One of the most challenging aspects of military life is dealing with deployments. Whether we’re talking just a few months, a year, or even longer, there’s no disputing that deployments are tough on every single family member, and that it takes a lot of effort for everyone to adjust to the “new normal” that happens during the actual deployment.
At the same time, the prospect of having a deployed servicemember come home can be one of the most joyous aspects of military family life.
It’s an emotional time for everyone involved. Each family member has painted a different picture in his or her head of what that homecoming is supposed to look like.
To complicate things even further, there’s usually a transitional time that happens right after the servicemember comes home and lasts for a few weeks—until real life and the challenges of reintegration kick in. In some families, that transition is a honeymoon period and everything is wonderful for everyone. In other families, reintegration is tough on everyone—the servicemember, his or her spouse, and the children—right from day one.
To help you and your family better cope with this difficult time, it’s important that each of you understand what the others are going through and how that might affect them as they go through the process of readjusting to life as a family. There’s no right or wrong here. But having some empathy and compassion for each other will help.
For the Servicemember
The reality of deployment culture is that the servicemember has been an integral part of a group that he or she considers to be just like family. And like any family, that team has a sense of camaraderie that’s unique in many ways. Over the course of the deployment, your servicemember got used to certain surroundings, foods, routines, and much more.
Then, all of a sudden, all of that changes.
Of course, the actual family unit is different than the government-issue family the servicemember has been living and working with over the preceding months. Not better or worse, just different. The family at home may not understand what life has been like overseas (and they shouldn’t be expected to).
As a servicemember, returning from deployment, you’ve likely been on high alert for months at a time, and you may find it hard to find your “off” switch. Returning to a quieter environment may be a stark change.
Allow yourself time to adjust to your new surroundings. While you may not feel comfortable telling your family all the details about what happened while you were deployed, try to keep an open dialogue about areas where you’re struggling to reintegrate.
For the Spouse
Whether you’ve been married for six months or ten years, it’s normal to have mixed emotions about the return of your deployed spouse. You may have fantasized about what it would be like when he or she is finally home, only to find yourself fearing that they may have changed or that things might never go back to “normal.”
As a spouse, your roles shifted during the deployment. What used to be a two-parent system, now falls squarely on the shoulders of the parent who’s still at home. That means that when it comes to daily tasks, discipline, help with homework, errands, and home maintenance, you’re the go-to person for everything. You may even have given birth to a child while your spouse was away. It’s like a whole different home.
Expect that this transition will be tough on you and your spouse, and understand that it may take some time to get used to having a partner again—especially if he or she has come home wounded in any way. Things may never go back to the way they were before, but with trust and communication, your marriage will grow as a result.
For the Kids
Depending on how you’ve explained the deployment to your children, having dad or mom return home from a deployment can be a shock. The kids may not know why the deployed parent was gone in the first place, and they may not know whether dad or mom is stay home now. It’s important to establish consistency and trust with your children through this process.
If you’re a single parent returning from deployment, this will be especially challenging. You’ve likely had a consistent caregiver for your child—perhaps a grandparent, aunt, or uncle. Ask that person to stay involved for a while longer. That will help you and the kids rebuild trust. Don’t worry. The bond between you will be re-established, but will take time.
The age of the children makes a difference in how they handle a parent returning from a deployment.
For newborns and toddlers, patience is key. They probably won’t comprehend much of what is going on, just that things have changed. And they’ll need time to adjust. Early school-aged children can be more involved in the conversation. For them, it’s important to remain positive and allow them to discuss their feelings without criticism. For older children, this conversation will likely be more in-depth. They know that you’ve been deployed, and they may ask questions about what happened. Remember to keep the conversation age-appropriate, and be respectful of their concerns.
Once you’ve re-established that connection, be there for your children in whatever way makes sense for them. That may be involvement at school, regular trips to the playground, helping with homework, or even implementing family game night.
Patience and Communication Are Key
The key takeaway for any family going through a homecoming (or looking forward to one) is to be open and honest with yourself and your loved ones. Your home should be a safe space for these concerns and feelings to be addressed so that no one feels left out or disconnected. That way, you can focus on the joy of having someone you love home at last.