Yesterday, a friend wondered aloud about what it must be like to integrate an adult, who has been gone for two years, back into the family.
Most people focus, rightly, on the joyous reunion that occurs at the end of deployment, but ignoring the inevitable struggle to restructure and reorganize the family misses the full picture.
Yes, the homecoming is fun and exiting for everyone. Celebrations follow. Yellow ribbons are cut off of the trees. Hopefully, the service member gets at least a few days off before starting the next job, and the family and close friends usually have a party or two and bask in the joy of the reunion.
The adrenaline generally lasts a few days. Soon, though, it dawns on the returning spouse/parent that life at home doesn’t feel exactly like it felt when he left. Things are different.
The kids play different sports, enjoy different activities, go to bed at different times, eat different foods, follow different rules.
The returning spouse/parent looks at the change and feels left out, out of the loop, even disregarded.
Of course the changes have nothing to do with the previously deployed parent. He’s been gone a long time and life at home naturally evolves to fit the needs of the family. When Horatio left, our boys were: 3, 6 1/2, 10 and 12. Now, Harold is 4 1/2, Bob is 8, Dwight is 11 1/2 and Zack will turn 14 the day before the wheels on the plane touch down.
When Horatio left, we had all four boys getting ready for bed at 7:00 and they spent hours reading in bed before turning out their lights and going to sleep. Now, Harold and Bob get ready at 7:00, but Dwight and Zack get ready between 8:00 and 9:00 and don’t shut off their lights until after 10:00 some nights. It might not seem like a big deal, on the surface, but the reality is that life runs differently than it did a year and a half ago. Picture your life in December 2010 compared to today, is it the same?
Zack is a teenager. He has a lot more homework, he spends time on facebook and texting. All three older boys have bought themselves ipod touches, recently, and the devices grab their attention at all hours.
A long absence can cause the deployed service member to idealize life at home. When you are sitting, isolated, in a high stress environment overseas, it’s easy to picture an idyllic scene at home. We have four great kids who listen to us, do well in school and get along well with each other. In the eyes of many people, our home life IS idyllic. Sometimes it actually feels that way. But, as the old saying goes, ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder.’ What this really means is that, in absentia, a deployed spouse often glorifies the picture of what he imagines is happening at home. I know that Horatio imagines the boys spending their days at school, coming home to do homework, playing outside together, eating dinner, getting ready for bed, reading for two hours each night. He imagines them spending time, quietly reading, each Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
The reality he will find when he returns is more like this: the boys come home from school and take turns playing Minecraft on the computer, have a snack, do homework, eat dinner, play outside, stare at their digital devices, shower, get in bed, read, lights out… It’s a perfectly acceptable routine, but it’s different from what he remembers.
All these differences in our routines will likely leave Horatio wondering how it all happened. There will come a moment of weakness when he will see something he isn’t used to and say to me, “why do you do it this way now?” At that point, I’ll have to choose my response carefully. Do I do what comes naturally and say something like, “seriously? You’ve been gone almost two years. Did you think it would stay the same?” Or, “do you think you could have done it better? I can go away for a while and see how things go?” Or, I can take a deep breath and give a brief explanation that focuses on the fact that in the 20 months he was gone the routine had to naturally evolve. I predict there will be a little of each, and we’ll get through it.
The important thing for a couple to do when they’ve been thrown back into close quarters after a long absence, is to think before they speak. Testiness is natural. The deployed spouse wants things to be like they were when he left. The at-home spouse wants the deployed spouse to jump in and be a hands-on parent, helping out more than ever before- but only in areas she wants the help. No stepping on toes allowed.
It’s a tricky path to tread.
So, dear readers, feel free to picture the happy reunion, gleeful family time, the welcome home banner and balloons. Imagine the parties and happy kids and help them celebrate. But, be supportive of your military family friends, just as you were during the deployment. It’s a stressful time for them and they need your help keeping things light. Drop off a meal, call your friend to let her vent. This too shall pass, but it will take a few months for routines to settle.
For myself, I know I will do my best to keep my characteristic, sunny outlook, but I also am realistic. I know it will be a tough adjustment at times and will be a long road. Horatio, too, knows this, and we’ll just keep our eye on the prize, the day, 6 months or so down the road, when we will look around and realize we’ve settled back into our family routine and life is good.