Last week I had the pleasure of dining with some of the most senior leaders in the Australian Defence Force and their wives. There were 8 couples, mostly in their late 50s or early 60s. Each of the couples had children who were in their late teens or early 20s. They were all still in their first marriage and had been married for an average of 30 years. I made it my mission to find their secrets to being married to a man in the military.
As I moved around the room and spoke to each of the wives, I was endeared by their responses. Firstly, on how they have endured being married to highly successful men for a long period and secondly, highly successful men who move every 2-3 years, sometimes spend long period of time away and who are expected to maintain control in life or death situations.
The take aways from these wives to maintaining a successful marriage and family unit when being married to a military man are;
Number 1. Keep the family unit together. Each of the 8 women moved with their husbands every two years to three years, even if it was easier for them to stay put. They have plucked their kids from their school, packed up their house, ended their own job, said the many goodbyes to family and friends and moved to the next place. One lady had moved 28 times. Their mission was to resettle their two or three children into school and a social life as quickly as possible – even when their children were in highschool, they still moved. Their reason: what is the point of breaking the family unit. One lady said ‘I know that my husband needed his family to come home to every night and he needed to be a dad. Along the way, this has been his escape from enduring the hardships of his day. After all he is defending our country and I am happy to support him to do this.’ Another lady acknowledged that by keeping the family unit together, her children were stronger for it. ‘When we were in remote locations and didn’t know many people, we were forced to be together as a close knit family unit and now our children are grown up, they tell me that because of the bond formed early on and the experiences we shared together, their relationships are now stronger with each other’.
Number 2. Never, ever burn bridges. You just never know when you will be going back to the place you have been before. Even for our family, we have returned to the same place twice and it was important to keep our social and professional networks. I have gone back to my previous workplace with a gap of four years. Keep in touch with friends and keep the children in touch with their friends from each posting – thank goodness for social media!
Number 3. Enrol in schools/clubs early. There are two or three places you are likely to be posted to, so put the children’s name down early for school and keep the registrations up to date. Call the schools and update addresses – tell them you are still interested in a place and keep in touch. Same goes for any sporting club or other club you or your children would like to be involved in.
Number 4. Forfeit your own career or build a flexible one. Resoundingly, this was the hardest for many of the women. If they had been independent career women early on, their number one advice to me was to do a job that you can easily move from place to place and have two career choices if it is possible. One has managed to pick up work wherever she has been in her chosen profession but has not advanced to any managerial level. It has filled in her time while she has been in a location and most importantly, she has met friends through it and built her own community. While she wasn’t doing a career job as such, it was also important for her to have this little bit of herself nurtured. One of the wives choose not to work, instead attending the many functions required of a military wife and supporting her three girls through the many moves. This is the one I personally struggle with the most and so I generally try to keep my career going and get highly disappointed each time it is ‘taken away’. I do have two career choices and have moved between them as they fit with our lifestyle. Slowly, I am letting go…
Great advice from the masters. It has become apparent that these four pieces of advice could be common across all wives, not just military wives.
My friends who are married to military men and I are babies in this game and we are always looking for answers on whether it is the right decision to pluck our children up and put them into yet another school – my first daughter did five schools by Year 2. Or to know if the moves get easier or harder. Or if we should move now or wait out the two years of our husbands job while he commutes. My son once asked what a gypsy was, I told him it was a person who moved from place to place and didn’t own their own house – before I had finished he asked if we were gypsies. Well we sort of are! We move from house to house and set up as best we can in our new location.
But perhaps the most important lesson I learnt that night was from the most senior man in the room. I had the pleasure of sitting next to this man, who stands on high moral grounds. His mantra to life ‘I firmly believe that you take the hand you are dealt and make the most of it. So I will work hard to make it the way I want it to work’. This is what these 16 people had done for 30 years or more. They had endured the many jobs and many moves in a resilient and positive manner and talked fondly on each place they had lived – the connections they had made, friends they had met along the way, experiences they had had and they generally felt luckier for having lived this transient life of constant change and movement.
I walked away from that night feeling connected with the wives who have come before me and know that we are all in this together.