I’m what they call “seasoned” in the Navy spouse world. We’ve been married for more than 16 years and my husband, whom I’ve known since before he joined the Navy, has almost 20 years in service. Even though I often think I’m still learning how to do this right along with my sister sub wives, I get asked how I do it all the time. I’ve enlisted some friends to help answer this complex question and to chat about some of the difficulties of this life.
First, though, a little more background on my husband and I. I want to include some of these details because I think they’re part of what has made our military marriage successful. Before Scott proposed to me, he put a lot of consideration into the type of person he believed me to be. We grew up together but didn’t marry until after I graduated from college and he had almost four years in the service, which means we talked on the phone and wrote letters often. (Cell phones and computers weren’t the thing they are now – we’re that old.) In his letters he used words like strong and independent, and told me that I was a woman he respected and trusted. His words may not have been traditionally romantic, but showed me how much thought he was putting into our relationship. And he wasn’t just thinking about what kind of woman he wanted to marry, but also what kind of woman might be able to blossom as a Navy wife.
Also before he proposed, he gave me a lot of information – about what he did, the hours he worked, the months he’d be out to sea. He prepared me the best he could so that I could make an educated, and not just emotional, answer when he eventually asked, “So, what do you think about getting married?”
I said yes! And as prepared as I thought I was, as highly as my new husband thought of me…being married to a submariner isn’t a walk in the park. There are some great things but there are also some rough times. My friend Joy said it perfectly, “Being a Navy spouse and Navy married couple requires living life like the tide: it ebbs and it flows.”
Along with Joy, I also asked my friends Heather, Chelsea, Autumn, and Anna for their thoughts on the early years of being a sub spouse. Between the six of us, we’re walking several different paths through this life. Two of these friends married Naval officers, three of us married enlisted sailors (two later became officers), and one married a civilian who enlisted in the Navy almost eight years after they wed. We’re at different stages now, too. One sailor has left active duty service and is now in the reserves. The rest of our husbands are still active duty, although mine will be retiring soon. And the lengths of our marriages to submarine sailors range from just two years to more than two decades.
What sort of struggles did the six of us have in our early Navy marriages? How have we learned to cope? I’m so glad you asked.
Planning a wedding…
A common difficulty in becoming a spouse to a sailor is actually figuring out when, where, and how to exchange vows. I remember reading the wording on invitations over the phone to my then-fiancé. I’m sure his eyes were glazing over, but he helped as best he could from thousands of miles away. Chelsea and her husband planned their wedding for a shore duty that turned out not to be so much on shore. Her husband’s boat, that was moored when he got to it, changed homeports and allowed him three days to run home, get married, and return to the Navy. Heather’s wedding didn’t go exactly as originally planned either. “We had to move our wedding up 8 months, (from August to December) giving me 32 days’ notice to plan a wedding!”
Planning alone, picking up your sailor at the airport and practically driving straight to the church, or changing plans on the run are fairly common occurrences. I often find myself shrugging and saying, “What’s the alternative,” and that little mantra applies here too. If this is truly the person you want to marry, you’ll make the best of it and adjust accordingly. Because, really, what’s the alternative?
Once you’re married, the honeymoon begins, right? I’ve been to weddings where the lovebirds were whisked away from the reception to a hotel near the airport, ready to jet off to sexy, seclusion the next morning. Those were civilian weddings.
My sailor and I spent the day after the wedding loading the U-Haul with wedding gifts and my belongings. We spent a few days traveling almost 3,000 miles. Then he went back to work. And I’m not alone in that. Many of us don’t get our romantic getaways until ten or twenty years later.
Chelsea and her husband managed to get their honeymoon a little sooner, though. It was again in that hurry up mode, though. “A year after we got married, he came home and said, ‘Our honeymoon needs to start now.’ So we left on an MAC flight (an already scheduled military flight that military members and families may travel on if there is room) that night to Germany, rented a car and drove around Europe. These should have been stressful things but what helped me was gratitude and treating it like an adventure. I was a planner and I let that go.”
Now, I know that not all civilian couples actually celebrate their marriages with a week on the sand immediately following their weddings, but I would guess that the percentage that do is much higher than in military couples. And, we’ve only just begun.
Heather had this to say: “The constant chaos was definitely something my civilian friends have zero idea about too. The attitude you have to have of independence in a newlywed situation is just so foreign to those who don’t know it. Newlyweds are typically conjoined twins, but in a submarine community I feel like Paul and I were roommates. Two ships docking in the same harbor occasionally, if we were lucky!”
And Joy agreed with these thoughts: “We had been married for about 7-8 years before the Navy came into our married life. It was quite the adjustment for me. I loved being with my husband. I wanted to be around him. We’d never been apart until he left for boot camp leaving me still teaching high school full time and raising our toddler son. We spent the first year and a half of our Navy life 3000 miles apart. I had to learn to be alone, know that I’d be OK alone, and do everything…alone.”
This is the norm. We marry these cute sailors and then they go out to sea or work crazy hours. There is no 9-5 here. And, the successful military spouse learns that she has reserves of strength she didn’t know were there. She digs up septic covers with a toddler’s help. She creates rituals that help her sleep on duty nights – nights that your sailor has to stay on board all night. She reminds herself that she can do this – whatever this is. I often (still) tell myself, “I’m not the first and I won’t be the last. I can get through this.” There are those wives who’ve gone before us, those that are just as new as us, and ones coming after us…and we can all lean on each other. We’re not alone.
While we’re learning to be self-sufficient and trying to make new friends, we’re often longing for home. We’re thinking back to long conversations with college roommates that lasted ‘til the wee hours of the morning. We’re missing, as Anna said, “Someone who knows the true us and says, ‘No, really’ when we answer that we’re fine.” We crave Mom’s home cooking and wish we could watch our brothers’ and sisters’ sporting events and dance recitals.
Before starting this adventure, many of us were used to seeing extended family for holidays. We had friends around us that we’ve known for years. Celebrating birthdays, births, graduations and more were something we did in person, and sometimes even grumbled about having to participate in. We knew where to go for a good time and the best places to hang for free…back home. And even though the age on our newly issued military dependent IDs says we are, we often don’t fully feel like adults yet.
With all of this going on inside and out, many a Navy wife feels lonely, unprepared, and in need of a shoulder to lean on. Many will return home to get that love. But some of us are lucky enough to connect with another spouse who fills some of those holes. We find a new family made up of friends who drag us out hiking or to the movies or bring over wine. Missing home is normal and perfectly okay. Even decades into a military career. But there are ways to cope and thrive even when missing others. And if you stay in long enough, and move around a bit, you find yourself missing more and more homes. Because home is truly where the heart is (and the Navy sends you), and pieces of mine are all over our great country!
Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, the Navy will change things up. Autumn and her husband were married during a sea duty and were stationed near her family. That made her first year or so not so bad. “The big change was just before our second anniversary when we moved 3000 miles from home. He also went to shore duty. I immediately found a job and started working 40 hours a week and made friends there. Shore duty was harder because he was around all the time. I had gotten used to him leaving and having my time. Now, I had to think about what he wanted to do during down time and try to spend all the time with him. Through the years, I have learned that we both need to do things on our own and things together.”
There’s definitely a learning curve to marriage. That’s true no matter what your spouse does for a living. But the thing about the military is that your sailor’s job changes every two to three years. There’s no promise he’ll have the same schedule for an entire tour either. You may be on your own for dinner for two weeks, but be able to share breakfast. Or he may seem to sleep whenever he’s home. Or he may travel for inspections or go out to sea for months. He may be able to surprise you with a phone call or letter or you may not even get a single email for months. You may live in one state for years or move every other summer. You just don’t know. The Navy life is full of surprises – full of chances to create a new normal!
Big girl panties…
I’ve been known to say, “Put your big girl panties on,” on occasion. Apparently I said it often enough that a friend bought me a little plaque with those words that I keep in my kitchen! Seriously, though, part of being a successful submarine spouse is pulling on big girl panties and getting it done, whatever it may be.
When I say this little phrase, I’m not necessarily referring to granny panties. I don’t care if your big girl panties are made of lace, 100% cotton, or silk. I don’t care if they’re thongs, high-waisted, or bikini cut. I don’t care if they’re a matched set or whatever’s clean. When I mention putting big girl panties on, I simply mean meeting the day head on with whatever you’ve got that day. Some days I might feel like I can conquer the world. Other days I might feel like pulling on sweats is an accomplishment. But every day we submarine wives have to stumble or jump or roll out of bed and be big girls. Whether we’re 18 years old or 38 years old, being your sailock kids and your period. It might be nothing more than how much you love that dang sailor! No matter what, though, there’s always something. And I sure try to find that sunshine, even on the cloudiest of days.
Heather’s response was, “What helped me was keeping my independence and confidence…I constantly had a running dialogue in my head of all my accomplishments as a navy girlfriend, navy fiancée, and navy spouse that I would tell myself in my head if I was in a rough spot, or housing was giving me the run around and I wanted to give up, or his homecoming date got pushed back AGAIN and I felt like I couldn’t take one more day – let alone another week. I kept the mantra playing and it really helped keep me strong to power through the rough stuff.”
Autumn’s advice for fellow spouses is to, “Find a good support system, whether it be with your fellow division wives, the FRG, or even work friends. Also, try to stay busy while your spouse is away. I had work during the week and then tried to find something to do on the weekends to make the time go by.” It’s great advice! I went to college when we were first married and those friends (who are still friends now) helped keep life in perspective. I’ve also got friends from every place we’ve been stationed whose love and support have also gone great with a glass of wine. Don’t underestimate the power of a good laugh with friends!
Joy’s thoughtful advice is this: “You are going to have ‘I hate the Navy days.’ They are coming–sometimes regularly. Embrace the suck and celebrate the awesome. For every challenge the Navy can throw our way, as unpredictable as submarine life is – there will be very special, very real, completely amazing days.” I can’t tell you how true this is. Like everything in life, the bad helps you appreciate the good. There are lows and highs, and some of those highs are definitely very special, very real, and completely amazing. My friendships with these women certainly count in that category!
Don’t let being a Navy spouse completely change who you are, but understand that you might need to change sometimes even so. Chelsea shared that she still tries, “To plan, but I can laugh it off when those plans fall through. We have had many adventurous trips and moves so far and they have been great!”
Anna thoughtfully mentioned that it’s important to, “Allow yourself to grieve. No matter how much you love your partner, no matter how excited you are to start your Navy adventure, leaving your civilian life and becoming a Navy wife is a transition. It didn’t happen all at once, but slowly as life events popped up I learned to allow myself to celebrate while at the same time quietly grieve that I would miss out on certain milestones of friends and family.” She added that she wouldn’t change this experience for anything, but it’s true that all choices have consequences. Marrying a sailor is a choice.
It’s one that all six of us have made and would make again. We’re honored that our sailors asked us to share this life with them. We’re proud of the sacrifices they make and the sweat they put in to their small role in protecting our country. We’re amazed by our own strength and inspired by the women surrounding us. We are submarine wives.
This list of struggles and coping strategies is certainly not exhaustive. Every marriage is different and comes with its own story. Every person has to find for themselves what helps with the stress and what doesn’t. But, I do hope that maybe you feel less alone or less uncertain or more able to cope. We, as submarine wife sisters, embrace our own and want you to succeed. Lean on those you can, let go of those you can’t. You’ve got this! You are a submarine wife too. And hopefully you can also look around, through all the ups and the downs, and proudly say you’d make this choice again too.