Military Brat Turned Military Spouse: Adapting to the New Role
There’s something about trying to introduce myself in writing that feels almost impossible. Something about it feels like pointlessly shouting into the void, “I’m here!” (Shouting into a void? Very 2020) So, I guess I’ll start with the basics: I’m Melissa, Air Force brat turned spouse just trying to live a pretty rad life with my husband and two exceptionally handsome cats.
In a lot of ways, the military provided the backdrop for the stages of my life – the when and where of my story – but not the why or the how or the how much. It’s an odd exercise to examine your past self with any sort of pointed introspection. Memory-you knows how you felt in the moment, but current-you provides additional context and insight.
What “Belonging” Means to a Nomadic Child
One of the things I’ve thought about a lot while putting together this post is what “belonging” really means. As a child, belonging is found and lost in the course of a sleepover, a recess, a day at the park. Best friends are made and unmade and made again with little thought or effort.
My earliest memories are unburdened by the stress of coming and going and are instead colored by the kaleidoscope of peoples and places I encountered, changed, and that changed me. It is sometimes jumbled and a little confusing (Wait, where did I know that person? Which city was that in?), but as I look back, I can’t help but feel like my life is fuller because of those experiences.
And I’ll say it. I mostly loved moving. Honestly, I still do. There’s something about possibilities that just calls to my soul. The problem is that these possibilities sometimes whispered to me that it was time to blow away when I should have been putting down roots. Sometimes I felt as if I’m made of dandelion fluff and if pinned down, I’d fall apart. While others struggled with the leaving, I found the staying hard too.
Starting in my teens, belonging became a far more complicated and nuanced matter. Aggravated by the angst that seems to afflict all teens, I found myself suffering through bouts of melancholy (some might call depression), which drove me to long for the stability that constantly moving made impossible.
In my 16-year-old mind, belonging was paramount to my happiness, and the prospect of reentering the gauntlet of high school without established allies was a fate worse than death.
(Teen angst, amiright?) Cue the dreaded mid-high school move. I cried, I screamed, I drove my parents utterly mad.
And I moved. And I made a few good friends.
And even if I never quite belonged, I still added more colors to my kaleidoscope. I still gained more than I lost. And if that sounds bittersweet, it is. But I learned hard lessons about the returns on investment if you only give your most meager self to the place you are and set aside the wealth of you for another place, another time.
And this lesson is, in my experience, the single most important thing a modern nomad can learn. There is an inherent math to belonging. The give and take that is absolutely necessary for true human connections. As with actual math, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes (except Calculus - which I have NEVER needed, thank you very much).
Choosing to Stay in the Military (Kind Of)
I actually started my college career thinking I would follow in my father’s footsteps. I joined the AFROTC unit at my university. While I ultimately concluded that I lacked the particular drive to serve in our military, I befriended and eventually fell in love with a fellow cadet.
...and Then Marrying Back In.
We became engaged during our junior year and married a couple of weeks after graduation. It was honestly an easy decision for me to jump into the role of military spouse. In my 22-year-old mind, I had been training for this my whole life.
Narrator Voice: Ah, the folly of youth!
Here’s the thing. I was, in fact, pretty well-prepared for the unique challenges inherent to military life. But that’s not all there is to being a military spouse. “Military” is just a qualifier for the title of Spouse. I am first, and absolutely foremost, my husband’s wife.
I don’t think there’s anything that can really prepare you for the growing pains, the stupid fights, the “everything no one ever warns you about” of newlywed bliss. Now add in an awkward third wheel who is constantly changing your plans and seems to have an opinion on every aspect of your life (Looking at you, Air Force).
That pretty much sums up our simultaneous first year of marriage and first year of active duty military life together, both of us fumbling along as we adjusted to our respective new roles.
Facing New Hurdles as a Milspouse
Beyond the challenges intrinsic to married life, military spouses face a few additional hurdles. While children have the advantage of school, sports, playdates, etc. as venues for developing meaningful relationships, it can feel pretty daunting to slot yourself into a new community as an adult. I cannot even begin to quantify the number of comically awkward social interactions I’ve endured while trying to “put myself out there.”
Shortly into our first assignment, I was invited to a party by another spouse. I happily accepted, looking forward to meeting people as there are only so many Gilmore Girls reruns a girl can take.
So, I donned my carefully selected outfit (first impressions and all that), drove over to this girl’s house, took a couple of bracing breaths as I reminded myself to please be cool, and rang the doorbell. I honestly have no clue what expression was plastered on my face at what I beheld once I crossed the threshold.
In the middle of the living room, a folding table had been set up with a simple black tablecloth holding an array of... "adult products".
Needless to say, I had not mentally prepared myself for this kind of event. But even though I had absolutely no intention of buying any of their products at my husband’s coworker’s house, I met several women who I’m still friends with today.
Sometimes you have to be willing to sacrifice some of your comfort (or innocence, in this case) in order to meet people where they are. The give and take. The math of belonging.
Having a Career as a Military Spouse
And just like that, I had completed a classic milspouse Rite of Passage: the surprise MLM party. If there were a military spouse bingo card, MLM parties would be the free space. The nomadic nature of our lives makes having a traditional career almost impossible.
The idea of a home-based, easily portable business is incredibly appealing to military spouses because it can provide some stability in ways location-based careers just can’t. As a class of people, we’re fairly resourceful, but underemployment continues to be a tax we have to pay.
I, for example, have a degree in International Studies with an emphasis in peace and security, and at 20, dreams of counterterrorism danced in my head. A decade later, I’m a yoga instructor who makes custom sugar cookies out of our home kitchen. And you know what? That’s okay.
I love teaching yoga and decorating cookies, and I love having the flexibility (see what I did there?) of a nontraditional path. And the truth is that if I was unwilling to compromise my dreams of a career in national security, I’m sure where there’s enough of a will, there’s a way.
Having frequent and frank conversations with your other half about both short and long-term goals is imperative. This is true for all married couples, but particularly when external variables are continuously shifting. Is this our endgame? Do we need to change our priorities? Because if you don’t make those decisions together, you’ll end up making them separately.
Opportunity to Constantly Evaluate WITH Your Partner
There’s an interesting byproduct of constantly tearing down and rebuilding your physical home: it provides an opportunity, for better or worse, to evaluate the previous chapter of your life and decide what you take with you into the next, both literally (I could be queen of a cardboard castle) and in the emotional baggage you carry from one place to another.
You can’t rely on inertia to keep your marriage going. You don’t have the luxury of being passive. It’s actively saying, “Where you go, I go. Always.”
Except, of course, when you can’t. Deployments are hard, man. Like... They just are.
I’m sitting here, three weeks into my husband’s sixth deployment. Deployments are not like math. They haven’t gotten easier with practice. Deployments are like an old injury that flares up from time to time. Even when the pain is familiar, it doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
Don’t Tell Me “I Knew What I Was Getting Into”
And as a brat, there’s this expectation that deployments should be easier for me because “You knew what you were getting yourself into.” That particular sentiment has been expressed to me on more than one occasion, and it’s truly infuriating for two specific reasons.
1) Interestingly, the relationship dynamics between father and daughter and husband and wife are not the same. (WHAT? I know). Like, the idea that the expectations and demands would be the same for a child whose parent is deployed versus an adult whose spouse is across the world...
And 2) My dad never deployed. Ever. So, I really didn’t have a frame of reference. Dependent upon the career, someone might never or rarely deploy, or deployments might be a regular component of their duties.
There’s Still a Learning Curve Even for Former Brats
And pilots deploy like... a bunch. I had a vague understanding of this fact growing up, but it’s one thing to be aware of it and another to try and plan your life around the constantly revolving door to the Middle East. Even though I grew up in and then married back into the same branch of service, my dad wasn’t aircrew, so that world was almost completely foreign to me.
I, of course, had an advantage over my civilian spouse counterparts simply by understanding the culture of the Air Force, knowing how to get around on base, Tricare (as much as anyone can riddle out that enigma), and, you know, acronyms. So many acronyms. But in a lot of ways, it was an equal playing field regardless of my brat experience. Pilots definitely have their own subculture, expectations, schedules, and, yes, MORE acronyms.
Honestly, the biggest advantage of being a brat turned spouse is that my parents get it. I don’t have to apologize to them because I don’t know if we’ll be home for Christmas, and I don’t have to explain that our lives aren’t really our own.
They understand the service and sacrifice and have been a sounding board and a shoulder to lean on when I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the demands of military life.
Beyond that, my dad has been a resource for parsing the best path for my husband’s career thanks to his decades of experience. And for me, my mom has been an example of how to be supportive while maintaining an identity separate from the military. She was the one who first taught me the value of an open heart, an outstretched hand, a warm smile; that kindness multiplies. The math of belonging.
The True Math of Belonging
I had this epiphany a few years back. In my youth, I had constructed an idea of “belonging” that was incredibly narrow. It was limited to feeling included within the specific community in which I found myself at that moment. But this is the true math of belonging – the additive quality of our life experiences. A whole greater than the sum of its parts.
With every move, I fell in love with a new town and new people and when it was time to leave, those feelings didn’t stay there. They’re in the memories I hold close against the wind blowing my dandelion heart further down the road, in the colors painted on my kaleidoscope soul. They’re in the stories I share with the new people in my life - a connection tethering new to old and both to me. A net that spans cities and countries, across oceans and back.
And just like that, I belong. I belong to the friends I’ve found and the Air Force family we’ve made and even though we’re scattered across the globe, they’re with me and I’m with them. When belonging can be anywhere, home is everywhere. And it feels good to be home.