(“Reintegration” is a term used in the Army for the period of adjustment for both family and soldier upon return home)
Every morning since he’s been home, I wake up to the sound in my kitchen of a spoon clanking around a mug. My husband is stirring creamer in my coffee before he brings it to me in bed, soon followed by a kiss and my son smiling in his arms.
But at first it didn’t feel quite like my husband; rather, a stranger (a very kind stranger) living in my house trying to make my life easier. It was as if the Lord had finally reached down from above and given me the third arm I so needed.
My days used to begin slowly, snuggling in bed with my son, feeding him a toaster waffle with peanut butter smeared on it, sitting on the floor watching him play as the sun lit up his wispy blonde hair. I’d often skip breakfast to avoid the mess and sip on coffee with too much creamer in it. I’d stay in my pajamas until I felt the need to step into the fresh air, or run an errand, or meet a friend for lunch. Each moment was my own.
These new mornings were what I had only dreamed of for 258 days, but when they became my new reality and I learned that new beginnings to my days led to new kinds of days, I began to crave my old life and my old ways. I was guilty to feel it at the time, but now that I am on the other side of reintegration, I want to share the journey it took for my husband and I to find each other again.
The night he came home to us was precious. It was one of those moments I wish I could place forever in a snow globe to relive again and again… the line of white buses approaching in the distance, watching as hundreds of boots accumulated on the other side, wondering which boots were his, wondering how I’d find him in the sea of clean cuts and camouflage, wondering if my lips would remember what to do and if my arms would know how to hold him.
He had already spotted us, the girl in the yellow striped dress and in her arms, his little boy who was a little baby nine months ago. When we embraced, the feeling I remember most was relief. Relief that I was whole again, we were one again, it was over, and I no longer had to do it alone. I didn’t have to be strong anymore. He was finally, finally home and I could breathe. In that moment, I thought every struggle had evaporated and my normal life would finally resume; but it wasn’t quite that simple. While it was absolutely wonderful to have my husband home, I was not prepared for the period of adjustment that walked in the door when he did.
On our way home from the welcome home ceremony, I rode shotgun in my own car for the first time in nine months. We picked up Cane’s for a late dinner. We moved our sleeping son from his carseat to his crib, and we had fried chicken and red wine on the floor of our living room. We enjoyed sharing conversation while looking into each other’s eyes, but it was awkward in some ways--an awkwardness that no husband and wife should or is ever prepared to feel again--like the anticipation of a first kiss, a first date, or your wedding night.
I thought the newness of it all was just a small hurdle, like catching up with an old friend... awkward only for a few moments until it would soon feel as though he left just yesterday. But now that I look back on it, it was more like climbing a tall mountain. It was like two strangers who had met before but didn’t know where. They had to learn one another’s subtle quirks again, working together to fill in the gaps until it all came back.
Within the first five minutes of walking through our front door, he took the trash out. He came to hold our son’s legs as I changed his diaper. While deep down I knew my husband was only eager to provide the help and support he couldn’t for so long, I felt something like resentment building up already. I was determined to continue proving to him I could do it alone, even though I didn’t need to anymore. I was proud of who I had become and the new independence I had achieved over a period of time filled with challenges that grew me as a person. There was an irrational fear within me that as soon I let him help me again, I would turn back into the old me.
I never wanted my husband to leave. I never would have never chosen that for our marriage or our family. But the reality was that he did leave, and I was forced to make a life without him. And I’d learned to be happy without him--because I had no other choice. So naturally, when he returned, it felt that the sacred space I had made my own for nine months had been disrupted.
All of a sudden every routine from my old life needed adjustment somehow, and bigger adjustments than just adding more eggs to the pan and more coffee to the pot. On the first night, I woke up a few times almost catapulting out of bed, startled there was a large man lying next to me. Seven o’clock, a time that had become my treasured alone time after tucking my son into bed became undivided time for the two of us; my projects were paused and my shows and books were stopped. I also found that I missed the girls who had become my people when he couldn’t be my person anymore. I missed them more than I expected I would. For a while, I had difficulty transitioning from their companionship to his, and from their support to his. And every day, I had to combat my guilt in having those feelings.
People tell you the reintegration process is hard, but you truly don’t understand how or why until you are there yourself. You can’t fathom how such a happy time could come with any difficulty. But now that I’ve experienced it for myself, I can also tell you that the struggle is fleeting and that eventually, you make it over that tall mountain.
It took a lot of communication about needs and expectations. It took a lot of tensions and tears. It took one big fight that ended in him driving off to get some space, and me, relieved to be back in the solitude I was so familiar with. Eventually his truck pulled back into the driveway and he walked through the front door and we hugged for a long time with tears in both of our eyes. I realize now that this was the moment I let him back in. This was the night he really came home.
We learned about one another’s different needs. He needed to be needed again, so I began to find ways to enlist his help with small tasks around the house, like opening the can of mandarin oranges and WD-40ing our squeaky bedroom door; and I needed to keep just a few things the same from before, like being the one to rock our son to sleep each night and having time with my friends.
We began to make an effort to allow each other both space and grace. My girlfriends and I made time to see each other, continuing our Bachelor Mondays, walks at the park, and playdates with the babies. My husband and I agreed that one night each week, we would have the “me time” we were so used to. We loved spending our evenings together, but we also found solace in the small glimpses into our separate pasts.
Looking back to those first days, I think a lot of what I was feeling was grief. While it was a period of huge gain in getting my husband and the father of my child back, it was also a period of loss. The friends on the homefront--the girls who had become my family, the routines and rhythms I had created for myself and with my son, the ways I spent my time, my new identity and independence...they all seemed gone.
I knew all along that these were all blessings given to me by my faithful God who "answered my prayers when I was in distress, for he has been with me wherever I have gone" (Genesis 32:3). He'd given me friendships in my times of loneliness, and passions to fill my time with. And he answered my most recent prayers to bring my husband back home safely;
But in my weakness, I was afraid to let go of those things or change my ways because I couldn’t help but remind myself it was just a matter of time before my husband would leave again. It felt unfair, like someone had come and popped this little protective bubble I’d made for myself. I was vulnerable again. I told myself I needed to keep my walls up so I didn’t have to build them back up someday.
With time, our new normal didn’t feel so new anymore. Slowly, my walls came down as I peered over them to see the things I had dreamed of for so long now being my reality...my husband pushing my son on the swing outside as I prepared dinner, listening to splashes and giggles in the bathtub down the hall as I cleaned up the kitchen, trips to the zoo and aquarium, strolls and banana splits on the beach, my son’s new favorite means of transportation being on his Dada’s shoulders, feeling an arm across my shoulders in the church pew, a hand across my lap in the car, going to sleep each night with him wrapped around me and waking up each day as not just a mother, but also a wife;
And now, instead of sitting alone on my patio in the evenings dreaming what life will be like with him home again, I sit beside him as we watch our son crawl in the grass exploring rocks and clovers. We make a fire and s’mores and make plans for new memories and for our family’s future.
While I’ve learned that when he leaves I will be okay, I have also been reminded that life with him is the one I chose, and the life I love most.