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 usually don’t know what to do with that word. Just as I am trying to create a “home,” I seem to be leaving it.
Military couples say “home” is not where I hang my pictures, and bumper stickers say it’s where my heart is. But there is something about the holidays that makes me want to go physically home.
After years of military life, I think I have figured out that “home” is a place where I feel known and, perhaps more importantly, seen. It’s a place where I feel understood and safe. It can be found in the arms of my spouse and over coffee with a friend. It is a longing that all of us have, and it doesn’t go away.
You have likely felt it too.
Some of you will travel “home” this season to be with those who knew you before you were a part of this great big military family. But when you arrive, you might also bring a little bit of desperation to the party.
The constant feeling of being away from home, while also trying to establish a home, can make anyone desperate to feel seen, known and understood.
Many adults subconsciously revert to a younger version of themselves when returning to their childhood homes and families, known in counselor parlance as the “family of origin.”
We do it even though life, war and military marriage has long changed us — and it happens without us planning or knowing. The phenomenon might be, for example, a reason visiting your in-laws with your spouse drives you crazy. Before your eyes, his personality changes to match the maturity level of his much younger years.
Or perhaps, like me, going “home” means you uncontrollably share your most vulnerable stories of what military life is really like. After all, they asked. But when I do that, I often find myself wishing I could recapture my words, just in case my listeners don’t really care or understand.
Or maybe you are my opposite and stay quiet, all the while assuming no one cares to notice that you are different since the last time they saw you.
It’s a great irony, really. In effort to find “home,” we set ourselves up for hurt when we walk into Christmas with expectations to which others are oblivious. And why wouldn’t they be? Families, even awesome ones with amazing holiday treats at the ready, are not mind readers.
But the holidays and visiting home don’t have to be hard or isolating. If your spouse is with you this Christmas season, I urge you to find “home” in each other in the midst of your travel. There is no one else on the planet with whom you will find a level of acceptance for how military life has changed you. And chances are your spouse will notice if you revert to that childhood version of yourself around your family members more than you will.
By preparing ahead of time, you can rely on each other to be your “home base” if part of who you are or the experiences you’ve had, what I call “sacred spaces,” feel misunderstood. Your spouse can be a support if something triggers you. And you can be the safe place where your spouse feels seen and understood.
Just as important, remember that those sacred spaces exist in everyone’s story. Military life is hard, and it’s easy to want to soak up all the empathy in the room even unintentionally. But each person around the family table desires to be seen, whether they’ve held down a home front or not. Everyone has a story they wish to tell, a significant moment in time that made them who they are today.
So perhaps the best gift we can give is to create an opportunity for understanding and empathy — a shared sacred space — where we all truly listen to each other and then vulnerably love each other in light of that story.
Make time to ask the oldest family member about a moment that made them who they are. Ask a child about the best memory they had of the last school semester. Ask a teenager about a friend who showed up when they thought they had no one. Ask your spouse to share why their battle buddy was given such a worthy role.
Maybe in our listening as well as sharing, the greatest surprise is that we will find a “home” in what we do for each other.