The soldier's wife.
September 11, 2008 6:44 PM   Subscribe

Tell me about what it's like to be in a military family.

I'm looking for anecdotal experience on the challenges and rewards of military life, specifically in the role of a wife. Other perspectives are more than welcome, of course.

We are making our first move together in the next couple of months, and I'd kind of like an idea of what to expect. We're in Canada, and will be living on a relatively urban base. We're also thinking about starting a family in the next couple of years. Ideally, I'd like to be a stay-at-home mom. We're currently in our mid-20s, if that's at all relevant. This is also my first permanent move away form the city I was born and raised in (albeit, fairly close).

As far as I know, he's unlikely to go on tour at this point. If he does, the nature of work will keep him off the front lines, so I'll have less to worry about there. In my future, all I see is cardboard and moving trucks. Amirite?

So... help? What's coming my way?

obligatory throw-away email for questions and personal stuff:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Are you a Canadian military family? If so, my insight may not be quite as helpful - but let's assume it's a similar enough situation to an American military family to be a wash?

Another disclaimer - I was single while in the US military. I never had 'that' kind of family... but my troopers had them and my friends had them, so believe me when I say I've seen it ALL.

There are two types of military wives - those who handle being self-sufficient very well, and those who don't. It's as simple as that.

You may be expected to spend inordinate amounts of time on your own, taking care of the house, the eventual kids, the bills, etc. etc. You may spend holidays without your spouse. You may even have your children without your spouse around.

But if you're willing to work within it's confines, you'll also have the wives club at your disposal. That's the FORMAL network of military wives who will most likely make up your friends and closest contacts. But be warned, it can also be referred to as the 'knives club', or 'the coven'. LOL

I've seen guys at sea who's wives operate perfectly - taking care of everything back at home without blinking an eye (both stay at home moms and guys who were married to doctors with careers), and I've seen guys at sea who's wives shut down when they leave town. One story in particular always amazed me... this guy fought with his wife EVERY NIGHT on a satellite phone about the particulars of everyday life. It must have cost them thousands of dollars.

Military wives rightly receive recognition in the US for the sacrifices they make... they are truly the rock that keeps their family together even though their husband is away. I assume the same goes for MEN whose wives are in the military, but I didn't really know people in that situation since I was in a 'all-balls' environment. You will probably be expected to take care of everything in your spouses absence, and he/she won't be there sometimes when you 'think' you need him most.

It takes a STRONG independent spouse to be a successful military wife. Again, I'm not sure about Canadian military, but in the US you find yourself transferring to a different base every couple or several years. Be prepared for that, because just like your spouse, you'll have to start over all over again... new friends, new environment, etc. etc. Your spouse will have to re-prove himself at his job all over again, and you'll have to start over as well.

That being said - you get good at it. It almost becomes routine. You come to look forward to the change and the fresh start. You start to look forward to the new experiences and locales, and you start to appreciate just what a huge, diverse world we live in. You start to gain an appreciation for the world. I kid you not!

Oh... if you have kids - they will most likely hate you for making them move away from their friends constantly. But I have YET to meet ONE military brat who didn't grow up to say that they were glad for the experience. They all say they hated it at the time, but when they look back on it was supremely cool having lived all over the nation, or even around the world. It's a priceless experience that, once again, teaches your children just what a diverse world we live in.

I wish you the BEST of luck, and leave you with the advice you already expect - be STRONG, be INDEPENDENT, and you'll be fine.

Email me if you see the need - I can hook you up with some real-life military wives who can probably give you some feedback or support. I may be a gay veteran now (got out a couple of years ago), but believe me when I say I know some AMAZING military wives.
posted by matty at 7:51 PM on September 11, 2008

My mom is an Army brat, and was an Army wife for a few years while my Dad was enlisted. There were things about her and her upbringing I could never understand until I watched the documentary Brats. There was some fascinating insight into how families interact with the military structure which determines the parameters of their lives. I recommend it highly.

The things that stand out from talking with her and other Army families:
-being prepared to move a lot
-understanding that everything you and your children do in the view of the superior officers potentially affects your husband's career and status
-that life on base is incredibly sustaining, so much so that if you later move off base it is somewhat disorienting to have to figure everything out on your own
-the benefits are great
-you will not be in full control of where you live and what you do until his retirement

I think there are a lot of good things about living this way, but a lot of compromises, too. It's different from being married to someone with a civilian career. Whatever his branch of service, duty comes first, and his career depends upon that.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on September 11, 2008

matty's post reminded me of another thing I heard often - yes, when your spouse is on deployment, you have to manage everything on your own. Run your family, do the chores, run the errands, fix stuff. That can be hard. But what is equally hard, I hear, is when the spouse returns again. You've been managing on your own for months, and suddenly, here is this person, "in your way," expecting things to be in the old routine, wanting to step back in when there isn't all that much for them to step into, since you've been taking care of it. The transition out gets a lot of attention, but the transition in can cause a lot of marital stress, too.
posted by Miko at 7:57 PM on September 11, 2008

Have you seen the webcomic Jenny the Military Spouse? It's from an American military perspective, but it has a lot of story material about military family life.
posted by cadge at 8:21 PM on September 11, 2008

Miko brings up a very good point about 'reintegration'. In the US Navy, they actually hold mandatory classes before you return home about how to make that reintegration easier. I won't say it's perfect, but it's interesting that they try to address the issue.

It is indeed a problem.
posted by matty at 8:36 PM on September 11, 2008

Born and raised Canadian Forces army brat here, even spent some time in the military myself. This is going to be a real grab bag of negative and positive. I don't bring the negative up to bring you down or discourage you, but only to make you aware of it so you can do your best to deal with it. I'll break it down into core themes.

  • Moving can be hard on family and kids, and the regular career path of someone in the CF means they'll move at least three times, not including operational duty, courses and brigade exercises. This has several repercussions that are central to my own story.
  • moving means that it's hard for the wife to have a career. My mother was a teacher and lost her seniority every time she changed provinces. My uncle's fiancé couldn't get a job when he was posted at the recruit school in St-Jean because she couldn't speak a word of French.
  • You can imagine the impact this has on friendships, both for wives and for children.
  • Moving means it's hard to have close friends. I can remember the summer after grade two when I had to say goodbye to my neighbour and best friend in the world when I moved from Cold Lake AB to Valcartier QC. After the second or third time you get good at it because...oh, through some strange luck I went to 6 schools in seven years, with only a little continuity on some of those grades, an extreme example to be sure, but I've heard crazier.
  • moving means it's hard to have close friends. The longest I lived in one place was five years, and even the summers when I wasn't moving half my friends were. A side effect I've noticed from this is that although I can make friends quickly and easily, they are always casual relationships since at a subconscious level I don't want to deal with the disappointment of (in my mind) inevitable separation.
  • My French Canadian boss got posted to the battle school in Gagetown NB and his wife couldn't speak a word of English, she was miserable unto the point of divorce until she won $300K in the lotto.
  • When my father told my mother he was divorcing her after 30 years of marriage, it was after they had just moved from her hometown of Edmonton to Kingston Ontario, where she knew absolutely nobody, and hundreds of miles from her children. Think about that for a second.
  • I can't think of a better place to raise children than a military base. It's a closely knit community with all the infrastructure and support needed. I walked to school my whole life, and used to come home for lunch, imagine that.
  • Beavers, Guides, Cub Scouts and Cadets are great on bases because everybody's dad has access to cool kit and knows how to live outdoors. I was playing with glowsticks 15 years before any raver ever did.
  • When your a kid on a military base there's never any question about class because everyone's daddy does the same thing. Those who try to make a distinction usually get put in the place pretty quickly.
  • I never saw an obese person until I was posted as a teenager to a big city.
  • Most bases are near forests, so there's lots of places to play. They all have sports complexes and pools and great family passes. As a child I had a ski pass every year for four years straight and it cost my father $15 a month.
  • The towns next to bases (Shannon, Grand Center, etc...) are usually pretty great too, they're the guys that have been living there for generations and will still be there after you're posted. They have important communities too and it's great being involved with them and getting to mingle with non military folk.
  • There are few secrets on a base. You're all working for the same big company, all your wives live next door to each other and all your kids go to the same school. It's great as a community, but when things fall apart it can be devastating in it's lack of privacy.
  • Being in the military means some of your neighbours may be nut jobs. Military nut jobs.
  • The sound of jets landing/taking off can be a annoying.
  • Rural postings can be great at certain times in life (young) and miserable at others (older)
  • Urban postings can be hard when you have been in a rural environment for a long time and were never in touch with "cool" or heterogeneity.
Operational deployment
  • When the brigade in your base gets sent to the Banana stand you're suddenly left with 1200 single wives and girlfriends, but the base has 5,000 troops in it, so a lot of affairs happen while hubby/bf is overseas. All the women know and talk about it.
  • Not only do you spend six months overseas on operation deployment, you also spend six months training furiously before you're sent, and for all intents and purposes you won't be home during most of that time. This can be taxing on your wife more than on the kids.
  • At the going rate, when your brigade is deployed a dozen people from your base are gonna die. Kids will be in school when it happens. Some wives won't have husbands to console with, others will. It's better if people think about this in advance and do the best to create the proper support network.
So most of this is about the impact on kids, but you can see how it applies to wife and family life in general as well.

You can MeMail me if you'd like to discuss more in details.
posted by Null Pointer and the Exceptions at 8:49 PM on September 11, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, my father was on exercise when I was born, in the Golan Heights when my brother was born and my sister was born on a base in Germany but at least he was there for that. One consequence of this is that my mom chose names for me and my brother on her own even though they had agreed on names in advance.

Fancy that.
posted by Null Pointer and the Exceptions at 8:52 PM on September 11, 2008

Two of my brothers have served in the military (one in the Army, another in the Air Force) and the only real impression I got was: awesome moustache, bro, but why do you even bother unpacking? They did a lot of moving, interstate, intrastate, and overseas.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:29 PM on September 11, 2008

Beavers, Guides, Cub Scouts and Cadets are great on bases because everybody's dad has access to cool kit and knows how to live outdoors. I was playing with glowsticks 15 years before any raver ever did.

Oh hell yes, my brothers used to bring back the best stuff, and I was a big fan of the rat (ration) packs too. Not exactly a tasty home-cooked dinner but it was army.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:44 PM on September 11, 2008

Air Force brat, dad retired a few years ago with two stars - so we made it through the ranks from being drafted for Vietnam and then career military as a solid, together, US military family. Seconding some of these comments:

They all say they hated it at the time, but when they look back on it was supremely cool having lived all over the nation, or even around the world.
I can't say that I have any regrets, and as an adult can say that looking back, some of the other people I know from that time are the most together and internationally aware people I know. They seem far more likely to think of this entire world as their oyster, take jobs in far flung places around the globe, and identify more as human beings than Americans. They also seem to have the ability to build a support network up around them no matter where they go, I think we learned it fast and young with the moving around.

understanding that everything you and your children do in the view of the superior officers potentially affects your husband's career and status
Yes, both my brother and I were raised with this idea from the get go. I'll never forget the night that I was walking down the street in a city near the base and someone honked at me as I crossed the street. I turned to see what they wanted and it was someone from the base, waving and saying "I'll let your dad know I saw you!" I was thankfully holding a cup of coffee at the time and not an open container, but for pete's sake, I was 30 at the time, and it should be none of their business what I'm up to. And yet it still is. This meant for me, the flaming liberal, that I had to bite my tounge often, not participate in public political protests, and watch what kooky liberal t-shirts I wanted to wear in HS.

You've been managing on your own for months, and suddenly, here is this person, "in your way," expecting things to be in the old routine, wanting to step back in when there isn't all that much for them to step into, since you've been taking care of it.
Absolutely. When dad retired, he made a very public announcement that he was going from commanding an entire base, to second in command. Be prepared to be the head of your household, because you're going to need to be able to do it alone, often for extended periods of time. The good thing is that you're going to be a hell of an example of a strong woman for your daughters. ;-)

It can be difficult, that's an understatement. Your kids can develop separation anxiety when they're little - not understanding the difference between when dad is leaving to go to a bbq versus when he's leaving to deploy - all they'll see is dad walking out the door. Deployments don't get easier when the kids get older either - seeing him deploy after 9-11 was just as hard for me as an adult as him leaving for the first Gulf conflict, as seeing him leave for any of the other ones as a child. And be prepared to handle major milestones alone - and help your husband with missing those. As exciting as the baby's first steps/16th birthday/first prom/graduation will be for you, imagine how heartbreaking it will be for your husband to not be there for them.

It can be hard if you're not part of the right clique as a wife (high school cliques can be nothing on this), and your behavior often has a shocking amount of impact on your husband's career. For us, one of the keys to our success as a family was communication - constant and regular open communication. I didn't really notice how many of our behaviors as a family are considered quirky until I married a man who has no military knowledge - he doesn't understand why we still check in with each other when we travel, that we vote based on attitudes towards the military, that we watch the news with a different eye than the rest of people. It's a challenging, but rewarding life - it's not for everyone though. Good luck! (I'm sorry both that this is so long, and that it's more from a child than a spouse perspective.)
posted by librarianamy at 5:48 AM on September 12, 2008

I seems that Canadian military moves WAY more than US military.

If you are Canadian, I dont know if us down here will really be able to relate.

I have a fairly large family (4 kids and an awesome and accepting wife) and so familys are possible.

I guess before I get into it though, again, would need to know if this is US or not.

Good luck regardless...its absolutely possible...
posted by TeachTheDead at 6:47 AM on September 12, 2008

The amount that a US military family moves can be 'service specific'. Air Force personnel can often 'homestead' - spending most of their careers on one base. Went I went through Navy flight school, we had some Air Force people that trained with us. I keep in touch with one of them - he's STILL stationed in Destin, FL. He's been stationed there for over 10 years now.

But US Navy? I personally moved 7 times in 12 years. In the Navy & Marines, that would be the norm.

I can't speak for how it might be in the Army.
posted by matty at 8:33 AM on September 12, 2008

From my experience as a US Army brat I can tell you these things about my mother:
Strong and steady. As everyone stated before, you will need to be the boss and you will need to be organized. My mom could pack like she worked in a museum. I loved growing up surrounded by all these artifacts from around the world, most of them either fragile or heavy (or both) and few of them were ever damaged in a move.
The best advice I can give to any military parent (spouse as well, I suppose) is make a home. We moved a lot (me less than my elder siblings, but still) but there was never any sense of being misplaced. We were a very close-knit family and our parents made an effort to be involved in our lives. We always had the assurance of their love and their pride in us.
I guess I'm devolving into the kid side of the issue too, sorry.
For an army wife I would recommend being active in your community, both on and off the base. Do you attend church? Can you be involved in any clubs? Obviously the wives' club, but also look into community organizations. If/when you have kids try to be active in their schools. When you move to the next school, immediately start volunteering. My mom was heavily involved in Girl Scouts and so my sister and I were. Bringing the same activities with you helps with the sense of stability, while still fostering your ability to adapt to the slight regional differences.
And please remember to be flexible. The others mentioned transitioning back into a relationship after your husbands absence. Remember that he may want to be involved (I never got the impression that my dad did, but your husband is probably different). Be patient with him, and steady. Strong and steady.
My mom was an excellent Army wife with her own career and everything. Some people not so much. My brother's wife couldn't hack it (not entirely her fault, I admit) and they are now in divorcing. Be prepared for hardship and seek out the positives.
posted by purpletangerine at 1:20 PM on September 12, 2008

For a worst case scenario, rent the great The Great Santini.
posted by wsg at 11:07 PM on September 12, 2008

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