Twenty years ago I sat in a stadium watching my future husband receive his commissioning in the US Navy. With a stack of blissful hopes and dreams we jumped into the military life and flew into the unknown. For that hometown 20-something girl, every single thing was an unknown. Dropped into a completely new world, she fumbled through those first few years, trying her best to understand the new military community and her place within it. I wish I could write her a letter to calm her fears and let her know that she was on the precipice of something rich and amazing.
Dear Younger Self,
Congratulations on your beautiful wedding! That epic day filled with sword arches and a Top Gun serenade seemed like the perfect launching pad for your new life.
Now here you are, two weeks later, unpacking boxes in your new apartment and thinking “What on Earth just happened?” All your family and friends now live thousands of miles away and South Texas surrounds you like a foreign country. (And why is this foreign country so freakishly hot????)
I see the way you are looking around now, disoriented, skeptical and lonely…But let me tell you something: you are going to be okay. Actually, you are going to be more than okay. You are going to have the adventure of a lifetime. LISTEN TO ME:
I know you are lonely now, but you are going to have deep and meaningful friendships. You will have friends from all fifty states, some for a period, but some for a lifetime. You will have close neighbors who invest in you and care for your children. You will meet other military spouses who will become your new family, your new world and your new tribe of military code-breakers. They will meet you in the parking lot when your car battery dies. They will laugh and cry with you during seemingly endless deployment cycles. Find these friends.
Finding your tribe takes effort but you will learn to do it well. Don’t wait around, don’t sit inside, leave the house and pursue people. At first it feels uncomfortable to join a new group or be known as “The Mrs” but I promise you the reward is there for the taking. Eventually you will become so efficient and bold in your quest for tribal membership that you will compose emails like “I like you and I think you are fun, wanna meet me for coffee?” And they do. (Actually, you will do this more than once). I guarantee you that every time you relocate to a new city you will find fantastic friends who will warrant tears when you depart. They sit around the world now, just waiting to meet you for coffee.
You will not be in control of your family’s schedule and there is nothing you can do but laugh. I’m serious here. I see you feeling annoyed, angry and beyond frustrated with the Navy but fighting is futile- you will always lose. You can stubbornly plan a vacation ten months away but sometimes your husband won’t know his schedule until a couple months before. Years of your life will be dictated by the schedule of a ship or the affairs of the world, none of which you can control. The sooner you can accept that, the happier you will be. (Don’t choose anger, choose donuts. Just kidding. Maybe not. Apple Fritters are forever.)
Remember- It’s not his fault that the ship is leaving. Don’t blame him for the schedule when it is inconvenient. When he is walking out the door with his pack and you are laying on the floor with the stomach flu, hoping your unsupervised toddler doesn’t grab any kitchen knives, he isn’t trying to purposefully run out on you. He’s trying to stay employed and not go to a sleepover at the base brig. Pull up your big girl pants and stop taking his schedule as a personal affront! If you want your marriage to succeed, you must learn to separate the two.
Deployments will seem like the end of the world but they are often forgettable. Your first deployment will be nine months long but years later you will barely recall the details. And all those times he deploys when your kids are young and you feel like their hearts will be crushed, the truth is that they won’t remember those separations either. I don’t mean to downplay the effort it will take to persevere through a deployment (because those times will push you beyond your limits), but those separations won’t define you or your kids. Your husband will miss some milestones but he will be there for a million more moments later and those relationships will thrive.
Your kids will have a different childhood than your own, but that is okay. You will wonder if moving them is traumatic, if not living on the same street will damage them. But then you will watch them learn about farming in California, walk the streets of Paris and tour the Capitol Building in DC. You will see their world views broadened through their personal experiences & friendships and you will know that their horizons are wider than you ever dreamed. Contrary to what you worry about, your children will have strong, beautiful roots that grow in many directions.
Your professional career is going to struggle but that’s okay, too. You will love some of your future jobs, but there will come a time when balancing work, family & the military life will be very difficult. “The flexible one” will need to be you and that’s the blunt truth. When your kid has a fever and can’t go to school, your husband won’t be coming home from the ship to handle it. When your kid is crying in the school bathroom after Daddy deploys, you will be the one to show up. And that’s when you will realize your most important job- to show up every time. You will be your family’s grounding force in an ever-shifting world and that stability will be worth more than any paycheck.
The military life will make your world bigger and smaller at the same time. Years from now, you will drive across the United States, from coast to coast, and know someone in almost every place. You will watch the news and think of your foreign friendships and the lessons they taught you about their home countries. Daily, you will pass souvenirs in your home- reminders from squadrons, port visits, tours abroad and all the moments when your world expanded a little further. You will realize one day that you are no longer the same person who was unpacking boxes in that first apartment.
Like every phase of adulthood…
This journey will pass in a blink. When these friends from South Texas begin to retire, your mind will replay all the emotions of the twenty years- the heartache of goodbyes, the stress of moving, the struggle of solo-parenting, the joy of Homecomings, the feelings of patriotism, the love of friends and everything in-between. You will grab your husband’s hand and think of all you have seen and experienced together and realize that the “sacrifice” of this life looks more like a beautiful gift.
SO GO. Don’t be afraid. A wonderful journey stands before you.
With love from your Older and Wiser Self,
p.s. Consider using eye cream a little earlier, then maybe you won’t have big bags under your eyes at age Forty. I’m just sayin.’
p.p.s. Never iron your husband’s white uniform without first confirming that the iron is clean. Especially not the night before a big event. TRUST ME.