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A New Normal: Life After Military Retirement

In the time leading up to my husband’s military retirement, I did my best to prepare like I do for any major life event.

I rotated between devouring the bajillion pamphlets the military dispenses on cheerful topics like “Why you should sign up for the Survivor Benefits Plan and the eleventy-seven steps your spouse needs to complete to maybe, possibly, receive VA benefits.

I Googled helpful phrases like “What the frick do I do now after being a military spouse for three decades?” and munched chocolate while staring out the window of our ancient base house and tried to imagine what life would be like after years of living in houses just like this.

 

Pretty sure that last activity was easily as helpful as any other “preparation” I could manage.

 

Still, we treated this final transition almost like a typical PCS move, which is helpful in some ways, except for the fact that it’s not a PCS. Or typical. The reality of this hit home when, after the rush of goodbyes, gifts, and well wishes, we left our last base in Virginia, rolled into our new neighborhood in Texas and met—crickets.

No one was there to meet us, introduce us to the area, or even give a flip that we were here. There was no newcomers’ orientation, no friendly neighbor asking if I wanted to join the spouse club or meet for coffee.

No one was there to make my husband’s way smooth as he jumped right into his next military job, because there wasn’t one.

 

If you’re a long-time military spouse facing or going through retirement, your experience may not be just like mine.

 

But now, after gaining the distance of a few years from active military life and comparing notes with other spouses, I’ve got a little perspective, especially about the big surprises of life after active-duty service.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed.

 

How much military life defined mine:  

 

A friend of mine noted on an Instagram post I made after my husband retired that her husband’s military retirement felt like “I almost lit a match to the last twenty-plus years of my life.”

This!

 While I’d taken care to craft my own identity, I too hadn’t realized how much what I did revolved around the military. Military life provided me instant friends, gave me instant activities, and made things fairly easy in the social realm.

Now there was a void I would have to intentionally fill. 

 

How exhausted I was:

 

The last ten or fifteen years of his career had been fast moving—a new assignment every two years or less, including multiple overseas and back from overseas moves, constant TDYs on his part, and long deployments.

I. Was. Spent.

When that stress was lifted, I felt run over. I took a lot of naps during the first weeks.

 

The relief:

 

Along with the exhaustion, a weight fell off, a heavy load I didn’t even realize I was carrying, as I’d borne it for so many years without questioning it.

I won’t ever have to wave goodbye again as my husband ships out to a dangerous place, tear a child away from all they’ve known for the past few years, or restart a career because of a move.

Wow.

 

Feeling disconnected:

 

Though our oldest son was serving on active duty at the time of my husband’s retirement, and I continue to work for a military-oriented company and write for military publications, the sense of disconnect from the military spouse community was something I didn’t foresee.

They’d been part of my life for so long.

 

I needed to make space for my husband:

 

Even after over thirty-plus years, our marriage is still and always a work in progress. But we’d both become so accustomed to being apart regularly, that when we were suddenly together all the time, it took some effort to readjust.

For my part, I needed to welcome him back into decision-making and not resent his input on everyday decisions I’d made alone for years. I reminded myself to be thankful that he was here, and that I had someone to rely on again, a partner.

I was so accustomed to figuring everything out myself and filling him in later, and I needed to remember to make room for us.

 

My reaction to the word forever:

 

As we shopped for a home to buy, I can’t tell you how many times a well-meaning person said to me, “Aren’t you so excited to find your forever home?” These words made me want to flee.

Forever?

I wasn’t prepared to make that sort of commitment after years of temporary quarters and military housing. When we decided we would stay in the house for five years (still a long time for us) and then reassess, the pressure lifted.

 

How long it would take for my husband to find a second career:

 

I had visions of executives knocking down his door before he even left active duty. Of course, they’d wish to take advantage of his well-honed skills and education. Instead, it took some months for him to land the right job.

While he savored the time puttering around the new house and repainting the deck, I had moments of panic. 

 

Changes in relationships:

 

Knowing that a friendship will require long-term work on my part is a new concept, too. Apparently, I have sweepingly wide commitment issues I didn’t foresee. I’m more cautious about jumping right in the way I used to, which seems silly after all my years of preaching, “Bloom where you’re planted.

But I’m aware of it and working on it.

 

Difficulty making decisions:

 

From choosing a church, to where we should live, to hanging up pictures, every decision feels weightier somehow. I have a surprisingly hard time making decisions, though I’m naturally assertive and usually know what I want.

My upstairs loft space is still not decorated!

 

Permanence:

 

When I place a box of Christmas ornaments on a shelf, I don’t have to worry about whether it’s packed well enough to make it through the next unexpected move, because it will be on that same shelf next Christmas season, unless I move it.

When I say goodbye to the hairdresser or dentist after an appointment, I don’t have to count down how many more times I’ll see them. If I choose, I can keep coming back for years.

This is weird, while also comforting. And I think, Is this how people live? Is this how I used to live before I got married? I’ve forgotten.

 

What I miss:

 

Little things, really, like hearing “Taps” at bedtime or the national anthem at the end of the duty day. Running around the corner to the commissary or the small town feel of living on a military base.

Our first night sleeping in the house we bought was strange. We’d lived in the equivalent of a gated, guarded community for so many years in military housing.

 

How much I don’t miss:

 

This is perhaps most surprising of all. I truly thought I might pine away for what was. I haven’t, really, after the initial shock of civilian life. I don’t miss the fishbowl existence I felt during my husband’s last years of service or a calendar constantly filled with events not of my choosing.

I thought I’d miss it more. Maybe I will someday, but for now, I’m enjoying the more laid-back lifestyle of working from home and going out when I feel like it.

As we face the coming years of life after the military, I’m sure there will be even more I realize I miss—or don’t. Military spouse life will always make up part of the fabric of who I am.

But looking forward, I’m excited!

 

 

*This article is adapted from Jen’s new book Milspouse Matters: Sharing Strength Through Our Stories, from W. Brand Publishing. Used with permission. 

 

 

 

Author

  • Jen McDonald

    Jen McDonald, an award-winning author with two published books, has enjoyed an extensive writing career, including features in anthologies and international publications like Chicken Soup for the Soul, Military.com, Stars & Stripes, Redbook, and Good Housekeeping. Beyond writing, she hosted the Milspouse Matters podcast for over five years, drawing from her three decades of military life experience to provide empathy and support to fellow spouses. A mother of four, Jen and her Air Force veteran husband have lived and traveled across the globe from Europe to the Pacific. They’re now settled happily in Texas, relishing their roles as devoted grandparents. Join her as she ventures into fiction writing, marking a thrilling new chapter in her journey! Find all of Jen's military spouse content and podcast episodes at milspousematters.com and see her latest writing, as well as writing tips, tricks, and behind-the-scenes peeks at new books at jen-mcdonald.com. Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jenmcdonaldwriter/ and https://www.facebook.com/milspousematters Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jenmcdonald88/ and https://www.instagram.com/milspousematters/ Tiktok: https://www.tiktok.com/@jen.mcdonald88 Twitter: https://twitter.com/jenmcdonald88

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Supporting Our Military Children

Supporting Our Military Children

One thing that has been most important to me, as a military spouse, is figuring out how to best do this life while supporting our children with the changes and difficulties. When my children were very small, there were many times that my husband was away, and I had to parent my children alone.

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