Military families have the usual burdens of civilian families – jobs, school, extracurriculars, bills, staying in touch with the world. But on top of that, our constant moving around means there are rarely family or close friends to help out when the going gets tough. Instead, we learn to suck it up and push through. We’re taught from a young age to roll with the punches and learn to be flexible.
While this may not be standard-issue for all of us, the vast majority are familiar with a childhood where we had to be resourceful and problem-solve on our own. This is a great trait for employees, but as humans, we need to remember that sometimes, it’s okay to ask for help.
Are you one of the few, the proud, the independent? Let’s go through what makes us hardwired to try and figure things out for ourselves, how that’s good for us, and when we need to ask for help. Even if we’re used to a Semper Gumby lifestyle, and even if we can make lemonade out of every weird fruit life throws at us, it’s still okay to lean on others for support. So, let’s dig in.
Asking for Help is Not Standard Operating Procedure
Dad’s TDY (and you forgot where), Mom has classes at the community college after she finishes up a full day of teaching, so it’s 10-year-old you and your 6-year-old sister home alone. Mom left you a list. Tonight, you have to do your homework, read for 30 minutes, make dinner, eat, do the dishes, take baths, and go to bed at 8:30. There’s a frozen pizza in the freezer.
This is S.O.P.
But when you pull the pizza out of the oven, the top looks cooked, but the center is still super raw. You put it back in for 10 minutes, but it’s still raw. Now, the top is thoroughly black, and it’s 7:30. Your cranky little sister is hungry and whining because there’s nothing else to eat.
What do you do?
If you responded, find frozen chicken, microwave it, cut it up, boil it in water with spaghetti and baby carrots and tell her it’s chicken soup, you might be a military brat.
I told my friends about this the next day at school, and the response was, “Why didn’t you call your grandma/neighbor/mom?”
And frankly, that would have been the simple solution, right? Get an adult to come over and fix it. But A) that’s not how my mind works. If I need help, I’m not responsible enough to be home alone with my sister. If we can’t stay home alone, Mom can’t go to school. If Mom can’t go to school, well. That’s not an option. So, yeah, obviously, you just improvise.
And B) well, my grandmother lived on the other end of the country, and I didn’t have the neighbors’ phone numbers to call them. Plus, I had it under control anyways.
But apparently that’s not normal.
Our Inability to Ask for Help Is Not Totally Our Parents’ Fault
Military brats have a variety of reasons not to ask their parents for help. The serving parent, though supportive and responsible, is usually unavailable when it’s the most inconvenient. We may also learn (whether we’re directly told or whether we just pick it up on our own) that we need to leave them alone so they can relax. Being home is the only time they get to unwind.
My dad was and is awesome. He’s the one who came when I cried in the middle of the night (Mom was on baby detail) and sang me back to sleep. He’s the one that would drop everything on a Saturday to go throw a football around in the backyard. And he’s the one who missed an important meeting in DC to walk me down the aisle for my wedding. When it matters, he is there.
That doesn’t mean that there weren’t times I needed him, but the military needed him more.
Same thing with my mom. She would take off work every time I faked sick because I didn’t want to go to school, and she’d get me a milkshake. She’s the one who went out and bought the fabric to make a dress I designed even though it turned out weird. And she’s the one who I called when I thought I might have a contact high after the drug-free concert to order me a pizza.
Yet, she still had to work hard at her job because she was always the new teacher, and for a while, she was also getting her master’s degree after hours. So, we had to respect her time, too.
Semper Gumby: Always Flexible
We respect and love our parents. So, even though they love us and did their best, we were still on our own a lot. That’s why we had to adjust. We learned how to make dinner even the week before Mom got to the commissary when all that was left was a single frozen chicken breast, half a handful of baby carrots, and some spaghetti.
When our teachers said the assignment was to read with our parents, we read to our dog and little sister. Maybe we pronounced “awry” as “Aw-ree” until we were in high school, but it doesn’t come up in conversation that often anyways.
And when we got dumped for the first time, we had a sleepover and made our friends eat macaroni and cheese pizza. Why bother the parents? Although, this example is likely just normal teenage behavior… See look at that! You ARE normal.
But we know that we have to adapt. Nothing is so bad that we can’t figure out a solution, and it’s very likely that we don’t actually need help. You need to learn to do everything on your own because there’s not always going to be someone there to do it for you.
When It’s Good to Be Self-Sufficient
Being independent and self-sufficient is pretty awesome. As a young woman, I can tell you, it’s pretty stinking satisfying to tackle things no one thinks you can do. And no matter how many times you’ve Macgyvered your way out of a sticky situation, it never gets less satisfying. Plus, when you’re actually faced with issues at work, they don’t seem so crazy.
While everyone else is losing their minds because the pastry counter line cook didn’t turn up for work, you’re starting the dough for dessert, taking inventory for the log, and prepping the buffet station for service… because there’s a checklist, guys! This isn’t that hard!
Interviewing for that next big job, you have a thousand stories under your belt of how you stay cool under pressure and get things done. It’s impressive, and bosses love that stuff. You’re a great employee because you don’t whine; you just handle it.
Being independent and self-sufficient means that you know you’re capable of handling things, so nothing seems all that daunting… until it does.
When Do We Need Help?
You’re rolling along at your own awesome pace, blowing up obstacles and feeling the debris rain down on you like confetti at your own little parade. Then, you finally blow a tire and there’s no spare in the trunk. What do you do?
This is a metaphor of course. We’ve all thought we had a solid handle on our lives, that we were doing just fine on our own, and then something happens that stops you in your tracks - a death in the family, losing a job, an international pandemic, or all of the above at the same time.
Suddenly, it’s finally too much to take on by yourself. This is when it’s absolutely crucial for you to ask for help. But can you?
This is my actual situation right now. The depression is real. I am irritable, tired, frustrated, and my back hurts all the time. And despite all that, I still try to act like I can do everything by myself. Then, once a month, I lose my sh…stuff and tell my husband that he needs to be doing more. And inevitably, he says, “I thought you had it handled. You didn’t ask for help.”
Trusting Others to Help is Hard
He’s right. It’s just really hard to ask for help when you’ve spent your whole life being applauded for how self-sufficient and independent you are. You’re the one no one ever has to worry about. You’re dependable. You are self-disciplined, and everyone constantly comments on how they can always count on you to do your job well.
That’s a whole lot of pressure to place on a kid, obviously, but you don’t grow out of it. You don’t turn 18, move out of your parents’ house, become a civilian, and suddenly start being comfortable relying on other people to support you and help you out.
I remember once at work, I was there late. My friend was in the hospital, my uncle was sick, my dad had crazy stuff going on, and I had just had it. I was just ready to sit in my office, get through my work, and have a nice cry while I did that. The one other person there that late came to check on me and just sat there with me so I wouldn’t be alone. She just listened and let me cry. I didn’t have to ask her to stay, she just did, and that was mind-blowing to me.
Now, when it comes to trust. It’s funny. I love the people in my life, my friends, my neighbors, my family. I will bend over backward to try and help. My goal is to make sure the people I love feel safe and supported. So, why can’t I let people reciprocate? Trusting other people to help me, feeling like I can reach out and ask for a hand, doesn’t come naturally.
Practicing Asking for Help
But it’s time to figure it out. It starts with recognizing when you have too much on your plate. What really needs to be done? Can you let anything go? And who can you ask to pick up your slack?
Remember, the end goal is not to force total dependence. You don’t want to lose the best qualities of your self-sufficiency. What you want is to relieve the pressure you feel to do it all yourself. Most of the time, it’s not only your responsibility. Who else shares responsibility, and are you letting them? Your spouse should be sharing housework with you because you share the house.
But what about emotional stuff? This is a hard one to address because many of us grew up thinking therapy was for the weak and insane. If you saw a counselor, there had to be something really wrong with you. That’s just simply not the case, though.
I’m not saying we all need therapy, but the vast majority of us do. We’ve said goodbye to a lot of people, and we have been strong through more trauma and drama than the average person. Some of us have lost parents. All of us have lost friends.
Military Brats Need Help Sometimes, Too
The thing that makes military brats so amazing is that we’re resilient, and we handle all of this without a word. But we can only be strong for so long before we start to crack under that weight. It’s okay to get help. Start by calling your sister once a week and venting. Read and research about third culture kids and delayed grieving. You may have more to process than you realize, but once you start working through it, you’ll realize that life can be a lot better than it is when you ask for help.