In June of 2007, my whole world buzzed with anticipation. My husband, who had deployed a year earlier, just eight days after our wedding, was due home any day. I cleaned until our house sparkled, stocked the fridge and pantry with his favorite foods and helped make baskets of snacks for the brigade's single soldiers. In fact, in my hurry to get everything ready before his arrival, the one thing I forgot to do was sleep.
After his unit marched into our installation's gym, and all the band playing and flag-waving was done, we finally made our way home, and he jumped in the shower. I sat down for what might have been the first time in three days and promptly fell fast asleep -- not quite the welcome I had planned!
Your first reintegration is an exciting time, plus a little anxiety -- and it may not go the way you were hoping it would. And that's OK.
Here are four tips for handling it like a pro.
1. Establish Expectations Let's get this out of the way: There may be a few moments where you feel like the main character in a Nicholas Sparks-inspired movie, but there will be bumps in the road. Your spouse is focused on adjusting to "normal life" after months of essentially being at work 24/7, and interacting almost exclusively with other service members. It is likely that at some point you will be asked to do something in a way that sounds suspiciously like an order. You will also be frustrated that your spouse can't remember that the garbage goes out on Mondays. Talk to each other before your spouse comes home so that everyone is on the same page - understanding that some awkwardness and discomfort is both normal and expected.
2. Decide On A Guest Policy. In those viral video homecomings (that you should definitely not watch at 1 a.m. on Saturday night during a deployment), you never see the aftermath. In-laws that smother the service member for hours after the homecoming ceremony or spouses feeling left out or ignored because everyone wants to hang out and chat with the returning hero. While there is nothing out of the ordinary about these scenarios, the road can be made a little smoother by agreeing on a "guest policy" a couple of months out from the expected arrival home. Don't be afraid to let your spouse know your preference, but always be open to what they want -- it is their homecoming after all.
If your service member is eagerly looking forward to visits from family and friends and you aren't, consider compromising with a delayed visit. Return flights are unpredictable and they often have to work for a few days immediately after their return. Suggesting visitors arrive a week or so after the expected homecoming gives you time to get reacquainted, and gives everyone the opportunity to reconnect.
3. Preparing the Kids. There are many resources available to help you prepare the kids for reintegration: books, videos and conversation prompts that help with my first tip, establishing expectations. After experiencing our son's tough transition at the end of a five-month TDY, my husband and I decided to be proactive about homecoming. I helped our 5-year-old make a "My Favorites" book highlighting his favorite toys, television shows, foods and treats. We also used a dry erase board on the fridge to outline his normal schedule, which allowed my husband to check-in without having to ask me. This helped him to feel more a part of our daily schedule from the very beginning.
Help your spouse and any kids get comfortable by planning low stress, interactive activities to get everyone relaxed and enjoying each other.
4. Getting Physical. Back to that Nicholas Sparks-inspired romance: your spouse is home, it's been a while for both of you, so, cue the candles and sexy music, right?
Maybe. It can take some time to get your groove back after time apart, but, don't worry, it is completely normal.
Give yourself a little grace on this one. Get out of the house and do something physical (the type with your clothes on), like hiking or working out. Don't forget another bonus of planning for a delayed visit from family and friends: having all hands on deck. Make the most of having babysitters around if you have kids or pets, and get away for a night to focus on each other.
Each of these four tips comes down to one thing: reintegration is a challenge. There will be some uncertainty, you'll both tiptoe around each other a little and you may need to reach out to one of the many resources available to help you smooth things out, all of which is normal.
Take a deep breath, enjoy your time together, and don't forget to give yourself a little “me” time to remember why you're so glad they are home!
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