Dear Military Spouse,
I see you and I want you to know you’re not alone. I know that while I am looking forward to carving a turkey or wrapping presents to put under a tree, you are looking forward to the same activities with bittersweet anticipation because you will have to do these things without your partner this holiday season. I’m telling you this not to gloat, but because last year it was my turn to make this sacrifice while my husband was deployed and I know what a sacrifice it truly is.
I want you to know that it’s OK to just exist right now. You’re in survival mode and you’re doing the best to be present for your children and give them the best possible holiday, albeit a slightly broken one. I see your sacrifice and I see your strength.
I know what it’s like to build a temporary life around an absence. I’ve had to create makeshift traditions for a version of our family that exists in a void when Daddy is gone. I know what it’s like to count time not only in days, weeks and months but also in holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries missed when the only recognition of the day may be a Facebook post or an email that you receive several days later.
Last year I was the one that was bracing myself for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years while my husband was deployed. I know what it is to focus on each activity: putting up the tree, driving through holiday lights, making ornaments with the kids and fingerprint reindeer while simultaneously hoping that you will be able to keep that vast heavy weight that threatens to swallow you at bay.
You plan each outing with friends and acquaintances carefully so that your children won’t feel the sweeping loneliness you feel being without your loved one. The ten days at the end of December when schools are closed and friends are traveling and hosting family is the hardest because there’s no way to break out of the quiet. You are forced to make your own holiday cheer while on the inside you don’t feel like celebrating anything at all.
Some of your friends will invite you over for dinner or try to make plans because they know you are on your own. Although you are touched by their thoughtfulness, you are also conflicted because while you know there will be comfort in company, it will also be a glaring reminder that theirs is a family complete. Take comfort in the company when you can, even when it means disrupting your careful routines.
On the weekends when your friends are out of town or busy with their own families, you take the kids to the bookstore that has the train set and the holiday music so they can have fun with other kids whose parents want somewhere quiet to drink their coffee and you can have someone to talk to even if it’s only the small talk of strangers. You pretend this is just a small way to pass the time and occupy your children. You don’t want anyone to know that your reality is that this is the only interaction with another parent you will have all day and those few minutes of mindless chatter are actually a life preserver.
You do what you can to make the holiday whole, but sometimes you give up. You make a roasted chicken instead of a turkey for Thanksgiving, because the thought of 13 pounds of leftover bird is worse than not having any turkey at all. On Christmas you may not even make dinner, but heat up a frozen pizza because the idea of spending the day in the kitchen, making a five course Christmas dinner for one might be enough to break the dam that you’ve worked so hard to keep around your real feelings. Sometimes, the dam may even crack a little and you have to cry behind the comfort of a closed door. I want you to know that you don’t have to be strong all the time. The truth is that a holiday without your spouse feels like every other day without your spouse and no amount of holiday lights or Christmas music is going to change that.
You compartmentalize your responsibilities and distractions built carefully around yourself to keep you afloat and hide from the empty chair at dinner and the cold indentation where they’re supposed to sleep by your side at night. The only part of the day you can’t ignore is the deafening quiet after you tuck in your kids at night, so you let your children sleep with you to help comfort them, but also because you don’t want to face any part of the day alone.
I know that while you decorate holiday cookies and hang stockings, you’re really just going through the motions. This is our reality and the reality for all parents and partners who have had to carry on while their spouses were deployed. No matter what time of the year it is, it won’t really feel like the holidays until that person-shaped hole is gone and that won’t happen until they’re home.