I like being a Reserve family.
My garage is filled with camouflage helmets and ammo cans and a more-contained version of the same things that used to chock up our whole house back when we were active duty.
A very sun-stained Marine Corps flag hangs proudly outside our house. And my husband, whose day job is now in the very un-Marine world of banking, gets to roll his sleeves up once a month and still perform the valuable service to this nation that makes him who he is.
But being a Reserve family isn't always easy for us. Having geo-bached before and returned home to my family during a long deployment, I thought I was used to being away from a military installation and all the comfort, community and support that it offers.
We thought we were ready for this. So ready, in fact, that a year and a half ago, we packed up our coffee maker and our son and drove away from Camp Lejeune as quickly as I-95 traffic would carry us.
After two years living more than an hour away from a Barnes and Noble or Starbucks, I was done. I'd been quietly suggesting we give military life the ole' heave-ho for a while.
Little did I know that in a few short weeks, I'd be dying to go back. Little did I know how hard navigating military family life is when you're far from a military town.
Navigating family life while you're also navigating weekend-warrior* military life can bring its own set of challenges that even a former active-duty family like ours can find challenging.
(*Weekend warrior, my left elbow. In our family, Reserve means texts from other Marines trying to coordinate USMC work every. single. night. Literally, we don't have a meal go by without his phone buzzing with someone needing something right then and there. Every time we go out on a date, I cross my fingers, say a prayer, and do a rain dance for good juju that no Marine will go and do something stupid that lands him or her in jail and my husband alongside trying to sort things out. (MARINES, LISTEN TO ME: I WANT TO HAVE MY DATE NIGHT!) This usually proves fruitless. The Reserve does an awesome sales pitch, but the commitment is a LOT more than you bargain for. Fair warning.)
So if you're far from other military families or trying to make a go of the Guard/Reserve life, consider this your checklist: The How-To Guide for Making the Most of Military Life ... even if it's just once a month.
Make Patriotism an Everyday Thing
I have a hard time explaining to my son why Daddy might have to work three straight weeks in a row with nary a day off, because he doesn't really grasp the whole "Reserve life means two jobs" thing. But he does grasp the whole "we love our country" thing. In his very tiny preschool mind, he can tell you right away that Superman and his dad have something in common: They're both heroes. "Me too," he'll say. "Me hero!" And he'll find his dad's boots and put them on and clunk around the house.
And then I cry because of the adorableness.
He does this because he knows that, in the simplest terms, his dad is trying to save the world, and so is his favorite superhero. We might have to explain things in preschool fashion, but even a small child can understand that, and he can learn that that has something to do with his country. When he see American flags on our walks, he'll turn to me and say "Daddy flag!" and we talk all about what it means to live in America and how lucky we are.
He might not get all of it yet, but one day he will. And the day he does, he can be proud -- not just of his nation or what his father is doing, but also of himself. We celebrate America, even when we're missing Daddy most.
Find Your Tribe
Someone once gave me this advice in terms of careers, but I'll tell you, I think it makes a lot more sense to me when I apply it to my kiddos. For the longest time, our tribe had been other active-duty military families. And for good reason: They knew everything we were going through first-hand, and they were our next-door neighbors, our friends at church, everyone we saw at the grocery store. They were our whole community.
In a non-military town, life is completely different. My son's best friend's dad is a doctor. Hubs and this guy have a lot in common, despite their different jobs: Both work long hours. Both are gone, quite often, for work. Little kiddo and his friend have talked about their daddies being gone. They both know how sad it makes them.
The difference is, when the friend's dad is gone, he isn't getting shot at. That just isn't true for my son.
His civilian friends are wonderful, and their parents are close friends of mine. Still, I can be a hundred percent honest and say that none of these friends are equipped to help my family navigate all that military life is going to throw at us. But you know what? They can do their part.
When Daddy misses birthdays or major holidays, Little Man can turn to his buddy for a sympathetic heart. His friend doesn't know deployment, but he does know missing dad. And for a little kid, that's enough.
Make Your Military Family
You, a grown-up who acknowledges the difference between a parent on call and a parent on duty, will need to have a military support system in place, too. But let's be honest -- when your military family isn't built in as next-door neighbors, they can be tricky to find.
Don't let distance be your enemy: Military families are everywhere. If you don't meet anyone who can relate to your military life in your everyday routine, try getting involved with your local USO, VFW or American Legion.
You may find that your local MOPS group even has other military spouses like yourself, seeking community and support. In our very civilian town, our local Mommy + Me group has several Air Force wives, Army National Guard wives, and even Coast Guard families. Once you start looking, military families are everywhere.
If you find you are missing the community and support that come built-in to any normal duty station, make sure you not only look for but find, connect and build relationships with the military families around you. If anything, I've done a better job of cultivating military friendships now that we're in the Reserves. I appreciate that come the next deployment, I won't be going to church every Sunday with people who automatically know my lot and know just what to stay.
The friends I've made know not only what it's like to survive military life as a spouse, but they also have kids. They know how to get their little ones through it with flying colors. They're must-have parents, flying solo, making it work, and showing me how.
Family Readiness Exists Somewhere
Back in our active-duty days, family readiness and Mando-Fun events were a normal -- if somewhat mocked -- part of our regular routine. Now, I'll go six weeks without seeing anyone in the flesh who even knows what an MRE looks like. Our current unit lacks an operative Family Readiness Group, and after spending several months bemoaning that, it finally hit me that if one didn't exist, it needed to. We, the spouses, needed support. We needed to help each other figure out ways to get our kids through the long trainings and days away from home. We needed each other.
Now, we have a Facebook page (with approval from command) where we can talk and help support each other through the harder times. If your unit doesn't have a family readiness group, you can come up with a creative solution, too. You might be able to make one within the official channels, or maybe you can come up with a spouse page on social media that provides family support in a pinch-hit sort of way. Either way, if you find yourself bemoaning the lack of community, take it upon yourself to make one instead.
Make the Most of the Weekend Warrior Time
If we're being perfectly honest, I usually dread the weekends my husband is drilling. I have two wild children, and when they're left with just me, they turn their wild up a few notches. We go from being a mostly-running-smoothly house to there-is-not-enough-coffee-in-the-world house within 10 minutes of Dad walking out the door. But that's OK. I have learned to tackle these weekends head-on, with as much ridiculous fun as I can find.
Museums, aquariums, amusement parks, play places, camps, you name it. Military discounts (they're available even to us Reservists!) abound. If we can't play with Daddy this weekend, fine. We'll go visit the awesome dolphin at the Aquarium instead.
I try to make sure that Daddy's absence is overwhelmed by something super fun. And while sometimes it doesn't work and while it always makes me crazy, the benefits far outweigh the costs. There's nothing better than Hubs walking back in the door after Sunday drill and a little boy running up to him, arms open wide, saying "Daddy! Daddy dolphin! Me play dolphin!"
Celebrate Your Service
I know, I know -- we're supposed to take down any sign of military from our lives on social media. But you know what? If ISIS is out to get me, they're going to do a better job of finding me when I'm pulling in to the nearby Air Force Base Exchange than anything else. And because we've decided that since we own a home and our easily-Googleable name can pull up our exact house location, we're not going to hide our military pride under a bushel. Instead, there's a Marine Corps flag flying proudly outside our house.
You can't drive through our neighborhood and miss it. This house, it says, has someone who serves. This house is one where no one is afraid. This is a place where we're standing up and fighting. And in a day and age in which we're so afraid of what visible displays of our military affiliation might mean, this flag has been the source of great community support for us.
Countless veterans have stopped by and asked us about our family's service. I had a Coast Guard wife once pull into my drive just to say hi. She needed another military family that day, she said, and she just figured ... we had kid toys in the yard and a Marine Corps flag. Chances were high we were military. "I just needed to know there was someone else who gets it," she said to me. "I'm sorry to barge in on you, I just needed to know you were here."
The truth of the matter is that I've been in her shoes before. I have needed to know I'm not alone in this, and no matter where you are in your time as a Guard or Reserve family, you'll hit that point too.
When you do, know that we are here for you. Pull up to the house with the military flag. Say hello to the kids in tiny cammies. Ask your local play-place if other military families come often. We're all in this together, even if we're doing it miles and miles apart.