By Courtney Woodruff
As I scrolled through the priceless images captured the day my husband came home from war, I found myself drawn to a candid photo of my mother-in-law and me. We were standing side by side on the tarmac, beaming as we waited to be reunited with our soldier. Blinded by overwhelming emotion the moment I spotted my guy in the steady stream of camouflage pouring out of the plane, I had not noticed that her expression and posture had been a near-perfect reflection of my own: We both had wide, open-mouthed smiles that couldn’t be contained, our arms extended high above our heads in exaggerated waves, and tears of joy, eager anticipation, excitement, and relief filled our eyes.
That’s when it truly hit me: My husband has two women in his life who love him unconditionally. . . and I’m OK with that.
While I’m thankful to have found a devoted friend and teammate in my husband’s mom, the stress of deployment can strain even the closest bond. But understanding one another’s experiences has the power to help us love and support one another better through the fears and uncertainties have as we send our loved ones off to war.
To the mom-in-law reading this article: As a milspouse who respects and values what you bring to your family, there are five things you should know about deployment that will help bring peace into your life and your relationship with your service member’s spouse.
1. Special occasions are especially difficult
Celebrating birthdays, milestones, anniversaries and holidays — and even attending laid-back family get-togethers — without our spouses can trigger complicated emotions. Try not to take it personally if we seem particularly withdrawn, sensitive, and moody on special occasions (or if we decline an invitation altogether). This goes for the weeks leading up to and after deployment, as well, as these are stressful times for couples. Please be patient with us as we do our best to work through the tension and heartache and save a seat for us at the table so we can join in when we are ready.
2. When in doubt, reach out
If you haven’t heard from your service member or their spouse in a while, please don’t assume there are ulterior motives. I will be the first one to admit, the push and pull of mounting stress in the middle of my husband’s deployment often caused me to put my desire to stay connected with family and friends on the back-burner. In turn, it left me feeling even more isolated and depressed than I already was.
If you are feeling left out or concerned, gently reach out to your son- or daughter-in-law and let them know you are thinking of them. Small acts of kindness — a phone call or text message, an unexpected card, a simple bouquet of flowers, or even a small care package — go a long way toward creating a connection.
3. Your support means the world to us
Whether or not we admit it aloud (or even to ourselves at times), we care about your thoughts and feelings. Children have the need to be loved and valued, even long after they are grown — and that goes for your sons- and daughters-in-law, too.
If you can, show your support to your service member by seeing deployment as an opportunity to bond with their spouse. Put yourself in their shoes and anticipate their needs. Plan an activity that you can both enjoy doing together or invite your son- or daughter-in-law to stay with you for a weekend so you can get to know one another better. If you feel as though your relationship with your son- or daughter-in-law requires reparation, write a kind letter to let them know, no matter what, you support them in all they do and are there for them. Simply offering your presence and words of affirmation can be a loving leap towards healing.
4. The stress doesn’t end at homecoming
As beautiful and touching as homecoming videos are, they are not an accurate representation of the experience as a whole. The weeks after service members return from combat are known as the reintegration period. This is the stage when families work to reconnect and restructure their lives after having been apart for so long. Once the initial feelings of elation wear off, there is hard work to be done to keep a military family strong and connected. Often, couples need time and space to work through complex emotions and adjust to a new life together.
Although every family is different, this might mean you will need to wait for an invitation to welcome your service member home several weeks after the big day arrives. If this happens, know that it is not an action taken against you. Rather, it is often a necessary request that is made for the sake of your son or daughter’s marriage, as well as their overall health and wellness. Your service member will let you know when the time is right for you to celebrate together.
5. We are in this together
Deployment is hard enough as it is without rifts between spouses and mothers-in-laws added to the mix. No matter the present state of your relationship with your daughter- or son-in-law, you are bound together by the love you have for your service member. Setting aside any differences you may have to join forces for good not only helps strengthen the relationship you have with each other, but it also benefits your families and helps support the military community as a whole. We are in this together, and we need you on our team.
The photograph of my mother-in-law and me now has a special spot on our fridge — the place where the most meaningful images end up in our house. It is a simple tribute to the woman who raised my husband and supported me through one of the most difficult times of my life. More than that, it is a poignant reminder of the kind of mother I hope to be when my boys grow up and have spouses of their own.
The most important thing mothers-in-laws should know about deployment is this: You don’t have to be perfect to be a pillar of strength for your service member and their spouse. It is a learning experience for all of us. When all else fails, patience, love, understanding and flexibility will carry us through . . . together.