Category: The Lifegiver Blog

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A few weeks ago, a seasoned military spouse well into retirement asked a question that threw me: “What traditions have you and your husband created for your family?”

It was a simple question to which I gave a simple answer. For Christmas each year, we drive around looking at Christmas lights in our pajamas with hot cocoa.

But in the days that followed, I wrestled with my limited answer.

In reality, the frustration of trying to recreate traditions wherever the Armysends us has caused us to give up on many of the ones my husband and I grew up with.

Frequent moves, deployments and military separations have created a mixed bag of experiences over the years that rarely live up to “tradition.”

During some assignments, for example, being too far away made it impossible to be with family during any holiday — so we were on our own, blending our traditions with those of other military families.

We’re in the middle of a permanent change of station this year, and I have been sad to realize that I have become apathetic. This is our third PCS in a row over the holidays. After a while, mustering the energy to pull off an amazing Christmas experience while exhausted is just more exhausting.

And it’s not just Christmas. Winning “Mom of the Year” is impossible when your child is the new kid at school and you feel the pressure to top last year’s Pinterest-inspired party.

One year over a deployed Easter, my young children fought dressing up, going to church and egg hunting. I had a near breakdown trying to make Easter feel like “Easter.” My attempts to make up for the lack of traditional elements seemed only to make everyone miserable and me a lot less fun to be around. And, of course, that paled in comparison to my husband’s experience of the holiday overseas.

So it’s no wonder I didn’t have a better answer to my friend’s simple question.

I realize now that some of my motivation to have and keep traditions has been more about overcompensating for the guilt that I can’t offer all the traditions my husband and I grew up with.

Rather than asking what activities would bring meaning and togetherness to our little family in the moment, I have been caught up in someone else’s definition.

So what can I do about that? And what can you do about your traditions — or lack thereof?

My “aha” moment was the realization that my husband and I needed to be more intentional at creating the traditions that make sense for our military family — a task that takes communication.

Over the years of trying to fit in traditions, Matt and I have not actually discussed what traditions are most important to each of us. We have not talked about what makes Christmas feel like Christmas, what activities make us feel most together or bring us the most meaning, or what activities we want to be more intentional about doing regularly and which ones are only adding more stress.

Tradition finds its roots in upbringing and culture. Matt and I learned this quickly during our first marital conflict 18 years ago over whether banana pudding should be served cold or hot. His parents, born and raised in the south, served it no other way than warm. Mine, raised in the midwest, served it cold. Of course, we both brought those beliefs into the marriage with us.

As silly as that sounds, all of us bring beliefs and ideas of what defines “family,” as well as the activities that symbolize togetherness and meaning.

Trying to form one definition in marriage when there are deep emotions attached is challenging for any couple. The military lifestyle can make it even more difficult to let go of or make changes to traditions that shake your beliefs and values — like my attempt to force Easter tradition during a very challenging time for our young family.

Freedom for me, and relief for Matt, is learning that tradition motivated by “I have to” is more of a prison than a celebration for all of us. It is an over-ritualization that takes away more than it gives.

Smaller traditions I have not thought of in years are beginning to stand out as more valuable, emotional and sentimental than ever — such as large Sunday meals together (known as “supper” in the south). These are the reminders that not all traditions we grow up with should be forgotten.

Instead, they can be enjoyed even more when we get to be a part of them. And some are quite doable and realistic, which makes them even more endearing when military life can throw you curveballs.

I had also not appreciated some of the powerful traditions we have already created that have brought us memories of connection and laughter.

Every PCS, we celebrate our first night in a new home with Chinese takeout. We’ve replaced birthday parties with a family day where we celebrate that individual for an entire day. And, lately, brave days at a new school are celebrated with frozen yogurt and conversations about courage.

Perhaps part of growing up is the reminder that we must choose to embrace difficulty with creativity rather than resentment.

There are some traditions that I will continue to grieve as they may not be possible for our military family. Yet, in their place is the opportunity to decide for ourselves who we are and what is most important to us. This can be exciting and full of new adventures if I allow it.

And even more rewarding? The knowledge that someday I will pass down to my own children the truth that traditions are more about the people they bring together than anything else.

I put on my old watch today.  My normal routine is to wake up, drink a cup of coffee, or three, and then when I can’t put it off any longer, take my digital watch off its charger and start the day. That moment says a lot of things. It tracks my steps, my heart rate on the treadmill, and makes sure I never miss anything.  I don’t miss texts from my husband, can access email if necessary.  I can completely stay connected all the time, everywhere.
Except as I decided to put on my old TAG watch this morning, I realized I’ve missed everything.
The time was right, which was a personal achievement that I had at least worn it since the last time change.  But the date was wrong because it is part of an archaic system of winding the hands of the clock to set it correctly. These watches take effort to stay connected. It said it was the 12th of something and definitely not from this month. Here it was the 22nd which meant I had not lost ten days but more like months and ten days.  As I wound the hands of this time piece, I thought of everything that had likely happened during those endless hours.  Winding a clock like that you really get a sense of how much time really does fly by.  My digital watch never makes me do that.
While I had been busy staring at emails and deadlines, somewhere in there were football games for my boys, and deep meaningful conversations with a person across the table from me, a new niece born into this world.  My digital timepiece offered false connection and anxiety and sold it as convenience.  How many conversations had I been distracted by the “tap tap” of my watch, saying something or someone was more important than who I was in front of?
No doubt the engineers of my digital watch worked for years to make a lightweight version that I would hopefully not even notice, except for every second CNN buzzes my wrist to let me know that people are drinking more water than ever considering infused water with mint on the trend.
No,  this watch is heavier.  Made from metal with a mother of pearl face.  Engraved with a love note from my husband on our first Christmas together.  It is weighty.  Like the time I have left with my boys, enjoying an active lifestyle, and moments to get it right in my marriage.
So much more is weighing me down than ever before.  But the right kind of weight.  The heaviness on your heart that feels right, sober, even lucid.  Seeing the world for what it is- a big mess of sin, neediness, and problems that will likely only go away once we step into the glorious light of heaven where it all vanishes in the radiance of a God that never fails.  And that my part in all of it isn’t to save it, but to enjoy the process of discovering God’s goodness right in front of me.  My children discovering courage on the field, my marriage practicing grace again and again, maybe even a walk in the woods without thinking about my heart rate for once.
As I wind my watch to sync it with today, I’m so grateful for the shared history it represents.  I’m so grateful for more “time” to be better, to get it “right” whatever that means.  To embrace my today and be a little bit more present with what matters. I think today I’ll go against what the world says and put on the watch that represents my story.  An intentional decision to be who I know I am instead of who the wold says I “could” be, “should” be.  No, today, I think I’ll take the time to connect differently.

What happens when you take a woman who serves in the shadows, who is terrified of success and who is flawed like everyone else, and thrust her into the spotlight?

I have tried many times to communicate what I have learned in the almost three years since I was named 2015 Armed Forces Insurance Military Spouse of the Year, but words cannot contain it.

I have learned about my own strength, the crippling power of my own weakness, and both the ugliness and beauty that exists in community.

That intense character growth in such a short time often felt as if I were in a never-ending free fall, while still trying to accomplish everyday tasks.

I am forever grateful for the award and the doors it opened, but even more for the doors it exposed in my heart that I had not noticed.

Here is some of what I see now that I couldn’t see before.

There is great wisdom in listening and learning from those with different viewpoints.

We are often limited by our own points of view.

For years, I served “boots on the ground” as a volunteer at events and programming. When you are new to the military, you tend to see all the ways the institution could be doing things differently or better. We rally to make things more modern or culturally relevant. We advocate from the ground up, frustrated by leadership who may not share the same passion.

This approach is not necessarily wrong. In fact, the next generation can be crucial to any institution’s success. Good leadership must listen to those it leads, but there is great wisdom from those who have gone before us.

My experience of sitting at the table with wives of generals and mentors who have lived this life for close to 30 years has been eye-opening.

If we would only listen, there are incredible stories of courage and fierce advocacy that led to the benefits we now freely critique.

I have been in awe of the character that has been shaped by years of hard work, sacrifice and maturity of our most senior spouses. Each generation carries unique challenges and victories that are meant to be celebrated together.

We all must listen more.

The military lifestyle can bring out the best or worst in you.

As I have listened to your stories, I have heard of both victories and devastation.

I have seen military spouses do incredible things in their local communities and installations, start their own businesses, advocate on Capitol Hill and run organizations that serve thousands of people in need.

The military spouse community is a fierce force to be reckoned with when they are at their best.

But this lifestyle also has a way of sneaking resentment and pride into our hearts before we can even say “America.” In my own life, I vulnerably share in my book “Sacred Spaces” how it impacted my marriage.

The response from the military spouse community has only confirmed what an epidemic this really is. When you spend most of your life feeling out of control, you will control everything you can get your hands on. This inner tension can eventually breed resentment and bitterness if you don’t keep a close watch on it.

While there are thousands of military spouses doing great things with a healthy internal drive, there are others who are fueled by the need to have control.

The only way to truly succeed at whatever we have a desire to do is to keep a light on those dark corners, maintain our priorities and be open to truth from those around you.

I would have lost everything had I not held onto my faith, listened to my husband and given key friends access to my inner world.

Outside forces will tempt you away from what will bring you joy.

There are few things on this planet that can bring you real joy.

We think it is found in success, our kids’ success, promotion, financial freedom or popularity.

But I can assure you it is not. It is not found in being relevant, the number of likes in social media, paid gigs or even service to others.

I have learned in the last few years that there is an enemy that will distract you if he cannot destroy you — and I promise you his goal is to destroy you.

Most of us think of moral failings or destructive decisions when we think “temptation,” but the stronger, more disabling temptations are in seemingly “good” opportunities.

Our community, as well as the first responder community, is founded on protecting life and promoting peace. We serve our communities and country by sacrificing what is comfortable and convenient.

As military spouses, we often feel we are an extension of our service member by giving similarly in our own way.

It is hard to say “no” to a good thing, whether it is a new nonprofit idea or an unfilled volunteer position.

Across the globe, I have seen many marriages fall apart because of overservice.

Work and accomplishments are good for our spirit. There is nothing wrong with finding purpose outside of the home using our unique talents and gifts.

It is when we find our significance there that it is dangerous. There will never be an end to the need in the world, so we must develop self-control of our calling before our calling controls us.

Otherwise, we will have nothing to offer.

Seasons may change how we serve each other in marriage, but peace is found in the roles God created for us.

I know someone will argue me into the ground on this, but I have lived it and survived to tell you the truth.

And today I have nothing but gratitude and respect for my husband taking on the home for the last two years while I traveled.

In many ways, he did a better job at home than I have ever done folding laundry, cooking dinner and picking up sick kids from school.

I have heard many military spouses utter the resentful words that used to be in my heart, “It’s his turn to revolve around me.”

I now grieve that I ever entertained that level of selfishness.

The last two years of role reversal have been equally rewarding and difficult, to say the least.

Out of love, he wanted me to see my own potential — and I did.

I hear many service members wanting the same for their spouses, but the grass is not always greener on the other side. Once you get there, you will always want to go back home.

I constantly fought off an underlying feeling of unbalance and stress. My heart wanted to be home. My attention felt torn, and he felt the same way. It was difficult to concentrate on his own job that provided for our family.

I kept thinking about Nicole Spaid, the 2015 Marine Corps Spouse of the Year whom the other spouses and I call our “Mother Hen.” She turned down several opportunities during her year with that title so that she could be fully present for her family. Her resolve has more influence in my life than she could ever know.

Now that my husband and I are finding better balance and taking back the roles that we believe God created in us, we are finding peace in what we believe He originally designed.

I recently saw a quote by Mother Teresa that could not be a better summary of my last few years: “If you want to bring happiness to the world, go home and love your family,” she said.

As much as I find purpose in serving others, this season has taught me that there is no greater joy than being at rest with my God and at home with my family.

Entering into this next season, my eyes are open to loving my family with my best first, and then offer the world what I have second.