I was at the bus stop this morning, chatting with the other moms while we waited for the big yellow bus to arrive, scoop up our children, and buy us a few hours of freedom. Standing there, I mentioned during our conversation that my husband, Brad, was still away on TDY. The other mom looked surprised, "He's still gone? All this time? But you've looked so composed!"
My people-pleasing ego really liked that praise, and I think I muttered something like, "Well, this is only 3 weeks. It's doable. Much better than the 6 months or year apart we are used to."
I said it for two reasons: one, it is the optimism I've trained myself to see my life through: it can always be worse. Two, if I'm being totally honest, it makes me seem a little badass: I've done a year. I'm hardcore. This is NOTHING.
Yup. I'm really that petty and prideful on the inside. Ugly, isn't it? But give me a little grace--I am working on it.
But here's what I should have said to that sweet mama, the one who also has a husband that travels, plus three kids under 7:
I'm not composed. At all. I'm struggling. Every single day is a struggle. What you see as 'composure' is a well-rehearsed performance, born out of years of experience at being a 'work widow.'
My home is a mess. There's a week's worth of shoes and dirty socks by the front door that I keep stepping over. Every day, the kids drop their shoes and school stuff by the door, I nag them to put it away, and the third or fourth time they actually do it but only half-way, and I'm too tired to keep at them, so the pile grows. I know I should punish them, but honestly, I'm exhausted from spending all of my energy trying to enforce the chores and rules and routines while still keeping them alive and fed, so I just walk past it and ignore it. Really awesome parenting, I know.
I'm so behind in laundry, there is a basket of folded clothes at the base of the stairs that I've been nagging the kids to put away for a week. Another basket of unfolded clean clothes in the laundry room, and full hampers in their rooms. Just looking at the mountain is overwhelming at this point, so I'm ignoring it.
I'm really good at ignoring things that overwhelm me.
This level of avoidance is a new development for me. I've always been the Martha Stewart wanna-be, the woman who crafts and bakes homemade sourdough and who takes pride in a neat, well-designed home. I look at the state of my home now and how it used to be and I just scoff, "What happened to you?"
When their dad leaves, my kids act as if the entire daily routine has gone out the window. With every deployment, I've learned it always requires two solid weeks of retraining, with a lot of chore charts and positive reinforcement to get them back on track. I've even lugged out the chore charts and jars of poker chips and have put the phrase, "Check your chore chart!" on repeat this TDY, yet I'm half-assing it. I know it and they know it. Honestly, it's only a three week separation and I'm pretty much just waiting it out at this point. I'll retrain them when I have backup.
I'm taking some small measure of comfort in the fact that so far, I've yet to have a total meltdown and completely lose my shit in front of my kids. On every TDY or deployment in the past, I've had a moment when all of the constant running, pulling, doing, cooking, cleaning, and demands on my time and energy and sanity, without the relief of another set of hands and the mental stimulation of adult conversation, become just too much. I end up screaming at someone, "I CAN'T DO THIS!! I AM ONE PERSON!" and scaring the crap out of the receiving child before I dissolve into tears. So far, we've avoided the drama this TDY. Perhaps this is a sign of growth? Of course, there's still a week left in this TDY; I probably shouldn't be so confident.
I wake up tired. I go to bed exhausted. I'm cranky and snappy by the kids' bedtimes and then spend the hours after bedtime feeling like a crappy mom. I'm perpetually behind. As much as possible, I've cut all the frills out of our lives, operating in "survival mode." It's also why I limit my kids' activities and refuse to sign them up for every sport or club, because although it all sounds fine while daddy is home, I know I can't keep up with it while he's gone. I've embraced a simple childhood and practiced the word "No" again and again.
So, sweet mama, what you're seeing? It's not composure. It's a strange combination of hard-earned wisdom about my limits and a bunch of apathy and a dash of avoidance. Please don't look at me in the 5-10 minutes we spend together in the mornings and fool yourself into believing that I've got it all put together. In all honestly, I probably haven't showered in two days, and once my oldest is on the bus 45 minutes after my youngest, I'll either down a pot of coffee and push through or just crumple into a defeated pile on the couch and take a nap for an hour.
I suspect the source of your comment was probably a comparison of how I appeared somewhat sane in the mornings and you comparing it to your own experience of being harried and exhausted and tired when your husband travels. (Or else, you are just a really kind, sweet soul who was taking pity on my crazy and offering me a kind word. Which is quite possible.) But if you are in any way comparing my five minutes with your reality, just stop. Please. Anyone can appear sane and composed for five minutes.
As a photographer, I know this so well. With the right lighting and styling and artful angles, you can make the darkest, most horrible things look beautiful for just a moment. But the reality is often far more complicated than what falls within the boundaries of the frame.
I promise, to you or any other mom out there struggling and comparing yourself to another mom: the reality is, we're all struggling. Composure is just a myth. Every second spent in motherhood is fraught with doubt and guessing and uncertainty and frustration. Parenting is insane--it really is. We bring these helpless beings into the world, we love them with a fierceness that is just unexplainable, yet they make our lives crazy. They're unpredictable and demanding and completely dependent upon us and sometimes, really bratty. They can also break our hearts with a smile or a giggle. We would tear apart another who would criticize them, yet at times, we mutter what little assholes they can be under our breath. We want the very best for them, yet our best never seems to be enough: they are forever demanding more and we are forever seeing someone else that appears to be doing it better. Then, take this two-person job and suddenly shift it all onto the shoulders of one person, it becomes monumentally hard. And so, so isolating. (There's a reason God designed this parenting scheme to work best as a partnership between two people).
I honestly have no idea how full-time single parents do it, but I suspect that if asked, they give the same answer that I give when non-military parents ask how I manage a year-long deployment: you figure it out, because you don't have the option to fail. Someone is depending on you, so you figure it the eff out. Quitting, failing, giving up aren't options, so you just do it. I'm not made of special stuff. There isn't anything particularly unique about me. Just like any other mom, I love my children enough to do my best to raise them into successful adults, and no matter how my surroundings or circumstances my change along the way, I'll find my way. No mom out there possesses a secret gene or trait that makes her better able to do this. Each of us is unique, with our own talents and skills and varying strengths, sure--but we all contain the ONE thing we need to do this job well: a sacrificial love for our children that pushes us beyond our boundaries to meet their needs.
I may not have composure, and my house my not be clean and my hair may be dirty--but I love my kids. So do you. We'll give them what they need to grow into independent adults--it may not always be pretty or Pinterest-worthy. But at the end of the day, that's enough.