Let’s say you’re at the end of your rope.
The dryer died and you have no clean clothes and the baby just threw up all over what you have on, your daughter came home from school with lice and the dog has some kind of gastric distress.
You write a quick email to your spouse, who is currently across the world somewhere, casually mentioning that you are hiring someone to fix the dryer and possibly going to also move to Tahiti. Alone.
You delete that part and send it off.
Later, in the ill-fitting clothes from the late 90s that you found buried at the bottom of a drawer, you are sitting at a mom’s group and you unload on the women sitting around you.
“You should feel lucky, when my husband was deployed we didn’t have email.”
“Email? We only had SAT phones and my entire family ended up with the bubonic plague and I sanitized the entire place myself while deathly ill.”
“I had 5 kids on my husband’s first deployment and we didn’t even own a washer and dryer, I cleaned all our clothes by hand in the tub while nursing our 16 foster puppies and we only communicated via carrier pigeon.”
When did we turn life into a competition over who has it worse?
I mean, this problem is not unique to the military community. Just ask a table of moms about childbirth. Eventually the stories will one-up each other until there’s at least one mom who gave birth on the side of the road to a 13lb baby while at the same time knitting their onesie and breastfeeding their older brother.
But I feel like maybe our community is working at perfecting our own games. It’s like regular olympics, except the winners are actually losing and every single competitor ends up wanting to quit the sport altogether.
The truth is, there can be some benefit to perspective. In the pre-internet world when I’d miss that one SAT call that I’d get a week, I used to make myself sit down and remember that there were generations of families before mine that literally went years with nothing but paper letters that took months to reach their destinations.
Perspective is sometimes 100% needed, at least for myself, so that I don’t wallow in self-pity some days. Those days on the calender when my family mourns the friends Dh has lost over the years, it serves me well to take that time to remember the ways we’ve been fortunate just by the very fact that Dh is still here. Many time I have been humbled on this very page by the spouses in our community who have suffered the greatest loss, and I am reminded how much I have to be thankful for.
There is a healthy way to offer someone perspective, and it’s done in a way that is intended to build others up and showcase the strength and resiliency they can find.
Only we’ve taken this and we’ve made it something nasty. Instead of offering helpful perspective, we have a tendency of turning it into a fight where our only goal is to ensure everyone around us knows we have had it worse. That we deserve the gold medal for this one, because we’ve endured the most. Whether it’s online or in a mommy group or a deployment coffee time, it seems we’ve forgotten how to show empathy and instead, default to one-upmanship. Except to keep up with the Joneses in this community you don’t have the bigger house or the nicer car, you have the longer deployment, the worst posting or the greater isolation.
Heaven forbid someone admit that they’re struggling with a 2 week TD when she’ll be reminded how many 6-12 month deployments the other families have experienced. And there’s no way someone can voice their touch of sadness over moving away from their parents because you know every response will be reminding them that others have no extended family nearby. Having a bad day after missing a video call? Well, I’m sure someone will guilt you into remembering that some soldiers don’t have internet access at all. Someone’s posting is more expensive than yours. Someone’s deployment was more dangerous. Someone’s loss has been greater.
Let’s face it, we all *know* that our experiences aren’t usually the worst case scenario. We know that we could have it worse. In fact, no matter who we are or what we’ve experienced, there’s always someone who’s struggles are harder than our own.
That doesn’t always make current situations easier.
We are allowed to struggle in our own situation while still recognizing the struggles of others.
Parents are allowed to be overwhelmed, even knowing that there are those out there who are unable to have children. Postings are allowed to feel isolating sometimes, even if others are further from family. Reintegrations are allowed to be really, really difficult, even knowing that there are those who’s partners never came home.
Community is about using our collective experiences to build each other up, to support, encourage and give useful advice.
It’s not about silencing anyone that we feel hasn’t suffered ‘enough’.
When I asked how these martyr olympics had impacted members of the military community, I got back some of the funniest/saddest answers.
How those seeking support as dual service couples shouldn’t struggle with their constant separations and just be grateful for the income. That those feeling lonely/isolated with a posting should just be happy they could afford a house. Even to the extreme, where one spouse said that when her husband returned wounded, other spouses at the hospital would fight over which injury was “worse”. Where does that leave us? Does a bullet wound trump TBI and an amputation beat a paralysis? Does anyone ever get to reach out for support if we are playing this game?
And where it gets even sketchier is when we do it to ourselves and refuse to seek support when we need it because we’d rather have the better woe-is-me story than actually get help and improve our situation.
Friends, the definition of resiliency is not “who can endure the worst while using the least help in order to ensure bragging rights later.” In fact, it’s the very opposite. To teach resiliency, we need to stop glorifying how far we can push ourselves alone until we break, and instead encourage those who reach out early, before they burn out.
When we turn our community into a pissing contest of whose life is worse, where no on speaks up for risk of being one-upped into silence, then no one feels supported and everyone is alone.
Let’s change the narrative.
Maybe you are on deployment 5. Posting 8. Maybe you’re going it with a special needs child, or supporting a spouse with an OSI, or have experienced great loss or circumstances that were overwhelming.
Maybe you received no support, you had no choice but to do it alone, you reached out and were not helped when you needed it.
Instead of using those experiences as an opportunity to silence the next spouse struggling, let’s instead use them to empathize and offer advice and encouragement.
Instead of saying “I went through that but harder and I didn’t have any help at all,” lets change it to “I remember how that felt, and looking back I wish I would have had more support. What are ways I could help?”
Imagine what the Games would look like if the winner was the community that survived, and learned to thrive, together.