?
As parents and military spouses, we have this pressing need to connect, connect, connect. We Google every soccer league and Scout meeting and story time in a 50 mile radius of each of our next possible duty stations. And then we think amazingly thick headed things like, "Okay, when the kids get out of school at 4 pm we can make the 40 minute drive to dance class and get there by 4:45 pm when it starts and be back in time for 6 pm karate..." So then we are anxiously waiting for our children to get out of school as quickly as possible ("DID YOU HEAR ME? WE HAVE NO TIME TO PLAY ON THE PLAYGROUND. WE HAVE DANCE TONIGHT. IT IS A DANCE NIGHT.") where we then throw sandwiches or fast food at them and order them to wolf it down in the car as we frantically change in the parking lot before careening into dance class 2 minutes late. Why do we do this? So our kids can connect.
Military spouses: hear me loud and clear. Take a deep breath. And figure out what you HAVE to accomplish each day. Do you work? Do you have responsibilities at home or with your kids or with your career or your goals that you cannot put off? Find the space for those things. Then figure out what your kids HAVE to accomplish each day. Like... not what you want them to accomplish or what they think they want to accomplish... but what you actually have to accomplish. Homework. Naptime. Dinner. These are all real things to work in the calendar. Find time for the extracurriculars in a manner that actually works for you-- time and money wise. Have you looked into a Y membership? They have great classes and are a great value, especially for large families. Have you checked out your MWR classes? Your local park and rec classes? Consolidate. Pick classes and activities that don't have you driving every which way every night of the week. It's good for your children too. They may have interests and passions, just like you, but, just like you, they need to pick and choose which ones they are going to focus on at the present.
When you FIRST make time for the must-dos and THEN find time for the "like-to-dos," you will be a much happier parent. And when you are happy and your responsibilities and goals are being met, you will be less stressed dealing with the "crazy" nights that the sports fall on. Because you will be present, not stressing over the fact that you still have to go home and finish whatever project after wrangling the kids to bed. It is really easy to get burnt out on a too-full schedule, especially when you live far away from family support and lack local support.
2. Put things on your calendar.
It seems counter intuitive to follow up on the previous point with the recommendation to put things on your calendar, but there ya go. Military life doesn't always make sense anyways. Moving to a new duty station where you know no one is hard. You feel like you are the new kid in 5th grade all over again. Even as an adult, I feel like running out of the building when I walk into a social club meeting without recognizing a single face. Where should I sit? Will the person I sit next to talk to me or tell me she's saving that seat for someone? That alone can be enough to keep me from going to a new meeting. But it is also hard even in smaller venues. It can be hard to go to story time at the library each week, juggling toddlers and preschoolers and babies and feeling like everyone is glaring at you. Week after week showing up to wrangle misbehaving children and still haven't made a friend. It can be even harder going to these sort of functions when you feel like you have made a few connections and when you turned to them for support, they let you down. It makes you want to bury your head in the sand, make a paper chain counting down how many months until you move, and never leave your house again.
Don't. Who are you as a person? What do you like doing? Do you like taking your kids to story time? Do you like the social club? Are you a social person? Are you a quiet person? Find the things you like doing and go do them. Sure, you may "only have 19 more months left" before you PCS again, but you are really going to check out of your life for OVER a year and a half? There are numerous happenings at every duty station, whether through local resources or military resources or commercial resources. For instance, Barnes and Nobles hosts events and social functions for children and adults. Or the local library. Or art stores. Trivia nights. Or whatever or wherever. Even if you don't know anyone, put things YOU have an interest in ON YOUR CALENDAR and GO. Don't cancel it. Don't bury your head in the sand or talk yourself out of it. Who knows. You may go for the rest of the time you are at your current duty station and never meet anyone. Or you could meet someone there who shares your interests and becomes the friend you've been missing.
3. Make the first move.
Yeah, this is one I struggle with right now. Why? Because I have faced rejection after rejection. I've exchanged numbers with gals who I thought would make great friends. I've looked across story time at the mom who just walked in with the passel of small children writhing around her feet and made my way over to her to introduce myself, "Why, I see you also have innumerous small people." I've hosted playdates, cooked meals, dropped off lattes, on and on... and still have no more playdates to show for it than if I stayed home in sweats watching the Bachelor. You know what. I still hand out my card. I still smile. I still try. Why? Because that's who I am. (For more reading, check out this awesome blog post, "In the absence of a village, build your own.")
4. Remember who you are.
Okay, so I stole this one from Lion King. But remember when Simba was like, "That's not me! I'm not king!" And Mufasa came out of the clouds and told Simba, "You are my son. Remember who you are!" Military life is a lot like that. We move around, place after place, and meet all these new people who DON'T KNOW US. Life constantly throws stones at us and sometimes we handle things well and sometimes we don't. Instead of being surrounded by friends who know our personalities, we are surrounded by people who are just getting to know us and make judgments on our character based on what they see. Totally a normal thing to do, but it sucks when you move to a duty station and get hit with one thing after another and eventually struggle with depression. It's hard trying to tell people, "Normally I am a really upbeat person, but right now I'm struggling." At those times, when you are struggling with challenges and you feel left out, lonely, and unlikeable, remember who you are. You do have friends. You do have people that love and care about you, no matter how far away they are. Remember what it is about you that makes you you and try to let go of the doubt.
5. Be the friend you want to have.
Do you want a running partner? A coffee buddy? An after the kids go to bed wine drinking confidant? A mommy meet-up? What are you looking for? Be that friend. This goes hand in hand with making the first move and remembering who you are. It is easy to get beat down when life is only handing you rejections. Dust it off and try again. Think about what you feel is missing and do that for others. They may feel that's missing for them to. If you feel like you have more on your plate than you can handle, don't you think the other military spouses you know feel the same way? Think about how you could help someone who needs a hand and you may be surprised at friendships that can grow from those dark moments. It always feels good to know someone cares. And if you are showing love in your unique way, it gives people a chance to get to know who you are as a person and to "speak your love language" back. (Don't know what a love language is? I highly recommend this read for couples and individuals: "The 5 Love Languages" by Gary Chapman.)
6. Learn to say no.
It often happens that in our loneliest and hardest times we scoop more and more on to our plate until it is overflowing and we are miserable. Sometimes we over extend ourselves to "stay busy" and sometimes we say yes to things to feel included. Whatever the reason, learn to say no. I have been in the position where I was desperate to build a community and so I thought about what I was missing. What did I want from that particular duty station? In an attempt to create that, I hosted event after event, meet up after meet up, I said yes to nearly everything that came my way, and I packed my calendar to stay busy, be involved, and hopefully to bolster friendships. As hardships and challenges came my way and the friendships hadn't bloomed, I felt even more desperate to make those friendships because I needed support. In the end, I baby-sat when I was exhausted. I volunteered when I didn't have the time. And, what was worse, I ran myself to the ground trying to please others so that they would like me, but when I needed their help, I still didn't have it. Trying so hard to force friendships doesn't work. It is important that we as military spouses learn to say no. Helping other people, being the friend you want to have, and volunteering in the community are all great and necessary things. However, you have to be able to physically and emotionally be able to support everything you have signed on to. Those things are great ways to meet people and get connected, but if you are putting too much significance on every favor you say yes to in the hopes that it would be reciprocated or a friendship will happen, it is probably better to say no. It is better to give out of love than with strings attached, emotional or otherwise.
7. Don't compare.
Isn't social media grand? We have this resource at our finger tips that let's us connect to people at future duty stations, join online groups and clubs, and to "friend" people. And, most of the time, it does a great job at that. Until it doesn't. You go online and see that the girls you've been trying to hang out with all went to the park or the movies without you. You invite people to something meaningful to you, hoping to at least have one friend in attendance, and go online later to find out what all the people who declined actually were doing that day. It is hard. Especially as a military spouse feeling lonely and disconnected. It is hard when you see your friends at different duty stations posting things about their amazing FRG or wardroom or communities that have grown around their neighborhood or churches. When you have desired and tried to build those communities yourself at your current duty station, it is really hard not to feel bitter and resentful towards others who have it. "What am I doing wrong?" you wonder. TimeHop has been an eye opener for me. I see past posts from our previous duty stations and I realized that at one point in time, I was the military spouse with the great boat climate and the great local community and the best friend next door and all that. At every other duty station, we have been able to plug in somewhere. Just because we can't this time, doesn't mean there is something wrong with us. And, maybe, in the past when I was posting about a great girls' night, one of my friends at a different duty station was wondering why she wasn't connecting at her current duty station. If social media becomes too hard for you, get off of it. You don't have to delete it to remove yourself from it and you can always come back to it, but if you need to take a break for a week or a month or a year, DO IT. Don't beat yourself up over social media and don't let it ruin existing friendships.
8. It takes time and effort.
Dang it. As a military spouse, nothing can piss you off quite like hearing, "Friendships will happen. It just takes time." We are always thinking about how long we have at each duty station, "I am here for TWO YEARS. If it takes me a whole year to make a friend, I will have about 6 months before we start going through our house to get ready to PCS." We panic before anything even happens. Or, like me currently, when we have been here for over half of our tour and I have no more friends now than when we first arrived. What. Happened. You know what, these things take time. They just do. For the first year and a half we were here, I had a lot of hardships and depression and maybe that didn't endear friends to me. Maybe now I will connect... maybe I will not. But what will not happen is someone knocking on my front door saying, "Hey, girl! So I want to be best friends and get coffee with you every day. And have playdates all the time and go to the park with you and show up uninvited to dinner and throw up a pack'n'play in your loft for my kids and stay the night in your guest room while we drink Sangria all evening." (So... perhaps my best friend bar is set high...) The point is, no matter how long you have been at a duty station and no matter how disconnected you feel, you have to go out and try. And you have to let those friendships grow. And not every seed you plant will take and maybe none will. But unless you put in the time and the effort, it will never be better than it is now.
9. Your self worth is not contingent on a duty station.
Rejection-- real or perceived-- is hard. I have spent a lot of time doubting myself here. I wonder if I'm coming on too strong or too desperate or if my kids are too loud or I have too many or what?! What? What else can it be? Am I rude? Wrong? Not cool enough? It starts really making you feel like a jerk when people flake on every playdate or don't text you back or never pin down dates and so nothing ever comes of it (the vague, "I'd love to do that sometime" or "Let me get back to you..."). I have sat at coffee shops with my kids for over an hour past the meet up time before I heard, "Sorry! I can't make it today!" and you feel like such a loser for packing up the kids and getting everyone dressed and they are asking, "Why are we leaving? Where is your friend?" and you fight back tears while you tell them, "We are meeting up with them a different day." It hurts when you feel let down when you swallow your pride and ask (beg, plead, text/call everyone in your phone) for help and it doesn't come through. It is embarrassing to plan something, invite everyone you know, and have excuse after excuse come back as to why they can't make it until you eventually come up with a reason to cancel it. The biggest reasons we, as military spouses, put ourselves out there is for the sake of our kids (to get them connected), for ourselves (to feel connected), or because we genuinely need help. And when those needs aren't met, we start wondering what we are doing wrong that makes us unworthy of them. It is hard to think that maybe I won't ever feel connected to this duty station more than I do now, but it helps to think about (and focus on) what it is about myself that I like and what my friends and family like, even far away from here. I may spend every day with my kids, busying myself with the same old things, and constantly trying (and failing) to make a friend, but, at the end of this tour, we are leaving here and the people here aren't coming with us. Maybe we will be stationed near friends or family at our next duty station or maybe I will just connect there. Whatever the case may be, this duty station doesn't define who I am and who I know myself to be. Once I realized that, it was easier to let go of the hurt and the rejection and to slowly start putting myself out there again (in much smaller ways than when I first moved here).
10. YOU CAN (AND YOU WILL) DO IT.
Feelings. Yes, yes. I can process my feelings. But when the toddler has asthma and the baby is sick and I have 3 kids to pick up from school, what do I do? Who do I call that would take my sick baby while I bring the toddler to the hospital? Who would be willing to drop all their plans to pick up my 3 kids and sit at my house until I get back? And when I get home and am exhausted, who will make us dinner? Who will come over the next day to listen to me complain about the sleepless nights and trying to meet the needs of 5 kids when my brain is done and my body is done and my patience is spent and I just want my mom? Who will brave colds and flu and pink eye and tantrums to bring me a latte and a sympathetic ear? Who will watch my kids when I can't do it all? The days are so long and draining when all household operations fall on your one pair of shoulder from the wee hours of the morning to late at night. It is hard to find the energy (and the willpower) to charge on when you don't even have a friend to vent to or someone by your side as you weather the storm. It is isolating and lonely. And as you deal with whatever life throws your way-- big or small-- it is hard when you feel like not only do you not have friends, but that people don't want to be your friend. When your sitter bails at an important time. When your playdate cancels. When your meet-up falls flat. When you go to the social club meeting and leave again without having spoken to anyone. When your children are throwing tantrums and everyone looks the other way. When you have to dig deep and make it work again, all on your own, and you just don't know how many more times you can do that.
That's one of those times where being a military spouse feels like one of the most isolating roles. You aren't like your spouse, the military member, who goes into their job every day with a purpose, and you aren't like the locals who are forever invested in the community. You are there for a short while, trying to make it work, and feeling like you don't belong. That's when my brain starts racing, "When will it be my time to connect? To pursue my career goals without arranging them around my spouse's? When we will stop moving and when will deployments and duty days no longer dominate our calendar?" I think about how long it took me to connect at past duty stations and how I'm not connecting at this duty station and all my energy and willingness for future duty stations is sucked out of me. I feel trapped in the military life.
One day at a time. Everyone has things they struggle with. Our moments are coming. And we, as military spouses, the strength and driving force in our houses, know how to "make it work." We will recognize our moments when they come and we will seize them. At this exact moment we may feel like the world doesn't understand us, that we don't have friends, that we can't manage work and home and kids and the military... Right now, it may all be too much. But, as military spouses, we take a deep breath. We evaluate our immediate present. What has to be done right now? And we do that. And the next moment we do what needs to be done then. All the way through the day, until car pool is ran and our kids are fed and in bed and we finally have 10 minutes to open a bottle of wine and call our moms or best friends. We make paper chains and countdowns and employ tricks to help the time pass as we wait for the end of deployment, the end of a tour, the time until we visit family or family comes to visit us... We survive. We pull through, even if we feel like we aren't thriving and that the wind has been knocked out of our chest and we pray that it will get better, we survive. We take one small step after another until each step is easier and easier to take... until one day we realize we have hit our stride again and can finally stand tall. The best thing about military spouses is that we then continue on. We continue to walk tall until the next round of challenges comes our way and we hope we have learned from the past to get through these hurdles better and stronger than before.
It can be lonely and exhausting. It can feel never ending. Deep down though, we firmly believe that this-- this duty station that has yet to come together for us-- is a moment. A moment in time. A season we never want to be in again. As military spouses, we carry on. For the sake of our children. For the sake of our spouses. For the sake of ourselves, that girl that looked deep into the eyes of a service member all those years ago and said, "Yes."