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Deployment Survival: Learning to Thrive

Insight on deployment survival from a military spouse who has experienced several deployment separations with kids.

I’ll never forget the Summer of 2012. My husband signed his life to the Army and within a month we also found out I was pregnant. As my belly grew the time for Basic Training and AIT drew closer and I wondered if he’d be home in time for our daughter’s birth. I can happily say it all worked out, but 5½ months apart while pregnant was no walk in the park! 

pregnant with heart hands during deployment

As the years went on more training was required which meant more separation. You’d think I would have figured out how to manage the time apart quickly, but it wasn’t until the fourth year of our Army journey that it all really started to click. That summer Austin was going to be gone for three months on the other side of the country leaving me at home with our 4, 3, and 1 year old daughters. 

It was a perfect storm; I was reaching a point in life where I knew I either had to make some intentional changes to be happy or accept more misery than I wanted. At least that’s how I felt when that summer started. In the midst of it all I discovered three imperatives to thriving during our time apart that have helped me: setting a routine, knowing what fulfills me, and asking for help. 

Setting A Routine

At first, right after he left, the girls and I just did whatever sounded fun. Maybe it’s because I was living close to siblings making cousin time easy and accessible. Maybe it’s because it was summer and that’s supposed to be all about fun. No stress, no schedules. Right? Well that quickly turned into chaotic days. I felt frantic and like I wasn’t in control of anything. Deployment survival would be hard at this pace.

Thankfully that changed. I can remember the exact moment when it hit me. I was sitting in a mountain of laundry thinking about how dirty the bathroom was and if the pile of dishes in the sink didn’t get washed that meant breakfast would be served directly on the table. Then this thought came to me: “Fun wouldn’t cease to exist for my girls if I put parameters on what we did and when we did it.”

So that’s what I did. I created a weekly and daily flow—a routine—not a schedule. I like to call it a flow because young children don’t really understand the concept of time (and maybe its just my girls, but they seem to make almost everything take longer than it has to). So I didn’t get too strict, but I became determined to set a routine for a few simple things: 

  • Exercise was a must; the first thing in the morning, kids asleep or awake didn’t matter
  • Play Time needed to be on my time, not someone else’s time
  • Quiet Time became a mandatory hour for everyone in the house
  • One hour a day was set aside for housework
  • Grocery shopping/errands were done on a certain day of the week, every week

It was about structure and being intentional with my day’s routine which restored some sense of control in my life. Once I had that feeling my sanity started to level and I felt more like a normal person again! 

Knowing What Fulfills Me

Speaking of sanity, I realized a while back that my husband is the biggest factor in keeping mine in check. The way he talks me through things, validates me, and his very presence keeps me grounded some days. So when a big separation comes, like that summer, my sanity can go right out the window. When working on deployment survival, I’ve learned that I can’t just give to my husband, give to my children, and give to my country without filling myself back up in a self-sustaining way. 

It’s actually been a fun experiment to become more self-aware of what drains me versus what makes my heart full like the Grinch’s when he realized the meaning of Christmas. A lot of the things people talk about being fulfilling don’t do it for me (getting my nails done, taking a bubble bath, binging Netflix, all the classic female things). Those are nice and enjoyable, but afterwards I don’t feel anymore ready for life’s challenges than I did before. 

For deployment survival I need things that fulfill me, so what works for me might not work for others. But that’s the point: to be self-aware enough to know what fills you up. Here’s some of my list:

  • Gardening fruits, vegetables, and beautiful flowers
  • Listening to podcasts about people’s stories or personal development
  • Walks (especially in the sunshine)
  • Playing piano
  • Dance parties in my kitchen (by myself, with my girls, doesn’t matter)
  • Training for a race

Asking For Help

This is where I’ve probably struggled the most in my life, and the times my husband is away is no exception. I am a capable, strong woman. My mom has instilled that in me since I was born, and I know it’s true. But to be a strong, capable woman does not mean you have to do everything alone. I’ve actually come to realize it’s the opposite. 

That summer my husband was training life threw a few curve balls at me. A broken down car, a daughter needing stitches, kids getting sick, dealing with a pestering neighbor, and trying to console a sweet girl having night terrors were a few of them. In the middle of all this I learned that its ok to ask for help, and it’s ok to accept help when it’s offered.

I remember someone from church saying to me, “Let me know if you need anything.” Instead of being stubborn and just saying, “Ok,” I said, “I really need someone to watch the kids for an hour and a half every few days so I can go running by myself. Do you know anyone?” And he did, and running never felt better! No one will judge you for needing help (at least no one you want in your life). No one will wonder why you need that specific thing. It doesn’t mean you can’t handle life, it just means that you are sane enough to see that sometimes it takes a village to care for your needs. You don’t have to do it alone. Ever.

The Waiting Warrior, Michelle Bowler, family - thriving during deployment

When Deployment Survival Becomes Thriving

Now, seven years later, history is repeating itself. Last summer Austin switched to Active Duty, a month later we found out we were pregnant again (4th girl), and he’s likely deploying soon after she’s born. So another separation looms around the corner. Do I have everything figured out as a waiting warrior? No. Do I feel like the next separation will breeze on by? No. Will something new or unexpected happen? I count on it. And this time I know how to thrive instead of just survive.

The Waiting Warrior, Michelle Bowler thriving during deployment

Michelle Bowler was born and raised in Carlsbad, CA. She received her bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University—Idaho in 2014 and is the mom of 3 girls. As an Army wife of 6+ years Michelle is the founder of The Waiting Warriors podcast, blog, and social media which help military and first responder loved one’s know how to thrive in their life of supporting service.

Connect with Michelle on Instagram @thewaitingwarrior and for more great insights be sure to visit The Waiting Warriors website and subscribe to her podcasts!

Looking for ways to help your kids during deployment? If so, check out these tips to help children with deployment.

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