Sarah Schmidt has advocated for children and families across the United States and overseas for the past decade. She has worked as an early childhood and parent educator and referral specialist, serving vulnerable children and families. She has volunteered with various Marine Corps Family Readiness commands since 2009 and was recognized as an Outstanding Military Spouse in 2012.
With the moving truck loaded, I stand in the driveway with another PCS binder tucked under my arm, finding myself halfway past indignation and on my way to acceptance. Realizing I'm holding my breath, I exhale.
I walk back inside to the two-story home in rural Illinois that we moved into just 11 months earlier. I walk past the disaster of a toy room, where our kids spend most of their time; then past our neatly kept living room, where I control the chaos; to the kitchen, where I slide a bottle of vodka over the top of the refrigerator and into my hand. I pour myself a drink and allow myself to feel both defeated and exhausted. I slump back into the tufted gray couch we bought after our last overseas tour and call my mom, trying to sound as strong and resilient as I am "supposed to be" as a military spouse.
For 11 years, I have always unpacked both our household goods and my entire being. Though I'm completely dedicated -- but not always gracefully -- to life as a military spouse, I know my life in boxes never allows my high-strung, anxious self to breathe. I think that's why it's so devastating every time the moving truck shows up again, because I've invested even when my heart should have known better.
When my husband started recruiting duty a couple of years ago, I was excited about the idea of being back in the Midwest. Even more so, in Wisconsin, a place my husband and I both called home, in a place where my children could be among other kids who had no military connection and people who would be welcoming, because "Midwest nice" is a real thing.
Recruiters and their families are embedded in every single sleepy little civilian town, and that is where we found ourselves next, miles from any base reminiscent of our military community. It felt so refreshing.
Being back in the Midwest, around people who loved raising their families at a quieter pace and understood Midwest values, was exactly what I thought our family needed after a stressful and tumultuous three years overseas. It was just what my soul craved. But I began to feel -- you know that saying -- "You can't go home again" had come true.
Months into our time back "home," as we moved further into the cold and isolating winter months, I found myself without work -- not for a lack of trying -- and without friends. I would aimlessly roam the aisles at Target with a gleeful toddler in the cart and a cute little preschooler happily chatting along beside me, while smiling obnoxiously at every other person passing by, like a desperate junkie in need of a fix, with the hope that they would see me or notice I needed a friend, because my ego wouldn't let me say it out loud.
As a military family, we are taught to adapt and overcome, but I was failing miserably. Our children took swim lessons at the YMCA. My son was placed in a parent/tot swim class where all of the moms knew each other. They were often together for playgroups and music classes and yoga. Even the swim instructor knew this group of moms, and she doted on their toddlers. I made up the lesson on my own, floated my toddler around the pool, singing the only sea animal song I could remember -- over and over again by myself -- despite the small talk I tried to make with the others to become one of them.
Military spouse friendships are ever-evolving. A new person arrives and departs as often as planes on a runway. But when you're in your 30s, and in a place where friendship circles among civilians develop in a dramatically different way, everyone already has "their people." And, quite frankly, it never seems like they need one more.
Adding a new person to an established group feels uncomfortable. History among a group has the same complexity and delicate layers as a cake, and military friendships are no different. But in military circles, we adjust and accommodate because of the underlying common thread that puts us in the position of having to find new friends in the first place. Inserting yourself into a civilian circle that doesn't have the typical ebb and flow of military life is like filling a delicately layered cake after it's already been frosted.
On the first day of school, as parents, we send our kids out the door in their best dresses and their sparkle shoes and their backpacks, encouraging them to be kind and make new friends -- especially with someone who seems scared and alone -- because military kids find themselves in that situation all the time.That is something we could be better at as adults: remembering what it's like to be new. For military spouses, the first day at a new duty station? It's not any different from our kid's first day of school.
* * *
On alternate days, our daughter took a preschool group swim lesson where I was less involved. I would sit on an old out-of-place wooden dining room chair, drinking crappy coffee from a crappy cup, and watching, from the crappy corner of the observation window, as my daughter bravely conquered her fears, while I sat alone thinking about mine.
Behind me, on these days, sat a group of senior citizens around a donated secondhand oval oak table, gossiping in the charming way that only people of a certain age can get away with. Occasionally, they would greet or make small talk with a passerby, only to follow it up with a blunt and snarky comment amongst themselves just out of earshot. The discarded newspapers in neat piles around them reminded me of my grandfather sitting at a table with similarly discarded newspapers in neat piles.
As my daughter learned how to back float one morning, the hot topic of the group was the upcoming and emotionally charged political elections. They talked animatedly about the direction our country was headed, hinting about whom they would back but keeping their cards close to their chest. The discussion turned a bit to what this election would mean for service members, and how much pride they had for them, as some of them had served too.
They piqued my curiosity and, for the first time in months, I felt a connection in a place where I had felt lonely.
I heard myself chime in, accidentally commenting out loud instead of in my head, as usual. I don't remember and can't possibly imagine what witty comment I could have made that drew their attention, but soon I found myself "invited" to sit with them. Every week during swim lessons, I found myself among the table talk, sitting in the same seat but not too close to appear overly eager. I was still afraid to be too casual, like reaching across the table for a cookie to go with my crappy coffee. I never touched anything other than my Styrofoam cup, because I didn't want to do anything that would exile me from this elite coffee talk. They reminded me of Mean Girls, but over 65, and they were the only thing that I had close to "friends."
I was included in the argument about the new gym being built next door. They told me about their families, and they asked questions about mine, listening intently as I talked about my husband's experience aiding locals after the disaster in Nepal and meeting the Sultan of Brunei. I told his adventures like fairy tales, because the truth was, as my husband was doing these amazing things, I was raising babies and keeping our house a home, and I felt like that was often never important enough. I gingerly told my husband about my new friends, and he joked about my honorary membership into the "silver sneakers club."
Four weeks later, we unexpectedly moved again, and my sister begged me to make friends with people my own age this time. The good news is that we moved to another "civilian town" in Wisconsin, where I made the best friends of my life and found the most meaningful job of my life, which led me to start grad school and to realize that I could be a badass military spouse and mother -- and whatever else I wanted to be. But two years after that, we moved again.
Our eighth home.
Being a military spouse is a complicated thing. When it's good, it feels so good. When it hurts, it changes you.
I've realized that being a military spouse is hard and exhausting and wonderful. And it can come with a lot of judgment from others and from within.
However, instead of realizing the importance of the work we do, which isn't easy -- caring for our home, for our children, for our spouse; leaving jobs over and over; fighting for jobs over and over; making friends and finding a tribe over and over -- we let other people judge us.
And we shouldn't feel bad when it hurts, when it is time to pack up and leave. We shouldn't feel bad for being nervous about trying to make new friends and asking a thousand questions.
Instead, we need to feel proud of everything we do, because what we do is brave. When the moving truck shows up again in a couple of years, I will do my best to remind myself of that.
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