What Happens after the Homecoming?
I cannot wait for Homecoming day! Even though this is our 6th deployment, the excitement never diminishes. During deployment, every military spouse dreams of Homecoming day. You watch the surprise videos online, even though you tear up every time. You pin picture after picture of Homecoming signs and that wonderful first kiss. Even though the actual day is usually stressful and exhausting, with the changing timelines and waiting around, for a moment those months of waiting are forgotten and you can finally enjoy being complete again.
But just as a marriage is much more than the wedding day, or having a new baby takes work even after leaving the hospital, Homecoming and Reintegration involves much more than those first few photo-worthy moments. It is the next day, and the next day, and the next week. It is re-joining two lives that have been lived separately for almost a year. Everyone wants to talk about the joy of Homecoming Day, but I find very few spouses willing to share the unexpected and sometimes challenging secrets of reintegration. So let me pull back that curtain for you, and shed some light into those shadows.
Reintegration without Children:
If you are dating or married, but don’t yet have any children, you may expect that the Reintegration period will be easier. Life can just return to the way it was before deployment, right? Wrong. Both of you have changed. Whether or not you realize it, you have each grown and changed and developed a little bit during that time apart. Maybe it is very trivial things—you have a new favorite TV show, he has a sudden dislike for fish, since it was served too often on the ship. Or maybe it is bigger life events: you have started a new job, rearranged the furniture, or moved into a new apartment; he has started a new diet or exercise routine. None of these changes are deal-breakers. They are just things that take some getting used to. When all of these changes come at the same time, they can be a bit surprising to the other person.
The stress comes when our expectations do not match the reality.
- Going to Work the Next Day: This is a HUGE disappointment. Yes, they have to go back to work for several days or even weeks when they first come home. There will eventually be a leave block (vacation time), but not until all equipment is cleaned and unpacked, reports are written, etc. Some units try to make them shorter days to maximize time at home, but that isn’t always possible.
- Exhaustion: You have had months to plan everything you want to do together once he gets home. All he really wants to do is sleep. This can be disappointing at first, but don’t take it personally. He has spent months working without a break, and has probably just flown halfway around the world. Give him a chance to rest and get adjusted to the time zone before you start dragging him out for date nights.
- Language: After his 1st deployment, I expected that he would talk to me and treat me the same sweet way as he used to. Months of combat and male company made him rougher around the edges and his language was fouler. He eventually snapped out of this, but it was a shock at first.
- Finances: After the first deployment of our marriage, he wanted to know where all the money had gone. During his unmarried deployments, he had no bills or living expenses, so he came home to thousands of tax-free dollars in his bank account. I am not a crazy spender, but I was paying our mortgage and had some expensive car and computer trouble (plus a new baby!) so I was offended that he was questioning my reasonable decisions.
- Injuries: He came home early from his 2nd deployment with a hole in his foot, and had to walk on crutches. That was an emotional shock. You can read about that terrible phone call here. He healed in time, but it threw a wrench in some of our plans and took some adjusting. Subsequent deployments have brought hearing loss and gray hairs, but no other injuries, thank goodness!
- Vacation: Once, he expected me to drop everything and spend a few weeks of leave with him. I had to explain how I could take some time off, but not his entire leave block. Another time, I was planning a post-deployment cruise for the 2 of us. I had my heart set on it for a while, until it was near the end of deployment and he finally told me he didn’t want to be on a ship. We were able to sell the cruise tickets and make other plans, but that was a frustrating and emotional argument.
- You have to give back his space. His side of the bed. The closet. The bathroom sink. The whole side of the garage that is now filled with his smelly gear. The dining room table that he will cover with new games and hobbies. His condiment shelf in the fridge. Your house may look perfect on Homecoming morning, but a returning military spouse can mess that up in 5 minutes flat! Make some room for him before he returns, so he feels welcome. And try to relax and embrace the mess.
- Gaming: You have probably blocked or forgotten how much time he spends playing video games. You have had months to picture quiet evenings together: cuddling, talking, etc. Then he comes home and wants to make up for lost time by going through an entire season of games in 1 week! A little indulgence and understanding from you may be necessary, but you also need to discuss expectations and limits.
- New Hobbies: While he has been gone, maybe you have developed new interests, hobbies, or routines. Maybe you have a new favorite show, or a craft project. You don’t need to spend time on these things the first day he comes home, but in subsequent weeks you have to decide if you still have time for your new interests AND for him. Be honest and tell him what is important to you, and how much time you enjoy doing these things. He will probably think it’s cool that you have new hobbies! And maybe he will want to watch or join in, too.
- Bad Habits: When they are gone, we selectively remember only their good traits. We forget all the little annoying habits. When they come home, our handsome husbands still snore, still leave laundry on the floor, and still don’t put their dishes in the dishwasher. These little nuisances can seem doubly annoying since you forgot about them and haven’t had to deal with them for months. Try to hold your tongue the first few days, but if something is really bugging you, discuss it and try to establish some new habits.
- Friends: You probably made new friends during the deployment to help you get through. And he made new friends in his unit. That doesn’t mean your friends’ husbands all want to hang out with him, or that you need to be friends with all his co-worker’s wives. Don’t plan any group BBQs for a while, until you have had some time to get used to each other. Your friends should understand that you need to lay low and spend some time with him. But he should also understand that you have new people in your life. Eventually, you are still going to want another girls’ night or dinner out with other people, so be patient with your partner’s new friends.
Reintegration With Children
For families with children, reintegration is an even bigger challenge. Not only do they have to face almost everything listed above, but they have an additional set of issues to handle. Children will present different challenges at different ages. I created a handy chart with problems and solutions by age HERE. For the most part, they adjust quickly to Daddy being home, and are happy to spend any time with him.
- New Baby: One of the biggest shocks is when you have a new baby during a deployment. You have had weeks or months to get used to the new baby, while your spouse is meeting them for the first time! You may stress about this a lot, but both of my deployment babies warmed up to Dad right away and let him hold them without crying. You can help prepare them by showing the baby lots of pictures of Dad, or laying them on a set of his cammies or T-shirts when they play. Dad will take some time to get used to his new role, which brings me to…
- He is doing everything wrong: For months, you have been feeding, dressing, and washing your children alone. You are ready for some help around the house! But when you ask him to feed the baby or put the toddler to bed, he does it “wrong.” Your kids made notice and request that he does things the “normal” way. Dad may feel hurt and confused that he isn’t welcome. If it is something important, gently demonstrate it the first time. But for most things, you have to stay back, hold your tongue, and let him try things a new way. After all, there is more than one “right way” to give a bath! You have been changing diapers for months, so don’t expect him to master it the first day! Don’t laugh at his attempts, either. Be patient and encouraging. Give him time and space to get involved in the family.
- Household Rules and Routines: During deployment, you are in survival mode. You are the ultimate authority in the house. You may have started new rules, or a new rewards chart, or a new holiday tradition. When another adult shows up, you don’t want to have to explain yourself all the time. It is best for the parents not to argue in front of the kids, but to present themselves always as a unified team. So use some down time when the kids are asleep to talk about what is working in the house, and what things have changed. Listen to his input too! He may have good insights to discipline and rewards.
- New kids’ skills and abilities: My husband came home from his 5th deployments to meet our new 6 month old baby. It had been a while since he was around an infant, so he was wildly wrong about what types of food the baby could eat. “Can he have a bite of my hotdog yet?” Ummm, no. On the other hand, the oldest had learned to ride a bike with training wheels, and he still expected to push her in the stroller! I try to be gentle in my answers and not make fun of his confusion. He will get used to their abilities in time. And if I leave the kids with him for a while, I expect a lot of text message questions.
- Smothering: The kids have been waiting forever to see Dad, so naturally they want to do 6 months of activities with him right away. However, see above where he is exhausted and doesn’t want to do anything. It can be frustrating to explain to the excited kids that Dad just needs to sleep, or that he has to go back to work for a short time. We combat this by letting them write down all the things they want to do with Dad, and put all the ideas into a jar. Then, when he has some time, he can choose one of their ideas and do something fun with them. That way, they know that they will eventually get to do all their things with Dad, and he won’t get overwhelmed with requests for horse ride/tea party/swimming/camping/games/stories/tickle-fights all in the same day!
How to Avoid Reintegration Stress
Good communication is the best way through it. Try to be open and honest with each other. During deployment, communicate changes and new routines through mail or email. Send pictures of anything you change around the house.
Patience is also so important for both parties. Try to spend the first week just enjoying each other and getting to know each other again. Wait a week or so before suggesting any changes or bringing up any important topics.
Try to keep expectations realistic. Married life is wonderful, but it is not a fairy tale, and it doesn’t always measure up to Pinterest photos and YouTube videos. Instead of getting caught up in social media, take the time to think about your spouse, and what activities or gestures mean the most to them. Your answers will be different from your friend’s, and that’s ok. Do what works for the two of you!
Laugh together! Reintegration can be awkward, unsettling, and emotionally complicated, but it is mostly wonderful. So relax, enjoy each other, and be sure to laugh at all the little moments of getting used to each other.
Military One Source provides counseling for couples, families, or individuals. It is confidential and had NO effect on the service member’s record or chain of command. This is a great place for anyone to work on improving their marriage, whether it is because of new behaviors, or old stuff that has been bugging you for a long time. Service members and dependents qualify for 12 free sessions per year, so take advantage of this great resource!
Another great person to talk to during or after deployment is the unit MFLC (Military Family Life Counselor). These are paid civilian positions available to some units, usually a professional psychologist or social worker. Talking to them is FREE and confidential. The MFLC can be a great sounding board if you have questions about deployment emotions, military life, stress, relationship challenges, issues with children, etc.
Written by: Lizann Lightfoot
Want to hear more from Lizann? Check out her blog!
Lizann Lightfoot is the Seasoned Spouse, a military wife of 9 years who has been with her husband since before Boot Camp—15 years ago! Together they have been through 6 different deployments and 4 different duty stations (including 1 overseas in Spain). Lizann spends her days at home wrangling their 4 young children, cooking somewhat healthy meals, writing about military life, and wondering where the family will end up next. She is the author of the book ‘Welcome to Rota,’ and of the Seasoned Spouse blog.
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