This post is guest-posted on the blog of fellow therapist Catherine McConnell, LPC who works primarily with trauma and veterans. To read more about Catherine and see some of her writing, feel free to check out it out here
The Usual Suspects: Hubby is still on deployment and is probably doing his nightly routine. Your 7-year-old is off at school, the baby has finally gone down for a nap, and your 4-year-old is building a pillow fort in the family room while the dog is snoozing by the window.
The Plan: You have probably 6 minutes until your 4-year-old notices that you aren’t there to give your opinion on fort architecture. You quickly scan your mental agenda for anything you might be able to accomplish; but first and most importantly- an unaccompanied trip to the bathroom!
For busy moms, a solo trip to the toilet can often feel like the only quiet retreat in an otherwise hectic and overloaded schedule. It’s a moment to re-charge and re-center.
I have a very dear friend, Dani, who regularly tells me about the trials and joys of being a stay-at-home mom to 4 very busy kids, living on base with their dogs- one a devil dog, and the other a friendly mutt.
Being a Marine family offers Dani some very unique challenges, but the one that always fascinates me is the ability to maintain a sense of self when her life is mostly focused on being both a mom, and military wife.
I sat down with Dani to ask her about the day-to-day running of a military family, and also to gain more insight on how she has maintained her own sanity in understanding combat PTSD, and her tips on feeling okay when someone in your family isn’t okay.
I want to tell you now that this blog post isn’t your typical ‘What to Do If You Have PTSD’ post. You see, this post is about women like my friend Dani, who not only work full-time making sure her babies are educated, well-mannered, clean, and happy, but she fully supports her hubby, acts as a leader in her community, and at the end of the day, is still a total babe who is more likely seen welding parts in the garage looking like a pin-up than wearing mom jeans and baggy shirts.
Okay I can practically hear you shouting from here “I am exhausted! Make-up goes along with unicorns and sleep and other things that don’t exist in my life!” I was also particularly curious how a woman with a preemie, and 3 crazy busy little ones could possibly have time to look pretty. Dani had some great insights on this.
You may have heard me mention once or twice how important self-care is. Self-care for moms can be a lot different than for single gals. While for a woman with no kids, self-care might be yoga, followed by brunch with the girls, then a day of shopping and date night. For moms, self-care- if it happens at all, is often done in quick bursts and is usually accompanied by major feelings of guilt. I asked Dani about that and she said “I know plenty [of moms] who don’t take any ‘me’ time at all. I used to be that mom. It felt selfish to devote that hour and a half on myself every night, but I’ve come to realize that I’m a much better mom and wife when I do.”
Self-care looks different to everyone. For some people, it’s sitting at the kitchen table with a big mug of tea reading through gossip magazines. For others, it’s a scenic jog through the neighborhood with your favorite guilty-pleasure tunes in your ears. For Dani, her ritual is a nightly bubble bath, often while reading or listening to relaxing music. You might wonder ‘How the hell does she find the time to do that?’ Sometimes it can be really hard to take some time for yourself. Moms in busy families constantly feel like there is something else they could be doing for the family, and sometimes forget that MOM is also a member of the family that deserves some care. Dani said that it’s especially hard during deployments when she is the sole provider and sole disciplinarian. It can also be difficult when your spouse doesn’t understand or maybe doesn’t support your self-care routine. Dani talked about her hubby’s confusion about her self-care ritual. I should mention that Dani’s husband is generally extremely supportive, but a nightly bubble bath-complete with bath salts and deep conditioner felt trivial to him. When your job sometimes involves being in a giant sand-box for months or years, you likely just get used to jumping in and out of the shower. But for Dani, that time is precious. She said “It’s my time to reset myself. The nights when I don’t do that, I end up a cranky jerk the whole next day. I need that time.”
Dani also makes sure that at least once a week she gets dressed up: cute outfit, make-up and hair on point. She tries to stay true to her sense of style. Quite often when your work is all kids, house, and husband, you feel 100% mom and 0% woman. Dani expressed that this is a common struggle for her and said “It’s hard to feel sexy when a tiny human is sucking on your boobs throughout the day, and consequently barfing all over you.” Dressing up is one way that Dani maintains a sense of self. When I questioned her about her style, she said “Style is personal, and comes from within. You’ll never see me in “mom clothes” because that’s not me, and the most important thing I can do for myself, and for my kids, is to stay genuine.”
Looking put together might sound attainable for some, but when it comes to military families, many women struggle with maintaining a sense of self and normalcy in their life when their spouses return from deployment.
There are a ton of articles out there about deployment, and helping your vet adjust to life back with the family. But there is less insight for wives and mothers who deal with the same adjustment, but often times shoulder the responsibilities of childcare. While this is a labor of love, it’s easy to put yourself last when it feels like you are always putting out fires. Dani expressed some real frustrations but shared a few awesome tips with me for maintaining her bad-assery while helping her hubby re-adjust to his new-normal.
*Expect some time for re-adjustment: both for him and for you! After Dani’s hubby returned from deployment, it was hard for her to get used to giving up the parenting responsibilities to someone else. “Patience is key. We just had to give each other some time and space.”
*If your spouse DOES come home with trauma symptoms, it’s easy to feel like your marriage is falling apart, and even worse, to feel like it’s your fault. It’s crucial to remember that your spouse has just come from a dangerous situation where the only thing they had to focus on was the mission. They’ve spent months in that mentality.
*It may sound selfish, but your service member really has to focus on themselves for a little while. It can throw you for a loop too. For months all you hear from your spouse is how much they miss you and can’t wait to hold you again, and the joy is definitely there the first week or so. But then reality sets in, and they retreat, and there’s no possible way for you to understand. Spousal support groups are a fantastic resource, and the military offers free counseling to spouses specifically for this. There were definitely times that I cried alone in the bathroom just to get the feelings out. It was super cathartic, and once I got the tears out, I reminded myself that this was just a phase, just part of the process. Then I made an appointment with my therapist.
Dani speaks with conviction and with years of trial-and-error experience. For my busy moms reading this, what is one thing you can do for yourself today to make you a better wife, mom, and person?
[Added for clarity from Dani: If your spouse comes home and you worry that they are struggling with trauma, make sure that you offer your support in a gentle way, and not necessarily labelling it as “You have PTSD. You need help.” She also says that while in general, contacting your spouse’s command is frowned upon because it comes with bare minimum a good amount of razzing, sometimes it can actually negatively impact them with disciplinary action. However, if your spouse is having severe reactions to mild situations that make you feel unsafe, or becoming violent or suicidal, it’s best to get his command to help.]