Unique stressors of the military family
What our re-entry from the Middle East taught me about our military family
Some of you are smack in the middle of needing to call on your resilience, flexibility, strength, and sense of humor. You’re in a situation that’s likely somewhat beyond your control, and you’re needing to make it all work for yourself, your spouse, your kids—the entire family system. You and I both know this reality—the life of the military family. It requires us to dig deeply within ourselves to find the necessary resources for navigating our unique stressors.
Like you, my husband, Steve, and I know what it’s like for our marriage to have to go into survival mode during extended periods of separation. We know the pressure of caring for children in the midst of huge transitions. We know the challenge of supporting each other when our own personal resources are depleted.
Beyond constantly changing and uncertain jobs, we’ve weathered work-ups, deployments, last minute orders and moves, an OCONUS PCS with young children, and the birth of a child overseas. We’ve navigated unthinkable loss, attending funerals and visiting gravesides, hugging young widows, and finding names on the Memorial Hall wall at the Naval Academy.
From our fourteen-month engagement spent apart, moving to the Middle East eight days after our marriage, the extended task of re-entry back to the States two years ago after a second tour in the Middle East, and everything in-between, nothing has been particularly “normal” for us. It’s something you understand.
Steve’s highly dynamic community has required me to become comfortable with flexibility, counting on things absolutely changing regardless of what we are told. Though tempted at first to blame Steve, I quickly learned not to punish him for things beyond his control. Rather than let his work drive a wedge between us, we’ve had to learn how to turn toward each other and be on each other’s team instead.
Our family moved back a few years ago to San Diego from a two-year tour in Bahrain—a tour that was both amazing and gnarly, as is every adventure. There were the exciting and interesting moments: eating shawarma while walking through the spice souq, swimming in the Persian Gulf with our kids, and flopping ancient Persian rugs while sipping tea with shop owners and new friends. But then there were uncomfortably disorienting moments too, such as walking out of a restaurant into a cloud of tear gas while pregnant with our youngest, a violent riot between Sunni and Shi’a unfolding across the street. Or the way we at times felt trapped living on a small island with restricted liberties because of ongoing unrest.
After living through those intense extremes in Bahrain, it took our family the better part of a year back stateside to recover. Even though Steve and I have been married nearly twelve years, I’m just now learning how much of military life is about recovery—from moves, changes, war, family separation, trauma.
Time and time again, no matter what our family has to navigate and recoup from, I’m learning it always takes longer than I think—or prefer, frankly—to get my feet back under me. Surviving difficult transitions is no small thing, especially if you are the one primarily responsible for helping your children manage their disorientation. And if we do not take our recuperation seriously, we begin to lose connection with God, ourselves, and those we love most.
I love the passage in Psalm 18:16-19 that talks about the psalmist reaching out to God, being rescued from the waters in which he was drowning, and standing in a wide-open expanse. Such a beautiful image of a God who sees us and wants us to experience His breathing room and broad grace! I believe in the power of reaching out to God as our ultimate Guide, giving Him access to what’s going on in our hearts, and allowing Him to bring us up and out of the swirling waters and into the spacious place.
I’ve learned a number of things over the years that have helped me take better care of my marriage, our family, and myself when in the midst of particularly stressful seasons. For a time we need to listen to our exhausted bodies and avoid life- changing decisions as much as possible. Supportive, compassionate mentors and friends are a must—as is extending self-compassion and self-care to ourselves.
Helping our children feel seen, safe, and unconditionally loved throughout tense times is essential. The best thing I can do for my kids is make sure I intentionally spend time reducing my own stress and fatigue. That investment in myself helps me be present with them and avoid becoming a version of myself none of us wants to experience.
There are few things in military life we can control—almost nothing, at times. But one thing we can control is how we treat ourselves, and that one thing can change everything. If you’re in the midst of a stressful season, finding yourself overwhelmed, I so entirely understand this unique military life journey we’re on together. First acknowledging your family’s need and yours, and then carving out breathing room towards recuperation, can be a life-changing difference for your entire military family.
6 ways to navigate our unique stressors
- The body never lies: We need to take it easy when our bodies are exhausted and hurting and trying to get our attention. Pain, chronic fatigue, and lack of energy are all signs to heed. Limiting commitments for a season—bringing in the borders of family life—is one way we can respond to our body’s need for recovery.
- We need guides: God is our ultimate Guide—always with us no matter what. We can experience His amazing love and presence even in the midst of tear gas and war. Additionally, chaplains, pastors or mental health professionals help us get unstuck or keep us from getting stuck. I have needed the wisdom, prayer, and counsel of various guides throughout our many marital and family transitions.
- We need friends: Military families sometimes feel homeless. In Psalm 68:6 of The Message it says, “God makes homes for the homeless.” I love this. Even in the most displaced seasons, God brought friends who cobbled together a sweet shelter for my family and me. We aren’t meant to travel life alone, and friends can help lighten our load— if we are willing to let them into our real lives.
- This is not necessarily a time for life-changing decisions: Our already stressed and overloaded systems can make things feel urgent when they may not be. Now may not be the best time to make a big decision about your marriage, having another child, or remodeling the kitchen. Certainly, some decisions must be made. But as much as possible, don’t make something urgent that doesn’t have to be.
- Self compassion leads to recovery: If you get overwhelmed like I tend to, it’s easy to turn upon ourselves for not being able to handle everything with ease. “Shoulds” compare us with others, while perfectionism leads to the self-contempt that keeps us stuck. The radical stance we need to take toward recovery is carving out some breathing room, treating ourselves as we would a dear friend.
- Self care leads to recovery: Finding ways to put on our own oxygen mask first allows us to help our family members find theirs. For some this is exercising regularly, going to a place of natural beauty, or spending time on hobbies that fill you up: painting, gardening, cooking. I’m learning if I give myself the time and permission to rest and fill up instead of bully myself into pushing harder, I’m a better wife and mother.
Leeana is the author of “Breathing Room: Letting Go So You Can Fully Live.” This writer, Navy wife, and mom is stationed in San Diego with husband, Steve, and their three kids: twins Luke and Lane, and Elle.
To find out more about Leeana who “writes about living from the spacious place on her blog,” or about San Diego photographer Katie Gardener, whose photo was used for this article, check As Seen in COMMAND.