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?