I recently attended a friend’s wedding in Berkeley, California. It was small outdoor ceremony overlooking a lush park. The bride and groom vowed their love to one another under an archway of greenery. Every time I hear a couple exchange their vows, I reaffirm the covenant I made with my husband on our wedding day. I repeat the words silently while the new couple, for the first time, pledges them aloud. It’s a chance for me to reflect and commit my heart to the promises I made.
I remember October, 12th 2014 so clearly. The weather was perfect. It was a warm autumn day in New York. There’s something magical about New York in the fall. The air breeds the same feelings of new beginnings that people often associate with New Year’s Day. It was the ideal setting to enter a new season, when two lives became one. There I promised to love him always — for better for worse, in sickness and in health.
I reaffirmed these promises as I watched my friend make them for the first time. Unfortunately, due to the nature of Army life, I performed this secret vow renewal alone.
This season is not a better season or a worse one, but it is a season of separation — a forced separation unrelated to the state of our relationship. This separation is induced by deployment, a concept familiar to most of you.
In our almost four years of marriage, this season is all too familiar. In fact, about half of our marriage has been spent apart. This is normal for military spouses. For some, I’m certain my husband’s absence barely scratches the surface of their sacrifice.
I remember working in Seattle during my husband’s (then fiancé) first deployment. Some of the women I met had never spent more than a couple of nights away from their spouses. I thought it was so strange that they were never apart. Then I realized that I was the outlier living in an unfamiliar city while my fiancé was on a 9-month hiatus.
It was the first time I realized the gravity of the choice I was making. There were real sacrifices I would endure to be in this relationship.
When I reflect on the unsettling statistic of our time apart, I find myself, again, thinking about our vows. The promises we made encompassed all the challenges life could throw at us. However, I wish we had amended “for richer or poorer” to “together or apart.”
Navigating life as one unit while we are, in fact, separated, has been one of the most common challenges during our time together.
It would have been nice to reassure him on our wedding day that, despite the disparity in our zip codes, I was not going anywhere. Our hearts are forever woven, knitted in a way that grows deeper with each inch that separates us.
Although it is difficult to be without my partner on a daily basis, I’ve discovered that the toughest part of deployment for me isn’t necessarily the physical absence of my spouse.
The hardest part is the complicated feelings associated with thriving while my spouse is absent.
The reality is; my life still moves forward while he is gone. I certainly don’t want to wallow away the minutes of my life, but it somehow feels wrong to move forward without him by my side. He’s the person I want to share this life with and the reason I’m confident enough to take risks and go after my goals.
We are partners. I affirm him. He affirms me. I should be celebrating my ability to function independently and still remain connected to him. But instead I lament this ship my daughter and I are on. It sails relatively smoothly even without an integral crew member.
I often reprimand myself, “shouldn’t you be happy that you’re doing well during this deployment?”
The feminist in me wants to embrace it. But the wife in me is sad he isn’t here to experience it. That part of me fears that the personal growth I experience has me walking independently instead of side by side with my husband.
Most importantly, I fear that I haven’t left space for him when he returns.
Ironically, the majority of the work I do while he’s away involves building a life for us. Deployment is a very strange thing. While I am home creating a lasting life for us, he is away building a temporary one. One day, when his replacement arrives and his time is up, he will simply walk away from a job that consumed so much energy and effort. He will pass it off to a stranger never to return or know the true fruits of his labor.
Then he will come home and step into the place I’ve prepared for us. I don’t build this world from my own imagination; rather, it’s a life we’ve dreamed of together. We are equal partners. I’m simply the enforcer. It’s my responsibility to keep him informed of the current state of things and to implement whatever decisions we make together. This responsibility does not stress me out too much. I am, however, plagued by the previously mentioned guilt.
This guilt is an uninvited guest that whispers lies- lies that I love him less, because I experience happiness and fulfillment in this season. The truth directly contradicts these lies.
In his absence, I have the freedom to grow because our love is so strong. This growth is necessary and makes me a better person when he returns. However, growth breeds change and change breeds uncertainty. For this reason, I need to invite my husband into the narrative I currently monopolize so that he can adjust to the changes that occur and share his own metamorphosis. It’s critically important to share with him through communication and invite his presence into every day.
Communication is the single most important aspect of any relationship. This is where growth and intimacy are bred.
My husband and I have been fortunate enough to talk daily during this deployment. This has not always been the case for us, and I know it is not the story for many of you readers. Despite this gift of frequent communication, we’ve found that a simple conversation is not enough. We get stuck in surface level dialogue that does little good for either of us. That’s why we make time once a week to ask each other a list of six questions.
The questions are always the same but the answers continually change. More importantly they are questions that foster deeper communication and invite us to share not only the triumphs of our week but the failures and brokenness that are unavoidable in life.
Something powerful happens when we share our sorrows and joys and feel heard. Even more powerful is to feel loved despite our failures and disappointments. The distance becomes less tangible during these discussions.
We’ve also started reading the same book together. Our day to day life is pretty repetitive and also very different, so it is nice to have something in common to talk about.
As mentioned earlier, I have this fear that I’m not creating space for my husband in our day to day life. Even though we communicate regularly, I struggle to feel his presence in our daily activities. I want to invite him in somehow- not for his sake, but for my own. I need to visualize his place in this life. Thankfully, this deployment is temporary, and I want to focus my energy on the places he belongs, the places he’ll return to. This was a difficult challenge to tackle.
How do I make it feel like he’s here, when he isn’t? I learned that if I occasionally take the time to prioritize his preferences, it makes me feel like he’s a part of our present. For example, I started playing country music when my daughter and I are hanging out at home. I am a New Yorker with no need for the heartfelt ballads of the country genre. However, my husband loves it, so I am reminded of him when I make the choice to listen to it.
Another thing I’ve started doing is making winter meals during the summer. I grew up in a state with four seasons and I was conditioned to believe that heavier dishes are winter meals while lighter fresher fare is appropriate for summer. This means that I think it heretical to eat beef stew when it’s 95 degrees outside. However, my husband grew up in south Texas and, therefore, does not associate meals with seasons.
Sometimes when I want him to feel more a part of dinner time, I abandon my passionate opinions related to meal appropriateness and cook something cream based on a hot day. It certainly doesn’t make up for his absence. However, it gives him a space in our home and allows me to tell my daughter about her dad’s lovable quirks.
It’s a choice to remember who belongs here. Hopefully, it will also create a smoother transition when he comes home.
It isn’t easy being a military spouse. Deployments affect every aspect of our lives as we struggle to stay closely knit despite the distance between us.
Too often our most fulfilling moments also feel singular. So, we must dig deep to figure out how we can invite our spouses in to our present circumstance. This invitation invokes a heaviness as well, for we cannot acknowledge them without feeling the weight of their absence.
However, we are called to live in this tension somewhere between thriving in the moment and soberly hoping for the future together. After all, this life I currently build solo is the one we will soon share.
Kate Waggoman grew up an Army brat and swore she would never marry into the military. Naturally, she fell in love with an Army man.
She currently lives in Central Texas. She spends her days dancing with her sassy 1-year old daughter and keeping her 85 Ib Weimaraner off the kitchen counter. She has always considered herself a writer, but, only recently started sharing her work publicaly. She writes for her own blog “Wondering Without Wandering.”
When she isn’t writing or chasing after her toddler, she enjoys coconut in her coffee, running without a stroller, and reading historical fiction.