On Facebook, I asked civilians for their questions about military life. No one answered. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe it was the format, because what I received instead was a deluge of responses from military wives who think civilians are not asking the right questions.
“How do you do it?”
This was an often-repeated example of “insensitive” questions. I must admit that I receive this one quite a bit, too. Whether or not it bothers me really depends on the day and also my internal dialogue: “Am I really ‘doing it,’ or am I just getting by? And did Lindell pee on the floor again today?”
In any case, to answer the question: We do it because we have no other choice. First of all, the military does not send home a permission slip to be signed by the wife before a deployment. There is no vote. Remember, the military is protecting democracy, not practicing it. This narrows down a wife’s options. She can: A. Fall apart or B. Rise to the occasion.
Most of us choose option B, even if “rising to the occasion” only amounts to summoning the strength to make something besides macaroni and cheese or cold cereal for breakfast.
To make this point even more clear, think about what it’s like to raise a 2-year-old. Every whine and tantrum is cruel and unusual emotional torture for the parent, and yet, letting the child get lost in a corn maze is both illegal and morally wrong. So you get by as best you can and ignore all those mothers who say, “You think 2 is bad, wait until he is a teenager!”
It’s only later, once time has had a chance to heal those emotional wounds, that the parent looks back with fondness at all the times said child fell asleep with his diapered bottom sticking up in the air, his legs and arms tucked beneath his belly, or how cute he looked when he smiled after dropping a plate of spaghetti on the floor.
This is what deployments are like. You can’t stop to think about “it” right now or you will go mad. But eventually, you catch yourself saying, “I enjoy my time alone when [husband’s name] is on deployment.”
“Your husband won’t have to leave again, will he?”
This brings to mind my doctor’s words immediately after one of my pregnancies, which was filled with anxiety, lots of crying and a lack of restraint with bags of peanut M&Ms: “So what kind of birth control will you be using?” — by the way, this is the scientific way of saying, “Let’s make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
If it is your neighbor who asks “Will your husband have to leave again?” reflect on the amount of times you asked him or her to help you with the lawn mower or to investigate strange noises in the attic. Then go back and reread Option B above.
If it is someone from whom you’ve never solicited support, answer the way I answered my doctor: “I thought nursing prevented pregnancy.”
Oh, wait, wrong response. Try: “Give me some time to enjoy the moment, and then I’ll think about the future.”
“Military families don’t pay for groceries or health care, do they?”
No and yes. We do pay for groceries, but if we are lucky enough to live near a commissary, we don’t pay taxes on our groceries.
We don’t pay for health care, or at least not in the traditional sense. Nothing is ever truly “free,” least of all any of the military benefits. The pros and cons of military medicine are best left for another column, but it’s fair and efficient to say that families “pay” for their health care in ways that might seem totally foreign to most: missing the delivery of your first child, for instance.
After going back and forth about this, I asked my military friends on Facebook: So what questions SHOULD civilians ask? Their response was similar to that of the civilians when I asked my first question — silence.
Clearly, there is a disconnect between what military families want to talk about and what civilians want to know. This gap, I fear, is often filled with bitterness — on both sides. But the truth is that all of us have more in common than we might first imagine. For instance, military families should remember that they aren’t the only ones who “do it” all by themselves. Single mothers do this every day, and they have no homecoming in sight. Likewise, there are other careers — I’m thinking of firefighters, police officers, etc. — that are as dangerous as the military and involve the same amount of commitment to service.
Having said all that, I recognize in a deeply personal way the unique aspects and demands of military life. And I know that the one thing a civilian can never go wrong saying to a military wife is “Thank you.”
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.