I’ve been around the military for a long time.
I became a tried and true Army brat with my first cross country PCS move over 32 years ago at a mere 3 weeks old. After 8 more moves around the world, I grew up and fell for the guy in my college Spanish class who wore his ROTC uniform twice a week.
I’ve been a military spouse for 8 years and counting now. 8 years and lots of time apart, sprinkled with the gift of some time together here and there. For better or for worse, I’m in this life with my soldier for the long haul.
In those ups and downs, I’ve come to the realization that there’s a common lie that we, as military spouses, say all the time. It’s also the one that we have to believe if we have any shot at surviving this life. It’s what we say when we’re covered in puke, the washer just broke, and oh by the way, our husband just left for a month.
We look in the mirror and we say defiantly with pursed lips, “It could be worse…”
The peculiarity of this really hit me a few weeks ago. My friend Ali is also a military spouse. She spends a lot of time alone because her husband’s branch is just one of those branches where you spend a lot of time alone as a spouse. She has two small children. She’s moved back and forth across the country several times. And just when she’s starting to get settled, she usually gets news that she’s going to be doing life alone for an extended period of time.
But here’s the thing. She never complains.
When she told us in book club a few weeks ago that her husband will be gone again, we cringed. We moaned. We shook our heads in despondence. Her response: a shrug of her shoulders and an, “It could be worse.”
It’s the truth- but it’s also a lie.
It’s the truth because it almost always could be worse.
Our spouses could be gone for a year instead of a “measly” ten months.
They could be in a job that keeps them in the field for over half the year instead of working until 9 pm for 18 months.
Sure, they are missing Christmas, Thanksgiving, a first birthday, every single anniversary, but they could you know, possibly DIE (this is the military, after all) when they leave.
So, yes. It’s the most truthful lie we tell our friends, our mothers in law, and ourselves. “It could be worse.”
But it’s also a lie. Because sometimes it all really just is….the worst.
Take my friend Madison, for example. With her first baby, her husband left for a long field training exercise just weeks after she gave birth. Her first baby, and she couldn’t even talk to her husband while he was gone. She had to navigate the throes of postpartum hormones, a screaming newborn, and every other hard thing that comes with having a baby by herself.
Her response? “It could be worse.”
And why? Because she could have given birth alone like her friend just had. Or her husband could have been deployed like that same friend’s husband was. So as I sat with her in her new baby’s nursery, teary eyed over Starbucks drinks, we said it to each other, “It could definitely be worse…”
But we both knew: where she was and what she was going through, it was actually….kind of…the worst. Even though it wasn’t (I hope you’re keeping up). And when her second child was born and her husband was gone for half of the first 6 months of her life, we were old pros at lying to each other with those truthful words to keep spirits high and heads lifted.
When I really sit with it, though. Saying, “It could be worse,” is more than just the words we cling to like a life raft (because we absolutely do that). It also helps us remember those who have gone before us.
It’s like a whisper of homage to the military spouses whose stories we recite that make us appreciate our own. It’s a nod to the ones who juggle school and sports and special needs alone. The ones who bring a meal when you’re drowning even though they have their own family to care for. The ones who watch their babies’ first year, first steps, first t-ball games, first time driving without anyone’s hand to hold.
Worst of all, we think of the ones who will never get to welcome home their soldier, airman, marine, sailor or guardsman with a kiss and an eye roll at the boots taken off and left in the hallway yet again. When that though crosses our minds, we remember that even when this life is the hardest, we still have something to be thankful for.
“It could be worse…” It’s true. And also it’s not.
But I’ll keep saying it to you. And you keep saying it to me. And in the moments that it’s all just too much, we’ll tell the war stories of others who would sign up to take our worst with a smile and a grateful heart.