During my husband’s second deployment, I spent my first major holiday — Thanksgiving — alone. I had an aunt and uncle that lived an hour away from where we were living, but the thought of a huge family gathering seemed so overwhelming to me. I was plenty aware that my little family unit was temporarily fractured, I didn’t need the visual reminder.
So instead, I ate a chicken parmesan frozen dinner and binged on Christmas movies. It was awful. I ended up feeling isolated and discouraged, and before the day was over I regretted my choice. I needed connection and mashed potatoes; not the microwave and an empty house.
Spending holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, and all the other days in between alone is just part of the deal. The military brings separation, not just from our spouses, but from our communities and the things that make up home. Regis College estimates that 10-12 percent of depression follows a seasonal pattern. If it’s a struggle you face, that season likely corresponds with your spouses deployment rotation.
But despite the challenges, the big days can still be wonderful, even if they aren’t exactly what you were hoping for.
Alternative Methods for Cultivating Togetherness.
As I mentioned before, I’m a Christmas movie pro. The issue with virtually all of those movies though is that they show the same thing: physical proximity. The Griswold’s may have suffered calamity after calamity in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” but they were together for all of them.
When we don’t have that, it can be devastating. But even when our holiday season isn’t best-case, it doesn’t have to be worst-case either. It almost always comes down to just a few possible scenarios:
You’re new: But really, when are you not new? When connection is all you want and you live hundreds or even thousands of miles from your nearest and dearest, even if your spouse is home, it is a serious bummer.
Your spouse is gone: I have yet to meet a veteran spouse who can’t call to mind at least a couple of important days or events that their spouse has missed. Whether for a deployment, detachment, training, whatever it may be, it happens. And it for most of us it doesn’t get easier, just less surprising.
Neither situation: Sometimes, even if you have friends, and even if your husband is home, and even if you all get to go “home” for the holidays it can still be disjointed, because of the military.
Once, my husband came home shortly before Christmas, and just as we transitioned from the homecoming-honeymoon-phase to the awkward-reintegration-phase, we also packed up and went home for the holidays. It was a hectic and exhausting trip, and it was full of people desperate to see my newly returned husband and oblivious to the fact that I needed to see my husband.
Practical ways to combat the blues
You can’t control how the military utilizes your spouse. What you can control is how you respond and adapt and equip yourself for the less-than-ideal seasons.
Accept the invite: We often will get a handful of invitations each holiday from those within the military community. We’ve shared Easter ham with a gathering of neighbors where we hardly knew anyone’s name. I’ve been to baby showers in homes where the dust from the moving boxes hasn’t even settled. Don’t burn yourself out, but combating isolation often means keeping an open mind when people put out the welcome mat.
Connect how and when you can: Embrace the way technology connects us. Call your dad while he hangs the ornaments. Facetime your sister during A Wonderful Life on Christmas Eve. Don’t underestimate how little things like that can impact how you feel. Don’t fall into the temptation to endlessly scroll through social media to see the photos of others together, because it can impact your well-being. Instead, do what you can, where you are.
Embrace your own traditions: The weird thing about that chicken parm is that, while I was totally unhappy when I ate it that Thanksgiving, I now enjoy a private smile when I eat it. As that tomato sauce and mozzarella hits my tongue, I consider my independence as a person. So, don’t discount the novel or the weird ways you choose to spend your holidays.
This holiday season, when Elvis croons, “I’ll have a blue Christmas without you,” maybe, just this once, consider disagreeing with The King. Ponder your own version of frozen chicken parm on Thanksgiving: where has hardship also produced resourcefulness and independence in your life? What reasons do you have to foster gratitude, despite the challenges you face?
I believe that one of defining characteristics of military spouses is their seemingly innate ability to look at difficulty, dig their heels in, and ultimately thrive.
Posted by C.N. Moore, military spouse, parent, and writer