Moving frequently provides a new place to explore, but more than that, it provides a new launching pad to explore from. My family wouldn’t have traveled as much as we have without home bases within a day’s drive of bucket-list places. Colorado Springs opened the door to the West. Italy allowed us to travel most of Europe with our own car that they shipped. Charleston and DC gave us access to all the east coast has to offer. North Dakota had the freshest air and encouraged us to go into Canada. Oklahoma showed us the warmth of small town pride. It also forced us to make the most of what was around, which wasn’t much. Bloom where you’re planted.
As a mom, being the non-active duty member makes me our kids’ steady person. I am the single constant component in their constantly changing lives. It’s a heavy thing to carry. You’re the physical body of their childhood home, the holder of what’s familiar to them, and the coordinator of their frequent transitions. I’d venture to say this unique role is a big contributor to why many active duty spouses become stay-at-home parents. Having one spouse always available and present allowed our kids to better adjust each time. When they walk through those doors, thinking of old hallways and friends they left behind, I can immediately greet their tears and uncertainty. I have had the freedom and pleasure to walk them into those first days of classes, eat lunch with them at school weekly, and be the familiar face they see when the school day is done. Being at home allowed me to volunteer in the classroom and build up a report with the faculty and staff that families who’ve been there since the beginning naturally have. It gave me the extra time to network, to swing by the park down the road to hopefully make new friends. It gave me the extra time to ease them into the newness. To find an ice cream shop to comfort them, a restaurant they might like, the local library to get a new card. Plus, you’re doing all of the logistical and secretarial work of each move. Making calls, finding “how they do things here,” filling out intake papers, establishing new medical care, unpacking and setting up. The cycle seems unending. The to-do list never checked off.
As a spouse, being in the military has changed the trajectory of my career. I never thought I’d be at home all those years. It’s often hard to find a job in your profession. That would mean establishment, and you’re never in a place long enough to be established, building up years in a retirement. Many spouses settle for jobs rather than promoting their careers. Licensing and credentials don’t always transfer easily from state to state, which puts spouses at a disadvantage compared to their civilian counterparts. It can be a lot of hoops to jump through for such short stays at each assignment. My background is secondary education. I taught middle school social studies. As we moved around, the previous years in each state didn’t contribute to one collective retirement. It’s a restart each time. Pair that with being the kids’ constant, us adopting Everlee, and managing her medical needs (and unforeseen cognitive and educational needs,) my decision to stay home was sealed. Only recently, after 17 years, have I gone back full time in a position at the younger kids’ elementary school. I’m an ESE aide. My kids have access to me and my schedule is the same as theirs. I’m able to duck out for appointments and I don’t carry the pressure of typical teaching, grading, and testing duties. It leaves me the mental space to continue balancing my other roles and gives me a smidge of time to pursue my passions. One being music. I’ve been teaching toddler music classes part-time for the past couple of years. It’s a business that can easily travel with me from place to place, and it absolutely fills my soul!
For us, the hardest part of being a transient family has been continuity of medical care. Our daughter is special needs. She is cleft lip and palate, and she’s developmentally impaired. Her lip was done in China, her palate in SC, and her bone graft to create a new jaw in Florida. Each major surgery has been met with a new comprehensive team, one not knowing her history other my documentation, or providing her care prior. This is not ideal. Also, moving puts her care on a delayed schedule. When we get to a new place, there’s always a wait to be seen, meaning her timeline of care doesn’t seamlessly flow. Sometimes, the teams don’t even agree with the previous decisions. It can get confusing and frustrating. Insurance coverage can be a battle, and once it’s met, it’s daunting to think about accomplishing that feat elsewhere. It’s inevitable though. My brain never stops. In terms of schooling, her developmental struggles make finding the right placement an ongoing search. It’s the stage I’m currently in now, looking at middle schools. Finding a place that she’ll feel successful on her level. I realize we would have to figure out Everlee’s needs even if we weren’t military, but being active duty narrows down our options because what’s available and accessible to us geographically is both out of our control and continually changing.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned as a military spouse and mother is to build a support system. Create an extended family. Reach out for help. I am definitely not good at asking for help, but us moving around forced me to do so. Brent last deployed when our youngest, Reeve, was only 8 months old. Managing four kids without him was my biggest balancing act. A fellow military spouse and dear friend asked me to give her something weekly that would lighten my load. I hesitated in my request, but she meant what she’d offered. She committed to driving my oldest to and from fencing every Thursday for 6 months. It was one night where kids’ activities overlapped, and I couldn’t physically be in two places at once. She had her own two kids, who were not even in his activity. She went above and beyond to help, allowing me to get Penn to soccer and preventing me from being out late with the baby. She did this for the entirety of my husband’s absence. Just recently, an empty-nesting neighbour drove my teen an hour round trip to choir because I reached out. In Italy, my best friend, who I met during that assignment, was in the room watching my second son’s birth. She was there as he slid out in all my naked glory. That’s beyond friendship; that’s sisterhood.
People need people. Not living in one location means you don’t have the longevity of friendships, or presence of family, that often contribute to a built-in support system. You have to boldly and quickly create your own. You choose your support system and you fall deeply into reliance based on need. The relationships I’ve made are my most selfless, reciprocated, trustworthy, and loving ones to date. Would I have made them outside of the military? Hopefully. But mutually needing each other, and the immediate trust that comes from living the same situation, speeds up that process and bonds us quicker. My people are intensively in my life for a short window of time but make a lasting difference.
I am proud of our life. Continually moving and growing is a large part of my identity. We married in my hometown in West Virginia, green dress and all. My kids were born in North Dakota, Italy, China, and Colorado. We’ve lived in Wheeling, Morgantown, Pittsburgh, Alexandria, Minot, Fontanafreda, Summerville, Colorado Springs, Enid, and now Tampa. We’ll likely take one more assignment or retire elsewhere, which means one final move. To where? Verdict’s still out. But whenever we end up, our then college student will come “home” to a house he’s never lived in.
Transitions are not easy, but with each, we add on to who we are. We expand ourselves. We don’t trade one local life for another. You don’t end who you are in one place and start a new identity in the next. You simply merge the experiences, learn, reshape yourself and go forward. It’s overwhelming to think that soon we’ll actually decide where we live. For so long, we’ve made the most of whatever place they’ve sent us. To hand pick is borderline scary. Oh, those contradictory emotions again. Fear and anticipation. Sadness and excitement. Wherever we land, we are grateful for this chaotic ride. Raising four kids in a life of constant change has made us strong, resilient, dependent on each other, tired, well-traveled, a tad bit crazy, and worthy of a consolatory/congratulatory slice of chocolate cake. Though I’ll politely decline the sweet offer.