The first time my husband left, our third baby was just six weeks old. He was going to England for continuing education, and it was impossible for us to join him. When he came home eight months later, I vowed we would never be apart like that again.
I could not imagine that one day, he’d enlist as a chaplain in the Army Reserves. I would not have been willing to entertain the idea of him going into the military full-time. I would not have been able to talk about deployments or endure the duty and training that takes him away from us for months on end.
But here we are, acquainted with separation once again. It is a unique place to be, and if you are a friend to someone whose spouse is sometimes far away, you might struggle to understand. If I could presume to be the voice of the countless mothers who have had to say good-bye to their husbands for a period of time, knowing each situation is different, this is what I would say to help you understand what it is like to be one of us.
1) Know I am fragile
Separation is like surgery. The most important person in my life has been removed from me, at least for a time. Like flesh being torn from flesh, it hurts. I know he is safe and will come home again, and that helps. Still, he is not here, and I find myself struggling for balance, fighting for comfort, longing for the rest I have when he is home. His absence is always present.
In a sense, I am in a constant state of recovery, of learning how to manage alone. In some ways, it gets easier every time we do this. In other ways, it gets harder. Most days, I am up for the challenge. But I might not be up for more. Know that I am vulnerable. You might be surprised at what I can’t handle right now, even if I seem so strong. Seemingly insignificant things might be too much. It’s because I’m already handling enough. Give me grace to be weak to everything else.
2) I am exhausted
Separations are mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually taxing. I am responsible for everything. There is no duty-sharing, no working together, no team-work. All the housework, discipline, boo-boo kissing, oil changes, bill paying—it’s all me. Every day.
At the end of the day (and sometimes first thing in the morning) I feel like I’ve run a marathon, and I am not accustomed to running marathons. I am using muscles I rarely use. I have to think about things I never think about. I am sore. My feet hurt. At the end of the day, I just want to collapse into bed.
Over time, some things get easier. I get used to the new routine. The kids start to adjust. I no longer feel like going to bed at 4 pm. But by then, a different kind of exhaustion sets in. It is more emotional than physical. I’m tired of being strong, but there’s still a lot of race to run.
Be understanding. If I forget to return a phone call, turn down a request to make cookies for a bake sale, or fail to keep my house clean, it’s because I’ve been really busy running lately.
3) I am concerned about my children
One of the most difficult aspects of separation is the potential impact it has on my children. I worry about their emotional well-being, their relationship with their dad and his with them. I wonder whether or not they feel safe and secure when our family is glued together by Skype dates and intermittent phone calls. I worry about my sons, who long for a wrestling partner, a bonfire maker, and a comrade. I worry about my girls, who are missing the most important man in their lives.
Loving my children is one of the most important ways you can support me. Take the time to give them extra hugs. Sneak a piece of gum into their hands. Arm wrestle my boy. Tell them you’re proud of their daddy, and you’re really, really proud of them.
4) I am not a victim—don’t let me act like one!
There are very few true victims in the world, and I am not one of them. My husband is separated from us because of choices we made. We are adequately cared for, our needs are supplied, and while we miss him terribly, we are safe and so is he. A separation like this is uniquely challenging but it is not the worst thing in the world. Not even close.
Still, indulging in self-pity is a temptation, especially when all the kids are sick, I haven’t talked to my husband in days, and the bathroom sink is leaking. You might think you are being a supportive friend by giving me a shoulder to whine on. But you’re wrong. No one ever leaves a pity-party feeling better about her situation.
Instead, let me know you want much more for me than to just hope I survive. You want me to overcome. And that takes a lot more work. Hold me to that higher standard. Then help me figure out what’s wrong with that sink.
5) Ask better questions
“How are you doing with your husband gone?”
It’s a question I hear countless times every week. It’s a natural thing to ask, and while there’s nothing wrong with the question, it doesn’t engage me the way a better question could. In fact, it tends to shut me down because there is just too much to say.
If you really want to know how I’m doing, take a second to imagine how you would feel if you were separated from your spouse. There now. Don’t you feel like you understand me better already? Now you will stop before asking things like, “Are you looking forward to your husband coming home?” because you know I ache for him to come home. Some questions do not even need to be asked.
But better questions make me feel better cared for. I know you’ve really thought about me and really want to know how I am. Can’t think of any better questions? Here are some to get you started:
“What time of day is hardest for you?”
“How do you handle the weekends?”
“Have you come up with any special traditions to help mark the passing of the days?”
“What’s one thing you’ve learned from this separation?”
“How can I pray for you this week?”
6) Recognize victories
Every Saturday during my husband’s absences, the children draw a Saturday stick from a jar. Each stick is labeled with a surprise activity for us to enjoy that day. It is our little way of celebrating being another week closer to Daddy’s next homecoming.
We have found that we need these celebrations, these small recognitions of progress. They remind us that this season is not forever and that we are achieving something significant. We are making it through a tough spot together. We’re doing it! In fact, we’re having some fun in the process.
Celebrate with us! I don’t expect you to remember how long my husband has been gone or when he’s coming home, but I love it when you recognize that we just made it through one more Monday, and that’s one less Monday we’ll have to go through before we’re together again. Simply saying, “Hey! You’ve made it through another week!” reminds me that I’m not in this alone. And oftentimes, that’s exactly what I need to know.
You may also expect that separations like this can bring about significant personal and spiritual growth. Ask me about it. What have I learned about myself? How have I grown? How has this season changed how I parent? What has it taught me about my husband? How have I seen God provide for me while my spouse is away? Wait for the answer and listen for the blessing. At the end of the separation, these are the things that are going to last. These are the things that are truly worth celebrating.
How about you?
Have you experienced separations in your marriage? What would you include in this list?