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Reintegration Secret: Housework and Childcare

One soldier told me that at their command they call it the Don’t-Beat-Yer-Wife-Cuz-She-Bought-New-Curtains speech.

He was talking about the reintegration lecture presented to returning troops. The troops are cautioned not to come home and take over from their spouses.

Don’t take the checkbook. Don’t criticize. Don’t beat yer wife cuz she bought new curtains.

The airmen, soldiers, Coasties, sailors, and Marines tend to remember what they were told not to do.

Yet the returnees don’t always remember the part of the lecture that told them what they were supposed to do to get back into the swing of their normal family life.

They got the general idea (don’t be a controlling jerk), but they were left with questions like: What if my way is better? Why am I visitor in my own house when I’m paying for most of this? Whose kids are these anyway?

When I did my research on long married military couples, I probed for information about reintegration. How did these long married couples deploy and return and redeploy and return again without becoming roommates who just share an address?

Turns out one of the keys to reintegration is….wait for it….this is so exciting!!....the secret to reintegration is HOUSEWORK AND CHILDCARE.

Eh. I know. I thought it would be more secret handshake than that.

These long married military members told me about how they came home and started getting back into the swing of military life by doing housework.

Their wives told me that their husbands emptied the dishwasher. Or vacuumed. Or supervised the bedtime routine. The dads went back to driving kids to school and sports.

Most frequently the servicemembers told me how theys did the laundry because you know when you are done with the laundry (until your kids make more.)  They didn't do these things exactly how their wives did them, but the wives really wanted the husbands participation.

Some families had a certain agreed-upon time limit before the returning servicemember started work around the house or started to discipline kids—a week, two weeks, a month. Others started doing laundry the day they got home.

One wife told me that she really likes the way her husband gets back in the family. He will see her sweeping the floor or whatever and say, “Why don’t you let me do that?”

I thought that was kind of brilliant. Not only did the guy signal her that he wanted to be part of the housework and thus, the family, but that the chore was something he didn’t mind doing.

Perhaps the secret handshake of the thing is the way these long married servicemembers respected the routine of the household.

The way they talked about the “normal” or the “structure” or the "routine” or the "calendar” made it seem like those things were a separate entity in their household. They saw the household as a well-oiled machine. They appreciated that this was the routine and the structure that had enabled the family to get through the deployment.

Maybe that is the missing part we forget to tell servicemembers. First you have to admire the structure of the household. You have to step back and see this magnificent thing your wife built that allowed your family to get to school on time and fight germs and make it to the dentist while you deployed.

Then you make yourself a part of that routine by contributing to its upkeep. Pick some chores inside the house and with the kids that you don’t mind doing.  Keep doing those things regularly until the structure of the household relies on you again, counts on you, folds around you.

Taking on housework and childcare ain’t romantic. It ain’t glamorous. But it has worked for many long married military members. And it will probably work for you and yours.

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