Monday, October 6, 2008

Happy Families

I must respectfully disagree with Tolstoy's theory of happy families. I have a little experience here, having grown up in a happy, if unusual, family and, all biases aside, I believe my current family situation to be a happy one as well. But happiness within the family unit does not look the same wherever you go, and I think this is especially true for military families.
Like me, the Captain did not step off the campus of his university on graduation day and fall into a lifelong career. He had a couple of false starts, and by the time he found his true military calling, we had been married for 6 years. Throw into the mix the fact that I was a week away from giving birth to Firstborn the day he left for Basic Training, and our initiation into army life, while perhaps fairly common for military families, didn't look a whole lot like anyone else's.
The Captain is away right now. He is, in fact, away a lot. This year has been good, in that by Christmas he will have spent only about 6 months of it away from us. Next year, we should see him for a total of 2 months. To anyone unacquainted with life in the forces, this would seem like grounds for divorce. And sometimes it is. But for us, a combination of our own unique life experiences and personal character traits have made this lifestyle oddly manageable. This is not to say we live a fairy tale existence, and on this point I'd like to be explicit. Military life is not for everyone, not by a long shot.
Let me clear up a common misconception. On TV, in movies and throughout the media, the military family "reunion" has been depicted as some sort of happy ending, and for a short moment in time it is. Your loved one is stepping off a bus or plane, safe and sound, handsome in his uniform, and the promise of a normal life kind of wafts around in the air. You're elated and looking forward to spending time together as a family. You hug, you kiss, you feel for a short time like life is finally back to how it should be. And then you drive home, the ball drops, and reality presents itself on your doorstep like an unwanted visitor with no set departure date. When your spouse has been in the field, on an exercise or course, or overseas for weeks or months at a time, something happens in the family. You get used to his absence, you create routines that don't include him and, in a way, you become single again. Emails and phone calls do not replace proper, spontaneous, in-person, intimate conversations, and when you find yourself alone with him for the first time in months, it can be something akin to an uncomfortable first date. A little voice in the back of your head hints that the love is lost, the marriage is over, and it can take days, even weeks for that voice to shut the hell up. Of course, eventually all goes back to normal. The easy closeness returns, the kids warm up to him again, but only after he's driven you to nearly rip all your hair out with his sloppiness, his laziness and his complete inability to fit himself into the routines you've set up without him. There can be a lot of fighting, a lot of crying and a lot of stress. And this is a letdown, even for those of us who have been through it time and time again and should know better. Because when we're sick of the loneliness, the sporadic phone calls that leave you feeling like you've forgotten to tell him something after the hangup, and the exhaustion of running day-to-day life for yourself, kids and pets alone, you can't help but believe the hype, and long for the fairy tale.
But the separation of military life prepares you for something else. It shows you what life would be like without him. And this is something you have to be prepared for, considering his line of work. So, while I do love having a tidy house, the remote control entirely to myself, and the option to eat potato chips for dinner every night if it so pleases me, I do also make note of the downside of his absence. After the kids are in bed and the dogs have settled in for a night of lounging around, things get quiet. You find yourself completing home improvement projects to stave off loneliness. You get a lot done, but you remember what it is about him that makes you happy, and you want him home again, playing with the kids and just having a presence in your life.
So I count down the days until I see him next (he WILL be home for part of the long weekend before heading out again, not to return until mid-December), I reassure Firstborn that Daddy won't be gone for long, and I prepare for the inevitable separation/reunion misery, secure in the knowledge that despite the temporary anguish it causes, we are ultimately a happy family.

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