The Ups and Downs of Life as a Military Spouse

This Memorial Day I wanted to re-share three stories of current and former service members and military spouses. Earlier this year Harling spoke with Ari Isaacman Bevacqua about her life as a military spouse, and it was one of the first times I’d been given a look into what life is like for those who aren’t serving but still deeply effected by military life. -Nora Taylor 

Man Repeller’s as-told-to features are intended to provide a platform for stories that deserve to be heard and might not otherwise be told. In this one, Ari Isaacman Bevacqua shares her experience coping with the joys and challenges of life as a military spouse. Her wife, Erin, was recently deployed to Iraq for a year; during that time, Ari parented their newly adopted son and maintained two jobs as the director of communications at The New York Times and an adjunct professor at George Washington University. Below, her story. -Harling Ross

Meeting My Wife

I met my wife Erin on in 2013 when she was in the Marine Corps stationed at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. We weren’t technically matched, actually, because I was living in D.C., so we weren’t in the same area, but we were both online at the same time and connected through chat.

I’m a certified yoga instructor, and I’ve always been pro-nonviolence and peacefulness — things that would make me hesitate to date someone in the military. But then two things happened: The first was Erin being who she is. Like many service members, she’s in the Marines to protect people and to create peace. That definitely attracted me. The second was, in my prior career, I was a presidential management fellow, which is a non-political role in the White House. I got to work on a lot of governmental programs, including ones that supported veterans. Learning more about veterans and the experience of military families and realizing how much they go through gave me a huge amount of respect for them and people who serve. I was able to really process the fact that, throughout history, some of the greatest evils in the world have been quashed by military action. I’m not saying I agree with everything the military does, but a lot of service members are incredibly selfless people who were born with the desire to be of service and part of something greater than themselves.

Erin’s unit at Camp Lejeune was really interesting because they were just beginning to integrate women. It was called the “Second Combat Engineer Battalion,” and she was one of the first women to join. I eventually moved to Camp Lejeune to live with her. When I first arrived, I wrote little notes to all of our neighbors on the block. One of them actually turned out to be super homophobic, so our friendship did not blossom. [Laughs.] You win some, you lose some. There were certainly challenges at play, being an interracial and same-sex couple in the South, but with the Marine Corps families, I had a really wonderful experience. I made many good friends I’m still close with to this day.

Her Long Deployment

Erin was deployed to Iraq in 2016, after we had just relocated to D.C. Our son Kai’s adoption was finalized while she was gone. New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt brought back the adoption paperwork with Erin’s signature from a reporting trip to Iraq.

Her deployment was especially long. In the Marine Corps, most deployments are six months or nine months, but Erin was in Iraq for a year. Erin came home once during her deployment, after about nine months, for a couple of weeks. They call it “R&R.” It’s actually quite difficult because you kind of have one foot in the door and the other out. At that point, you’re really ready to come home, but you’re just there to visit, so it’s hard for service members to enjoy themselves. At the same time, though, it gets them through those last months, having that crisp memory of home.

In Iraq, she was an aide-de-camp, which is like an aid to a general. She had access to internet most of the time, so we were able to talk quite a lot, but that also made it hard. Like, let’s say our son is sick and I’m exhausted, and I tell her how I’m feeling but she can’t help with anything. It’s not necessarily the best way to communicate. I had to taper myself off of sharing some of the day-to-day struggles. It was a bit strange. Sometimes I would think: It must have been easier when there was less communication.

Becoming a Mom

I feel extremely lucky that I became a mom before Erin deployed because I think it would’ve been a lot harder for me being alone. Having a kid keeps you so busy, and when you throw work and teaching and having a social life in the mix, the days go by very quickly.

That being said, it was tough to juggle so many balls as a (temporarily) single parent. I failed at something every single day, but as long as it wasn’t the same thing every time, it was okay. As long as I kept trying and woke up every morning with the intention of doing my best, I forgave myself for not being perfect. Feeling disappointed in myself on top of everything else would have just been an added injury I didn’t deserve. I tried to show myself some compassion.

I didn’t always succeed in taking care of my own needs, though. It was really hard to practice yoga because most yoga studios don’t have childcare, and I’m not going to spend $80 to hire a babysitter just so I can pay to attend a yoga class. Now that Erin’s back, I’ve been practicing so much more.

Investing in My Career

I’m lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to invest in my career and build up my resume while we’ve been in D.C. I work full-time as director of communications for The New York Times, but I also picked up a teaching job at George Washington University while Erin was gone. Even though I already had a lot on my plate, the opportunity to become an adjunct professor doesn’t happen every day. I was trying to think ahead, because we don’t know where the military will station us next, and the credential of being an adjunct is something I can leverage anywhere.

I’m also fortunate that I love my boss at The Times, and I love my team. They’re so great. If Erin and I were to have more kids, I’m confident that I would be able to take maternity leave and come back and be supported at work. I don’t even know if that will happen for us, but if it does, it’s nice to know my team would have my back.

I leave the office early a lot to pick up Kai from school and take him to various appointments or whatever, but I always catch up on work at night. It’s not ideal that I often have to work during off-hours, but I am grateful to have that flexibility. If I want to go to a PTA meeting, I go to the PTA meeting. I will get my work done. Sometimes I don’t get enough sleep, but I can’t not be there for my son, especially since he very much needs me to be there.

Staying Organized

I maintain a to-do list that includes every aspect of my life: parenting, working, teaching. It’s divided into three sections — do-soon tasks, projects and longer-term goals — and listed under each is a specific task, usually linked to a Google doc that has more info, a project plan, etc. Whenever I have five minutes of downtime, I do the “do-soon” stuff, which is often parenting tasks like scheduling appointments.

I write down everything that goes through my head: every new or novel thought, every idea, every to-do, every piece of information. I save them all as draft emails. A few times a day I go through my drafts and sort them by discarding things that are no longer relevant, emailing myself information about things I need to search for later and scheduling a meeting or adding something to my calendar. (I have all events and reminders on my work calendar — everything from “order Pinewood Derby racing car kit” to biannual dental cleaning reminders.)

Every couple of days, I go through my entire to-do list and organize it in order of priority. As overwhelming as it is in quantity, it gives me great relief knowing everything is at least in one place.

Political Views in the Military

People in the military are not supposed to be forthcoming about their political perspectives because you serve your commander-in-chief, the President of the United States, no matter the party affiliation. A lot of the military spouses I hang out with — some of my absolute best friends — I don’t actually know who they voted for in the last election. I would never ask that question.

[That said], I have really close relationships with friends from different parts of my life, but I don’t feel as comfortable talking with them about the struggles of deployment as I do with other military spouses, because they’re the ones who know what it’s like firsthand. We’re all in it together.

Getting Reacquainted After Deployment

Someone shared a post in our Marine Corps Facebook group about how you have a unique opportunity to recreate your relationship when your spouse returns from deployment: When she or he is gone it can feel like the relationship is on pause, like you’re in some alien movie where you’re on separate planets just sending messages back and forth.

I personally found that to be very true. When Erin returned from Iraq, we had to relearn each other all over again. Our son had just moved in with us around the time she left and we had just relocated to D.C., so I had to create a life for us here on my own. I became friends with other parents at his school and had playdates and created a schedule for us every week. When she came home, I would say we were going to this family’s house or this couple’s party, and she was like, “Who are these people? What are you talking about? I don’t know them.” She missed out on a year of memories.

We also had to re-establish our parenting dynamic. For an entire year, I was doing everything by myself. I made all the decisions. So guess what? They’ve all been right! [Laughs.] Once Erin came home, we had to find a balance, because we both have very strong personalities.

I felt totally connected to her while she was gone yet so distant at the same time, because we didn’t have a day-to-day rapport, like in most marriages. Now that she’s back, we’ve had the opportunity to make our relationship better and deeper and more fulfilling, almost like taking it to the next level of connection. I see it as more of an opportunity than a hurdle, but there are times when it’s been hard. It can take a while for service members to get re-acclimated to life at home. Everyday things we take for granted in a privileged society, like going to restaurants or being in a crowd, can be very jarring.

As challenging as it is being a military spouse, the ever-present uncertainty about where life will take us next can be kind of exhilarating. There is an excitement in not knowing where you might be living next year or what kind of opportunities might present themselves — jobs, cities — and nothing is off limits. Maybe I’ll open a yoga studio one day, maybe I’ll be a full-time professor, maybe I’ll work for The New York Times for the next 30 years; I have no idea. But I’m up for the adventure.

Photos by Saoussen Besrour.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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