Married to the Military

September 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today I read a note that is being circulated by “Married to the Military”, although it was originally written by Paige Anderson Swiney in Chicken Soup for the Military Wife’s Soul. The note was followed by many, many comments, most from military wives, talking about how true this note was to them. I read it, hoping to be inspired. Instead I was outraged. Indignant. Livid. Really, really angry.

“Look at this,” I said to my husband, dragging my laptop over to where he was reading in bed. Calmly, he put his book down and read quickly. “It’s ridiculous, isn’t it,” I said. “This woman has lost herself and is using the military to justify it. She’s saying her unhappiness is contributing to ‘our freedom’.”

My husband looked at me, blinked, and said, “I don’t really see the problem with it. She’s taking care of her family and her husband, so effectively, she is helping him do his job better.”

I sighed loudly. And then my anger was replaced with the emotion it is always replaced with when I read inspirational articles about other military wives. I feel like a failure for not being just the right kind of military wife. I sometimes feel badly that I don’t define myself by what my husband does, that I ask him not to wear his combat boots in the house because they scare me a little, that I question if our military really should be in Iraq. And I feel guilty for not suffering more, because what I see around me is that somehow, making yourself small is noble. It’s patriotic. It supports our troops.

In high school, I stopped eating for a year. There are probably many complicated reasons for this, but I think the biggest reason was that I felt too big, not physically, but in what I wanted. My goals were too grand, I was too ambitious. What I was asking for was too much. Look at me, I think my 83-pound body was saying. Don’t you see how little I really need?

My friend Geeta cut out a quote for me by Marianne Williamson that reads: Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be?

This never really made sense to me until after I read “What Military Wives are Made Of.” We live in a culture of martyrdom, especially as women, and even more especially as military wives. My friend Mai, also a military wife with a Master’s degree in engineering once said to me, “I don’t love it, but I’m OK with being known as only my social security number. But then it hit me – I’m not even my own number. I’m my husband’s.” The military culture is not exactly a progressive one. Military wives are encouraged to support their husbands as well as other wives, often to the detriment of their own dreams and goals. Even Michelle Obama, when speaking at the Joint Armed Forces Officers’ Wives Luncheon said, “You give your all and ask very little in return, only that we back you up so our troops can do their job.”

Um, really? Just think Michelle, I would whisper in her ear if we were at a cocktail party together, just think of what we could accomplish if we asked for a little more than that? Just think of what we could contribute if we weren’t treated like Penelope, steadily unraveling at her loom, waiting for Odysseus to return. Just think of what this strong group of military wives could get done if we weren’t pitied, or told we were “tough cookies” or encouraged to ask for so very little in return.

And then it hits me. Who are we really talking about here? Aren’t I the one attached to being small? Aren’t I the one who gravitates towards suffering in the way I sometimes often complain to my husband after he gets home from work about the laundry, my son’s meltdowns, the lack of stimulation and isolation I sometimes feel as a mother to small children. Aren’t I the one who is keeping myself down when I wonder,Why did I work so hard to get an Ivy League education, when all I really needed to know was how to set the over to three-fifty and separate the whites from the darks?

Because what is this other than playing small? Isn’t self-pity just another term for not appreciating the richness of what is around me every day? My son’s meltdowns are really telling me that he feels safe with me, that I am a haven where he can fall to pieces and collapse, rather than build up a hard armor against the world. That instead of being isolated, I have the enviable position of being cocooned off from the world for just a few years where I am allowed to build up a cozy nest for my sons to grow and learn and begin to spread their new wings. And the laundry? The grocery shopping? The endless cleanup of breakfast and then lunch dishes, of spilled juice and fingerpaints? A yoga teacher of mine (Bhava Ram) once told me, as I complained to him about these mundane tasks, that I was doing more yoga in scrubbing the toilets that in hours spent on my sticky mat.

In a yoga class a few months ago, we held extended side angle pose, Utthita Parsvakonasana, for what felt like a long time. We took the bind and made our selves compact, and then extended our bodies into a long line of energy. “What do you need to do to be comfortable in this pose?” Our instructor asked. Inevitably a few people fell over because on some level, we all believe that we are really only still standing because of how hard we try. That the only guaranteed path to success is working really really hard. That our suffering is necessary. “What can you let go of that no longer serves you?” she asked again.

I wonder now, what if I let go of suffering? What would happen if I stopped “playing small?”

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