With the end of deployment comes a sigh of relief. The endless worrying actually comes to an end. The solo parenting returns to its partnership status. Our cups runneth over with hugs and kisses.
Without question, the joy in the home of a soldier or sailor who has returned, safely, from deployment in palpable.
Most people focus, rightly, on the joyous reunion that occurs, but ignoring the inevitable struggle to restructure and reorganize the family fails to focus on the full picture.
As I’ve said before, 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. We are celebrating by taking a family trip to… you guessed it… Disney World!
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. Horatio has hit this point.
The kids play different sports, enjoy different activities, go to bed at different times, eat different foods, follow different rules. They are a third bigger than they were when he left!
A returning spouse/parent looks at the change and feels left out, out of the loop, even disregarded. This hasn’t happened in our family. Horatio and I parent as partners, for sure. There have been moments of conflicting opinions, of course, but we make our decisions together, always have. This helps make the transition a bit easier.
It can be a struggle for a retuning parent to adjust. 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 turned 14 the day before the wheels on the plane touched 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?
Here are pictures of the before and after.
Zack is a teenager. He has a lot more homework, he spends time on facebook and texting and playing video games more than ever. 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 imagined 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 imagined them spending time, quietly reading, each Saturday and Sunday afternoon.
The reality to which he returned 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 temporarily left Horatio wondering how it all happened. Occasionally, he’ll have a moment of weakness when he sees something he isn’t used to and say to me, “why do you do it this way now?” At that point, I 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 admit there have been a little of each, but we are both getting better at it and things are good.
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 when you think of our reunion or that of any other military family you know or see on TV. 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 continue keep my characteristic, sunny outlook, but I also am realistic. I know it will be a tough adjustment for weeks, if not months, it 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.