(Part 4 of 4) It is not surprising that even within veterans’ spaces, it is difficult to find the voices of spouses and caregivers. We are bad at telling women’s stories on their own terms. (Ask female veterans how they think they are portrayed in the media.) The majority of military-spouses are women. Caregiving is largely the work of women. I would posit that every military spouse is, by default, serving in a caregiving capacity. Listen: It took me many years to realize how the structure of the military lifestyle pushes its soldier’s relationships far outside the boundaries of normal give and take. Military spouses’ careers are subject to the transient lifestyle of a soldier, with very few career paths amenable to the frequent moves, or the gap-filling jobs one has to take just to make rent. The unreasonably long hours a soldier works, along with an unpredictable schedule, make it impossible to achieve a semblance of equality when it comes to household chores, errands, or cooking. Factor in deployment, training exercises, and weeks spent in the field and it becomes easy to see how a spouse learns to become self-sufficient; which is to say she learns how to handle the financial planning, personal scheduling, child rearing, house and car maintenance, and the emotional labor of two people.
To be a caregiver is, at its core, to give of oneself for the betterment of another. And because we are not limitless beings, the caregiving relationship necessarily postures caring for the self against caring for a loved one. The average caregiver in the United States is a middle aged woman simultaneously caring for her aging parent(s) while raising her own children. This fact is so banal in its predictability it’s laughable. Women are groomed for the caregiving role from a young age. We are the harbingers and dispensers of emotional labor, constantly asking how we can adjust our voices, our postures, our schedules, our jobs, and our existence to better meet the needs of those around us. This is not to say that we do not find humor, or joy, or fulfillment in our roles. But in extreme cases, to care for someone is to lose oneself and one’s voice.
What do caregivers receive in return? Here’s an example of how caregivers are recognized: When a battalion returns from deployment, there will inevitably be a military ball. At that ball, commanders and grunts will reminisce about the days spent in the field, among men, doing men’s work. At some point during the night they will turn to their spouses and ask them to stand. They will thank them for all their hard work, their largely unacknowledged suffering and labor, without which the Army would surely fall apart. Everyone will applaud. Those women will sit through the ball in uncomfortable dresses, wishing they could have a glass of wine but knowing they have to be the sober one driving home later. They will shake hands and make nice with other spouses. They’ll even smile at that asshole captain who kept their spouse late at work last night to finish a powerpoint presentation, causing them to miss yet another t-ball game with their child. They will go home and make sure their children are tucked into bed. As their spouse passes out with whisky on their breath, grunting something about early morning PT, they will check to make sure the load from the wash goes into the dryer so there are clean uniforms for tomorrow. Repeat, ad nauseam.
So often when spouses and caregivers are asked to share their stories, they anticipate a hollow gesture. They hear the echo of applause for their largely unacknowledged labor — the labor that they will continue to complete without thanks until next year’s five minutes of recognition. To tell our stories in these one-dimensional spaces, at the request of another VSO collecting veteran’s stories, is to represent ourselves as merely a fixture in the story of our spouses. “We want to hear your story” so often means “we want to hear your spouse’s story” as you sit next to them and look emotional.
I can think of a scant few instances throughout my experience as a military spouse, a caregiver, a social work student, or a professional working in the veteran’s sphere, when I was asked to give honest input about the experience of being a spouse and a caregiver. I can think of even fewer times when that input was well received — when my words were not quickly glossed over or explained by a male veteran or a supervisor. To acknowledge the truthful experience of being a military spouse, or being a caregiver, is to acknowledge that pain and sacrifice. It means sitting with the discomforting knowledge that misogyny continues to play a role in our society and in our interpersonal relationships. It means acknowledging the impact of warfare on women: the soldiers and the spouses and the civilians. It means acknowledging their emotional labor, while understanding how far we have to go before the inequality of that labor is addressed. It means moving past applause and recognition, and towards making systemic changes that make it easier for military spouses to find jobs, and for caregivers to keep their jobs (among a plethora of other issues). To truly ask for spouses and caregivers to come to the table and share their stories is to acknowledge women where they are, as they live, and in their own words.
So, where are all the spouses and caregivers you ask? They’re right here…waiting for someone to listen.