Whether you've been on the giving or receiving end of this phrase, you've definitely heard it. I think it's one of the things said when you can't think of anything else to say.
Like a filler phrase, if you will.
Perhaps you were called for a vent session on how the third appliance has broken down and her husband has only been gone for two weeks, another deployment is on the horizon or the kids are driving her to the brink of insanity. You're doing your best to understand, listen and be a good friend. There's a pause and you offer these words to comfort:
"I don't know how you do it."
She's going through so much; it's enough to weigh anyone down. Your life looks like a piece of cake compared to hers. You truly have no idea what you would do in the same situation. You're convinced you wouldn't handle it as well. So, those seven words seem appropriate and supportive.
Can I tell you something? They're neither.
If a military spouse had a penny for every time our civilian counterparts have implied they aren't sure how we put up with our own lives, we could retire our service member and buy a private island (or whatever is your version of the perfect retired life).
It's not that the phrase is offensive. However, lately I've noticed when that statement is shared with me, I have an uncontrollable reflex that causes my eyes to roll. Hard. So, although I fully understand that you had the best of intentions and it is a backhanded way to imply that I'm somehow stronger or better at handling my messy life than you would be, it just comes across as patronizing.
The truth is simple. Military spouses are not stronger, or built differently to handle the military life better than any other person. In fact, we don't know how we do it, either.
This lifestyle -- the parts that are considered a sacrifice -- is a lot like the first few months after bringing home a new baby. Twins, even. You're in this haze, a "Mombie," just keeping your head above water with a goal of everyone being fed and healthy at bedtime. You wake up, know what you need to do to get through the day and you get it done because you don't have a choice.
We do it because we must.
Then one day, the fog begins to lift because you're getting at least a good four hours of uninterrupted sleep, and you think, "Hmm. I'm not even sure how we got through that, but we did." With military life, that's akin to your spouse being home and on a semi-regular schedule.
This lifestyle and all it entails -- the stress, logistics, the marital strain and the emotions (kids included) all compounded, weighs heavily. Like anyone who has been dealt a tough hand, we adapt and make do. We don't know how we do it, we just do. And if the shoe were on the other foot, if your spouse was in the military -- you'd do the exact same thing.
I liken "I don't know how you do it," to the "God only gives special children to special people," that is often said to parents of children with special needs. There is no specific personality needed to love and take care of your family, despite their career choice or ability.
The next time you feel that sentence on the tip of your tongue, stop for a moment. Instead, offer that friend words of affirmation (or a glass of wine!), rather than empty words without meaning. Remind them that you know exactly how they do it. By embracing their lives the same way they've been and will continue, by putting one foot in front of the other and taking it one day at a time.