Military Spouse Mental Health: Losing it in the Lego Aisle and Other Cries for Help

I noticed her in the next aisle over, pushing her shopping cart through the toy section. Action-figures and Monster trucks proved too tempting for her grabby toddler who was riding in the cart way past his bedtime. His arms lunged for the colorful boxes on the shelves, swiping wildly and begging his mom for a toy.

With a smug smile, I pretended not to notice her.

Such a rookie-move. Parading a whiny kid through the toy aisle.

My kids were a bit older and I was shopping alone at the MCX in the evening, free to linger at the cosmetic counter just because and browse the toy aisle in peace.

She and her young shopping companion disappeared out of sight but not out of earshot.

“Stop that or I’m gonna whoop your butt!”

With those eight words, my heart jolted.

I heard the echoes of my own Motherhood Past. Bone-deep exhaustion. Desperation. Social appropriateness out the window. This momma had had it. And I don’t know her story. But I found myself speculating what might have driven her to lose it in the Lego aisle. She offered a snapshot into the world of military spouses today. A case-study, if you will.

A few of the possible stressors in her life:

  • A recent move with no extended family around for support
  • Husband deployed or in the field
  • Husband home, possibly dealing with reintegration
  • Positive pregnancy test
  • Negative pregnancy test
  • Financial strains
  • Unemployed or underemployed
  • Living in temporary lodging, ready to move soon
  • Not sleeping or taking care of her own health
  • Few or no friends at this duty station

The list could go on infinitely.

Personally, I’ve had years where I could drop my kids off at their grandparents’ house so I could get a sanity break or go on a date with my husband, and years where I could do no such thing. I’ve experienced a strong support system and none at all, and my mental health knows the difference.

The DoD released, for the first time ever, statistics on military family suicides. In 2017, 123 military spouses took their own lives, 123 families changed forever. Read the full report here.

Military/Civilian Disconnect

I was at a conference recently to become more equipped to bring Jesus into my community. I found myself in conversations in hallways, near the bathrooms and in the lunch line and repeatedly heard, “You’re a military family? It’s so great how you all take care of each other and live next to each other on base.” Many conference-goers were under the impression that all military families lived like the TV show, Army Wives.

Uhh…statistics and the actual lives of my friends at duty stations all over the world would beg to differ.

Having been a military spouse for over 18 years and spending the last couple of years really studying the lifestyle, asking questions and building relationships with military spouses all over the country, it boils down to this: anxiety and loneliness are rampant. The DoD results are incredibly sad but actually not surprising, given the common themes that surface in the military spouse circles.

More and more military families live outside the gates for a variety of reasons—mold issues notwithstanding. This means military spouses blend in at schools, Target, at parks and beaches and you might never know the loneliness and anxiety she lives with daily.

You read US Weekly, right? It’s OK, we know. The “Stars—They’re Just Like Us!” section is one of my favorites. There is something satisfying about a magazine section devoted to humanizing celebrities when we all know their lives are very, very different from our own.

I thought it would be helpful to bridge the civilian-military divide with that format, so here goes:

Military Families—They’re Just Like Us!

  • They drink coffee!
  • They ride bikes with their kids!
  • They eat on the go!
  • They stop for selfies!
  • They walk their dogs!
  • They get haircuts!

But also…just as behind-the-scenes celebrities employ a personal staff of 15 or fly in private jets, military families carry different baggage:

  • They cross day 256 off of their countdown calendars, aching to kiss their service members again.
  • They live in cramped hotels for weeks while waiting for available housing.
  • They pack up their lives every 2-3 years and start LIFE all over again: friends, homes, schools, neighbors, navigating new cities.
  • They send their loved ones off to war and wonder if that empty chair around the kitchen table will ever be occupied again.

Bridging the Gap

If you are at all concerned with the recent headlines or wonder how you can help the well-being of military families near you (because we’re pretty much everywhere), I invite you to these action steps:

  • Ask questions. We are generally an open book unless you are drilling for specific return dates. #OPSEC
  • Eye contact and a few minutes of your day goes far in building connection.
  • Extend an invitation. To church. To your backyard. To the park. We love to be included and feel a sense of belonging.
  • Invest in friendship. Even if we have to move in a year or so, we need friends

Next time I’m on a luxurious solo shopping trip to base and see a mom struggling, I know I’ll choose differently. Instead of ducking into an empty aisle, I’ll attempt eye contact, a smile, or maybe a brief conversation. Ignoring her was the easy way out—for me. Noticing people and offering connection is the antidote to loneliness and has the power to ease anxious thoughts.

Choosing kindness. It’s that simple, but not always easy.