Barbies and map of the United States

Military Spouses and Parallel Universes

Life as a military spouse is like living in a parallel universe. We get glimpses of what our lives look like in different countries, with different support systems, and in different jobs. Then, we start new again. Starting over so many times takes grit, and it is challenging. We find the best of what’s offered and then we move on. Whenever we move on, we leave another life behind. Sometimes it’s overwhelming but it’s adventurous.

In each duty station that we live in, we define ourselves in some way. Sometimes we have the best neighbors, sometimes it’s the local culture, a new hobby, or a job. We develop a new life; it stands out as different in some way from our past duty stations. We know how temporary it is, so we work fast and hard at adapting to our new normal quickly. Eventually, we leave that life behind.

I can look back on all our past duty stations; each has a distinct feeling. Each feels different as I remember my time and who I was there. It’s like we exercise different parts of ourselves in new locations. Each circumstance brings out new aspects of life we haven’t had before.

We get a glimpse of what life would look like all over the country and the world. Nothing stands to contrast that as much as the locals we meet. Locals that are true locals to a location. They have lived there their whole life, and they will continue to live there. Similarly, we spend the holidays or vacations with our extended family. We get to see “normal” from a distance.

I see their life in a linear progression. The same city, house, friends, job … the same life. Whereas our progression isn’t linear, it’s like sliced DNA fragments taken from different segments and glued together.

From those fragments of our lives, we learn and grow and become more resilient. We stretch ourselves to find what shape fits best and we adhere. It’s a life track that wouldn’t necessarily happen organically, but it does for us. Adaptability is a skill that we develop, and it is a quiet strength. Adaptability requires being rooted and grounded. Ultimately that is something we do well. Instead of being rooted and grounded in our life in a specific place we are rooted in our family unit and ourselves. We can make a life anywhere. We are creative and adventurous individuals.

Sometimes it feels like living in a parallel universe. The comparison game of our lives with civilians can bring humor and pain. They live in their world of normalcy while we live in our world of constant change. To each, the other’s life is both appealing and alien. Someday, I will figure out what it feels like to live in a home for more than four years but that is for another version of myself.

Father and son walking through a forest

Making the Best of a Duty Station

My favorite biblical scripture has always been Ecclesiastes 3. In this chapter, Solomon shares how there is time for everything under the sun. He emphasizes the reality that we are here for only a short period, and there is a time and a place to experience it all, both the good and bad.

I have found it helpful to adopt this mindset in the military lifestyle as well, for there is also a time for everything as a military spouse.

A time to feel at home,

And a time to feel displaced.

A time to be in good company,

and a time to be lonely.

A time to be close to loved ones,

And a time to be painfully far.

A time to serve others,

And a time to be served.

A time to find a tight knit circle,

And a time to feel like an outsider.

A time to say hello,

And a time to say goodbye.

A time for endless sunshine,

And a time for relentless rain.

A time for the crisp mountain air,

And a time for the sticky beach breeze.

A time for easier than you expected,

And a time for harder than you ever could have imagined.

A time to go where you want,

And a time to go where you’re told.

A time to wallow,

And a time to make the best of it.

One skill I would suggest a military spouse learn quickly is making the best of it. Sure, there are other important things to be good at like arranging furniture in a home, matching green wool socks, making friends quickly, or building resiliency in your home. Nothing will benefit you more than learning to grow wherever you’re planted. While I know too well from experience that some duty stations are easier to make the best of than others, I promise you that it is possible to do so anywhere.

When we moved to Texas – our first duty station – it was as if I was finally home for the first time in my 23 years of life. I didn’t need to make the best of it, because I found it glorious from the minute we arrived. I loved the hot wind, the big sky, the small trees, and the April bluebonnets along the freeways. I loved the small towns, the accents, and the way that I could run outside barefoot at any time of the year. I loved the sweet season of life we found ourselves in, newly married life, the birth of our first child and all the precious memories that came in those next couple of years. I made the best of friends and found the best church.  We didn’t need to make the best of it, because the best fell right into our lap.

This is not always the case. We find ourselves now in the Carolinas. To me, it feels like a lame version of Texas. The same humid summers and southern culture but lacking the bold personality of the Lonestar state. We haven’t found the best of anything here, but we’ve tried to take advantage of the few blessings we have found, like our church and my son’s preschool. We are also a five-hour drive from family and a two-hour drive to beautiful beaches, which have both been frequent luxuries. While we’ll never say we loved it here; we will always know that we made the best of it.

Sometimes you find yourself being sent to what you think might be your worst nightmare. For us, this reality came true last spring when we were told we would be moving across the country to Washington State in 2024. This was the last place we ever wanted to take our family. I’ve cried a lot of tears since finding out that news. We were going to be moving from a place we didn’t love to a place I feared I’d hate.

As we anticipate this move, I refuse to live in fear and dread. I know I am going to have to try my hardest to make the best of this duty station. Here is the guide I have set for myself to do my best to fall in love with a place I never wanted to go.

  • Give yourself a wallowing period. Allow yourself to feel all of the negative emotions that come with an assignment you don’t want: dread, disappointment, resentment, fear, anger and bitterness. Feel it all to your core, knowing you won’t stand behind the storm clouds for long. Even if you worry, you’ll never adapt. Strive with all your heart to be that lone daisy growing in Alaska. Make it your goal to step out of those clouds and live in the silver lining, and then explore every nook and cranny of it.
  • Embrace the lifestyle. As we prepare to acclimate to a new region, a new climate, and a new culture, we know we will need to embrace a new lifestyle. The months of water activities and popsicles in the backyard will be replaced with rainy day adventures in bibs and boots, and glitter and flour-covered surfaces indoors from crafting the gray away. My husband is reading up on salmon fishing. I plan to start my first garden because they say you can grow anything there. I imagine our weekends filled with exploring pebble beaches, flying kites, and exploring endless forests.
  • Make a bucket list. If there is one good way to hype yourself up about a new place, it’s doing your research and collecting ideas of experiences you hope to have there. I have both a bucket list started, as well as an album on my phone where I collect screenshots of helpful or exciting things about this new and foreign land we are headed to. For example, if I see someone share about a good restaurant or a fun hike on social media, I will screenshot it and save it in this album, so that I can remember it in months when I am finally in a place to get out and explore our new surrounding town.
  • Build a new wardrobe. Someone once said, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.” Study the climate of the place you’re going, and adapt accordingly, so you are fully prepared to be outdoors. As we anticipate our move to the Pacific Northwest, I’ll be acquiring all the cute duck boots and raincoats, hiking gear, and wool layers. The jeans and pullovers will be coming from the back of my closet to the front, pushing aside the 15 pairs of shorts and tanks I was used to rotating for eight months out of every year. We aren’t moving until next summer, but my Christmas list was filled with the clothing items and gear I know I’ll want soon.
  • Find friends who love it there. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received as a military spouse is to surround yourself with people who love the duty station and to distance yourself from those who don’t. Naturally, if you spend your time with people who enjoy the area, they will teach you to enjoy it too. My goal is always to be that person who loves a place, so I can take others on our adventures with us, and we can fall in love with it together. I prefer these friendships over the ones that are made in commiseration and negativity.
  • Remind yourself this is not forever. It’s the bittersweet reality of the military lifestyle, that nothing lasts forever. Unfortunately, the good times don’t last, but the bad times don’t either. If you find yourself in a place that you’re not fond of, remind yourself this is not your new forever. While a few years can sound like forever, force yourself to see things in perspective. A few years is a tiny portion of your life. Even if it’s a few years of misery, at the end of the day it is a place that will give your family new memories and stories. Sometimes I grieve over the fact I won’t get to raise our babies in the South their whole lives as I’d always envisioned. I remind myself that we are giving them new experiences filled with so many memories they will have someday. Civilian children don’t get to see the world like ours do, and I try to remember it’s a blessing for our kids, even among the hardships that come with it. Allow each PCS to shatter your heart just a little bit, but don’t stand in the rubble for too long. Pick yourself up, and remember you are here for a reason. Look at it as a short adventure, not your new forever.

Strive to embrace wherever you find yourselves. As a military family, you cannot choose where you go, but you can choose what you make of it.

 

Child with backpack in a neighborhood

MilKids Club at School

That was then…

I grew up in a little town just outside the gates of a naval air station — the same air station my grandpa retired from. This connection to the military through my grandpa’s service might lead you to assume I had a working knowledge of military life, but — to be clear — I did not. My childhood was peppered with friendships with military kids. I didn’t know they were military kids until they up and vanished one day with or without a sendoff.

Each year, new faces would appear in a classroom that was otherwise full of the same ole (not old — I feel the need to emphasize this since we’ve just had our 20-year high school reunion) faces. Each year faces would disappear with as little fanfare as they arrived. I began to get wise to the fact that our school was a revolving door for military kids in late elementary, and even with that knowledge, I still lacked the basic understanding of what it meant to be a military kid. For example, I knew their presence was temporary, but “temporary” and the passage of time looked much different from the little plastic chair in an elementary classroom. Whether a new face would be with us for a month or all year, was an absolute mystery to me. I also assumed their military parent was one hundred percent deployed all the time and that they only lived on base. I’m sure I was operating under many more inaccuracies, but many years and experiences have knocked non-essential ideas out of my head.

I remember feeling sorry for these kids for having a parent gone constantly and moving around so often. I was painfully shy (90s terminology for an introvert with social anxiety) and couldn’t imagine the stress of having to make new friends every time orders dropped. It pained me that they would never have life-long friends or a hometown. I remember thinking at a young age that they must be so lonely.

Child on beach

This is now…

Can you just imagine the amount of time my face winced typing the last three paragraphs? Little clueless me had — for the most part — no idea what she was talking about. I know now, after watching my children experience things as kids that I never expected to see in my lifetime, that military kids are not so much the loneliest people in the room. They are the most interesting from all the places they’ve traveled and friends they met from all over the world, the most resilient from all the starting over they’ve had to do, and the most independent from those periods of separation and finding their footing in a new place. The most mature from a combination of all of it. They didn’t need my misplaced pity back then, and they don’t need it now. What they do need, however, is community — a peer group that understands their ups and downs without having to start at the beginning with a lengthy explanation.

Child in hotel

The Military Kids Club

There is truly nothing I love more than having a great idea for the military community and finding that it already exists. Parents, you may vaguely remember signing a permission slip at the beginning of the school year okaying your child’s participation in military-child-specific counseling activities. You may have had the choice of one-on-one and group activities. I could make the case for both settings, so I opt-in for both when given the opportunity.

In our youngest daughter’s current school, this group counseling session is thriving. It’s a weekly session that I hear about every Thursday afternoon. Participating has allowed our daughter a chance to quickly identify her “tribe” in a new school — the people who know without a lengthy explanation exactly what she means when she says her dad is a Marine who just got stationed here. She’s even spotted a familiar face from our time at another duty station an ocean away from here which is such an “it’s a small Marine Corps” moment, and I love this for her.

This “club” as she refers to it, is something she looks forward to every week. There is always something fun in store, and — at least in the dramatic tween way she recounts it — its exclusivity has earned it some major cool points. Rest assured, no one at her school is pitying her and her military-kid peers. This club has given her an air of confidence in a new place. It’s given her a safe space where she knows she will always be understood when she lays into a random story about something she experienced in Japan or California. It’s given her a network within her school, both with a trusted adult and trusted peers that she knows she can turn to if she is ever facing one of those rough military kid moments — like missing her friends from another duty station or missing her dad while he’s away.

Children running

If you don’t remember such a permission slip, I’ve got some theories:

  • You may be in a private school.
  • You may be in a DODEA school. Not all DODEA schools are the same, but I don’t remember specific instances of pull-out counseling for military kids because — well — they’re almost all military kids. The tribe that this club identifies is already all around your child in a DODEA school. Like any school, one-on-one counseling options are available.
  • You may not have seen the permission slip in the barrage of papers coming home that first month of school.
  • You may have seen it, read it, but thought maybe that wasn’t for you or your child. That’s fine but know that this option is still available if you think your child could benefit from it at any point in the school year.

If you’re using these services at your child’s school and love what you’re hearing, let someone know. These counselors and sessions are not promised, so positive feedback goes a long way.

If you aren’t using these services, but you’d like to, contact your child’s school and military liaison. You’ll be asking about the availability of a military child-specific counseling program. This could be the school counselor who specializes in specific programming, or a child and youth behavioral military and family life counselor assigned to your child’s school. If no such professional or program exists, I’d give you the same advice I gave to the parents who know and use the services: Say something. Give your school and your military liaison feedback; let them know you’d like this extra support for your child and the other military children at your school. In the meantime, if your child needs to speak with a professional while waiting on a tribe, you can arrange non-medical counseling through Military OneSource.

I hope for you and for your resilient, amazing kiddos that they find their place and their people in their current school. I hope they don’t downplay how incredible they are to fit in. I hope they’re proud of their parents’ service and the amazing opportunities it’s given them. I hope you have your own enthusiastic Thursday (or whichever day of the week it happens for you) recount of the day’s meeting of the military kids’ club.

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