On Monday my mom posted this photo of my Grandfather in honor of Memorial Day. I knew that he had served in WWII, but I had never paid much attention to the dates. He left for Europe, less than year after he and my grandmother has been married. It’s hard to imagine my grandparents as newly weds, in-love and holding hands and probably sharing books. I don’t have any memories of them together nor do I remember hearing many stories about those days. And sadly, they are no longer here for me to ask.
I wonder what it felt like for my Grandmother to say good-bye to her husband after being married for less than year? She had only been in the United States for five, maybe six years? I wonder if she still felt like a foreigner, leaning a new system and language all while completing medical school? I wonder what she did during those years they were apart? Did they write letters? How did they stay in touch? What did she do on lonely Saturday mornings? Did he think of her often or was his work in intelligence so consuming that he didn’t have time to miss her? I don’t know the answers to these questions. I can only wonder.
You know what else I wonder, how was it when he came back? Was it a hard adjustment for him? Or maybe for her? Or perhaps, for both?
Maybe it was seamless. Maybe they were so happy to just be back together. But my hunch is that it probably involved some transition.
Because when you do life apart for a while, you have to re-learn how to do life together.
For the past year or so Gerber and I have been trying to learn this rhythm of coming and going, of doing life apart and then together again. By no means are we separated by wars and deployment for years at a time. I don’t want to compare or undermine the kind of sacrifice or pain that many military families know too, well.
But on a much smaller scale, because of the type of work we do, we do have this weird rhythm where he’s gone for a week and then home again. Apart and then together. Together for another week and then apart. You see how it goes. In May and June, Gerber’s gone for a total of 4 weeks, just about every other week, including this one. Granted, this is our busiest season, but still, usually he is gone at least one week a month.
What we’re finding out is that the weeks he’s gone, we both do fine. He is taking care of a team of volunteers and coordinating water filter and stove projects. He’s translating and mixing cement and sharing his heart. He’s in his element and doing meaningful work 24/7. And even though the extreme heat and lack of alone time, drain my introverted husband, he loves doing what he’s doing.
The weeks Gerber’s gone, I gear up for solo-parenting and managing life at home. I re-arrange my work schedule, I make time for grocery shopping and fixing the curtain rod that falls down again. Elena and I eat dinner picnic style outside so there’s one less thing to clean in the evening. I arrange play dates or we visit my in-laws or find a new playground to explore. Anything to make afternoons and evenings a little easier. I ask our sitter to come early one morning so I can go to the gym. We eat leftovers a lot. I try to skype with a friend in the evening. We make it work. And in general, we have developed a pretty good schedule while Daddy is away.
But the tension and arguments come in the transition. When we go back to life together. Gerber comes home after a very full, intense, sweaty week of work with people. They sleep outside, use a latrine and bathe by buckets. He’s physically tired and emotionally drained. He needs some downtime and a shower. He would love a nap and then just wants to be with his girls. Probably, in that order.
Maybe you can already see where this is going.
I am so excited he’s coming home because I want to talk. I want to hear about the week and what happened and tell him about mine….what cute thing Elena did and what new words she said. I want to tell him about work and my friend who is having a baby. I want to plan something to do, a family trip or breakfast out perhaps? I have lists in my head and already have an idea of what we can do for the weekend. I’ve been thinking about it since Wednesday, of course, because I have been home every night. I am tired, but not so much physically tired, as emotionally empty.
He comes home and feels overwhelmed. And I get disappointed. And then we go through this cycle. Whose week was harder? Who is more tired? We know the answers; we both are in different ways. No one wins in the ugly game of comparison. We know this. We are both working and parenting and taking care of our family and in some seasons the scale tips more one way or the other. We make sacrifices and say I am sorry and start again.
Maybe this is common for other couples, or maybe it’s just us. I am not really sure.
People always ask me, oh it must be so hard when Gerber is gone? And yes, it’s true I don’t like it when he’s gone, but honestly we manage ok. The harder part is often we he comes back. For us, that transition is tough. I used to feel embarrassed about admitting this. I worried people would think, it should be so wonderful once he’s home. Why on earth would it be hard? What’s hard about coming home?
A few months ago I was sharing this with a woman who came down with one of our groups. Her own kids are a bit older than me, and one of them happened to serve in the military. As we sat waiting for dessert to be served, she asked me directly and sincerely…So how is it when Gerber comes home?
I confessed, “I just don’t understand why it’s so hard to come back together after we’ve been apart.”
She nodded, “Do you know that most military spouses say that saying good-bye to their husband was hard, but that it was actually tougher when their husbands returned home?” She put her hand on my leg, “Don’t underestimate how hard the transition can be.”
Obviously, we’re not a military family. Gerber is not gone for months or years in undisclosed locations. But it has been helpful to have a framework as to try to understand why the transition can be hard.
It makes think about my grandmother, has a young woman of 26. What it was like for her and my grandfather to be back together again after almost 3 years apart? What was their transition like? I can only hope that it was sweet and that they gave each other lots of grace. Because that’s what any transition needs, right? Grace to find a new rhythm and routine. And the thing about grace is you don’t just give it once. No, grace must be extended again and again. Like a good cup of coffee, you need more each morning.
So we get to keep learning and listening to one another and trying to show grace. And we will get to try again this Friday, when Gerber comes home after a week away. I am getting my grace ready and am going to try and keep some of the lists in my head, in my head, at least for a little bit
P.S. How do you and your spouse handle the transition of coming and going when you have different needs?
When we were in the states a few weeks ago, a sweet mom, whose own kids are earning drivers’ licenses’ and college degrees, pulled me aside one afternoon after seeing how much Elena talked about “Frozen.” (which she affectionately calls, “Oafen” and may or may not have watched a total of 27 times while driving from CA up to WA)
“I got something for her, but you I wanted to show it to you first to make sure you’re ok with it.”
I thought that was super kind and thoughtful of her.
She proceeded to pull out a blue sparkly, Elsa Barbie doll. “And look, if you push here. She sings.” Let It Go, Let It Goooooooooo.”
I know all of you parents of young ones right now, are like, Noooooooooo.
I smiled, ignoring all of my anti-princess-no-Barbie-doll-feminist-leaning tendencies.
“She will love it.” I said.
And she did.
Elena’s big eyes and curious fingers, wasted no time in figuring out that blue button. Elena was tiptoeing around the kitchen with her singing Elsa, who she calls “ah-chay,” twirling high above her head.
She was mesmerized. And I was kinda dreading the next 6 days our trip.
I wouldn’t exactly say I am anti-Disney princesses, but I am definitely not for them. I don’t like the message they portray to young girls. The whole princess-culture, that says your worth is based on your external beauty. It seems to only reinforce what so many woman and girls grow up fighting against.
I was explaining all of this to my husband on one of our 4-hour car rides. His eyes were focused straight ahead, but I knew he was listening. “It’s just, I don’t want our little girl growing-up thinking some prince will come and rescue her, you know? I want her to know that women are made for so much more. I want her to be brave and confident and full of compassion and gratitude. I want her to be strong and smart and know that her outer beauty is only a reflection of her inner beauty.”
I sighed loudly, expecting him to nod along and agree with me, but he didn’t.
“Michelle, she’s not even two.
“ok. You’re right. She’s not even two.” I repeated to myself as I imagined her singing ‘Let it go’ for the next 10 years.
. . .
We got home last week and while un-packing my suitcase, I came across the singing Elsa doll. I was tempted to hide it. She won’t remember if Elsa just “disappears,” I thought.
But something stopped me.
I don’t want my personal preferences to get in the way of paying attention to what my daughter likes. And right now, she likes Frozen. So I will play with Elsa and talk about Anna and Olaf and buy her Frozen pajamas and underwear because she likes it. I will enter her world because that’s the only way I know how to really understand someone. Sure, as the parent I will set boundaries. We will not watch Frozen every day.
But I will care about Frozen, because she cares about Frozen.
And if in five years she starts caring about inch-worms and frogs and beetles, I want her to know I will do my best to care about those things too.
If in nine years she comes home from school crying because she didn’t get invited a friend’s birthday, you better believe I will provide hugs and empathetic nods. I will care because she cares. Feeling left out of a birthday party is sad and hard at any age, but especially when you’re nine.
And maybe in twelve years, if she starts caring about a silly boy band, I will care about that silly boy band, too. I will listen with her and try to remember their names and let her put up posters in her room.
And if in seventeen years, her interests move on from a boy band to an actual boy, I will tell her he’s welcome to come over. I will place my hand on her daddy’s arm for reassurance, and show her that if she cares about someone we will, too.
If in twenty-one years she comes bouncing in talking about an internship where she gets to study malaria prevention, but all I hear is “gone” “whole summer” and “not-deadly,” I will keep my thoughts to myself and congratulate her. I will hug her and ask her to tell me more. Because if something makes her this excited, I will want to understand why.
And if in twenty-five years she says she wants to move to another country, one where I don’t speak the language or understand the culture, my heart might sink for a second, but I will buy a plane ticket to visit and see her life. I will pray for her protection and growth, not that she changes her mind. I will sit awkwardly waiting when I don’t understand what’s being said and watch as she lights up, explaining to the taxi driver where we’re going.
Because loving someone means caring about what they care about.
It’s easy as parents to see our children for who we want them to become, but I think it’s sometimes all too easy to miss who they are right now. That’s why we need other people, a spouse, a friend and an observant older mom, who may see interests that we may not. You know, a fresh pair of eyes to notice how much a certain little one loves singing ‘Let it go.’ The truth is I can introduce my daughter all day to books, and climbing and colors and picking flowers. And I can hope that one day she’ll learn how to play the piano or join a soccer team, but for now she loves putting her baby dolls “nigh nigh” and singing with Elsa and Princess Anna. And that is just ok.
Gerber and I talk a lot about how in community development work, before people care what you know, they want to know that you care. And I think the same in true in parenting. Of course I want to teach our little girl all kinds of things, but I know before she is ever going to care about what I know, she has to know that I care.
So I will start by caring about the singing Elsa Doll.
Last December as we cruised down 101 freeway, enjoying the rare moment with Elena asleep in her car seat and one of not signing wheels-on-the-bus, I started talking. Gerber drove and started listening. A usual pattern we find ourselves in; the talker and the listener.
I want to write more, I […] Continue Reading…
This one has been in my draft box for-ever. In fact, I would be embarrassed if you knew how many half-started blog posts are sitting in my draft box right now. (ahem. maybe close to a 100). I figured maybe part of my goal for the year should be to publish some […] Continue Reading…
Sometimes it’s hard to write about things when you’re in the middle of it, like with marriage. I haven’t written much about our marriage recently because well…one, it’s not just my story to tell. Even though I am more of an open book and will gladly share what I’ve […] Continue Reading…
I am so excited to be guest posting today over at Rachel Pieh Jones’ blog. I kind of think of Rachel as an expert in cross-cultural living, mothering & writing as an expat living in Djibouti. And if we’re ever in the same country I would jump on the chance to grab […] Continue Reading…
Yikes. It’s January 19th. My computer tells me I started this draft on January 6th– so, here we are 13 days later.
I remember well in my years before moving to Guatemala and becoming a mom that I would carve out a few hours at the end of each year […] Continue Reading…
On Monday night we boarded a redeye flight from California to Guatemala. We’ve done this numerous times before, the difference being this time the little baby we thought would sleep was wide awake. We sat on the runway for a while before being giving the clear to take off. […] Continue Reading…
I was talking to my Gerber on the phone tonight because he’s gone working for the week with a team from Canada. He asked, “Are you excited about your birthday?”
I am, I replied.
I could hear him smiling through the phone.
I know he loves me dearly, be he doesn’t totally understand […] Continue Reading…
Last week, Elena and I were on our way back from an afternoon errand. As soon as I pull up in front of our house, her little voice from the backseat both asks and exclaims, “Agua? Agua!”
I pull her out of the carseat, going over my mental to-do list that […] Continue Reading…