I was pregnant and on bed rest with our first child, permitted to move only to switch which side of the wall I faced. That was the least of my worries the day that an editor at the Washington Post emailed me accepting an essay I wrote about coping with my husband’s military deployment.
My first thought back then was how to apologize to my other military spouse friends on base, because I was about to do our collective reputation a terrible disservice – simply by being honest about how tough it was to be a military wife in a time of war.
In 2001, when I married my husband, a Navy pilot, I bought books by military spouses, hoping to find a kindred spirit who admitted that there’s nothing positive about one’s husband shipping out for eight months to a year.
Instead, I found lots of cheerful tips on making these separations go more smoothly. I’m sure that’s useful to someone. But I find the occasional wallow in self-pity comforting, especially with company, so the well-meaning advice made me feel even more alone.
Throughout the years – after my husband returned from that deployment and embarked on several more, leaving me with two small children in a remote town in Washington State–I continued my amateur literary sleuthing.
As more and more military spouses started writing about their life during “the longest war,” I worked my way backward in time through stories of “campfollowers” (as military wives were first called) from the anonymous to the most notable, like Elizabeth Bacon Custer and Martha Washington. Martha, Army Spouse Extraordinaire, described herself in 1797 as “steady as a clock, busy as a bee, and as cheerful as a cricket.”
I stopped reading after that. Who was I to contradict Martha, mother of us all?
And yet. And yet. As uneasy as I felt about representing modern-day military spouses in print, the fact remained: I was a military spouse, and I was having a rough time.
In Washington State, home with our then-two-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, I was so lonely that I placed photos of my absent husband on every square inch of space in our house so that I could pretend he wasn’t gone.
It was the closest I could get to following that advice about making separations go smoothly. When that didn’t work, I sent away for a two-foot cardboard cutout of my husband so the children would have a “Flat Daddy” to carry with us to the restaurant, the library, the park.
I tried all sorts of things, and then eventually, I wrote about all of these failures in publications like Real Simple and the New York Times. I knew that it showed terrible weakness to admit that the forces of sadness sometimes overcome the solicitiousness military spouses are supposed to feel for everyone else, but I was compelled to tell the truth because for years I had looked for it everywhere when I really needed it and I hadn’t found it.
As these articles and essays started to appear, I did hear from military spouses who thought I tarnished “our” collective reputation by making “us” look like crybabies and whiners. My fear came true as others, offended, asked how dare I represent them.
And then an unexpected thing happened. I received scores of emails from military spouses who told me that I put words to feelings and thoughts they’d never been able to express. Some of these women could have been Martha Washington’s backup singers – the most industrious ones among us, who did good while looking great and acting happy. They thanked me for saying what they couldn’t.
That’s when I understood that my only responsibility was to represent myself –and if I did that with honesty and integrity, without blurring over the ugly bits, it might make life a little easier for the next military spouse faced with relentlessly smiling peers.
It made my own life easier too, especially after my memoir was published in 2009. By the time Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War arrived on the shelves, I had stopped worrying what others would think.
It was my story; we were a military family; therefore, my story was a military family story. Again, some military spouses disliked my representation of our insular world. I fell off a few Facebook friend lists, and someone close to me cut off contact. But also again, the grateful letters gathered in my inbox. Here’s a favorite:
As the wife of a special operations Air Force pilot, my children and I also deal with my husband’s frequent absences. I’ve never had someone realistically capture in print what deployments are really like from the family’s (especially the spouse’s) perspective like you have. Your book was a joy to read. I found myself laughing & crying out loud while reading it! Thank you for being honest yet respectful in your interpretation….You are a true role model for other military wives, and what may be possible for our own lives as military spouses. I am totally passing “Standing By” to the other wives in our squadron.
Standing By is now being released in paperback after years of military families in the news, and my initial worries over who I’m representing and how I’m representing them seem quaint because America’s perception of servicemembers and their spouses is broader and more nuanced than ever before.
Earlier this year, Military Spouse magazine announced that the same-sex spouse of a female servicemember won its “Military Spouse of the Year” award at Ft. Bragg, a sprawling Army base in North Carolina. I don’t know if the winner is as busy as a bee or as cheerful as a cricket, but I’m sure that to gather the courage and confidence to stand up and be counted as a military spouse, she must be as steady as a clock.
I think Martha would be very proud of us. I know I am.
You can be entered to win one of two copies of Alison’s book, Standing By, now in paperback, by entering here: http://bit.ly/YmoeXr.
Alison Buckholtz is author of Standing By: The Making of an American Military Family in a Time of War (Tarcher/Penguin, April 2009; in paperback April 2013). She wrote the “Deployment Diary” column on Slate.com from 2009-2010, and her other articles and essays have been published in the New York Times, New York Magazine, Real Simple, Parenting, Washingtonian Magazine, Salon.com and many other publications.