The origins of Rachel Starnes' book The War at Home is a love story, her love story—girl falls in love with her brother’s best friend, a man whose pursuit of becoming a Navy pilot means leaving regularly for long stretches of time. Emotionally honest and eloquent, Starnes shares a snapshot of military life and the strains it puts on families. Starnes charts the frequent relocations, separations from her husband, and anxieties of being married to someone with a dangerous job in The War at Home, resulting in a book that is meaningful to military wives and non-military moms alike.
For those of us with a spouse or family member in the military, Starnes is a buoy—a reminder that separation from our loved ones is scary and difficult but that it can be done with grace. For those of us without a direct connection to the military, The War at Home is a timely reminder of the effects of military life on American families and a thoughtful guide to pitfalls that could ail parents of all kinds—How can you create a sense of normalcy in a family dynamic that is in flux?
I had the wonderful opportunity to pick Rachel's brain about her journey, family, and moving tips. In the same nature as The War at Home, Rachel’s answers were intimate, honest, and accessible for mothers of every kind.
Leana: Any family who has relocated knows the horrors of orchestrating the packing up and moving of all of your belongings. If I counted right, you’ve moved seven times now. Clearly this makes you a moving expert. Any tips for parents getting ready for their first relocation?
Rachel: I’ve moved seven times since I’ve been married, and many more before that, but I’d hesitate to take on the title of “expert” at anything—well above novice, though. I’ve done quick moves and ones with lots of advance notice, in-town, cross-country, and trans-Atlantic, but each one is different because we’ve been at different stages of our lives each time. Adding in kids and pets definitely upped the complexity factor, also the amount of stuff. You wouldn’t believe the amount of teeny Legos and the big tumbleweeds of dog hair we discovered after we packed up our last house! I used to have a system of tackling pre-move tasks as efficiently as possible—culling possessions to reduce weight, organizing everything into categories, color coding the contents of the “parts” box for reassembling all the electronics and the furniture—but since we’ve had children, I’ve had to slow down and really make time to connect with them and reassure them while we’re in that transition period, and that’s become my priority. I’ve learned that it’s important to talk throughout the process and check in with how much they understand about what we’re doing and why—this isn’t second nature to them yet, and it may never feel that way. We’ve also learned to try and strike a balance between creating rituals around saying goodbye and rituals that celebrate new beginnings where we’re going.
Leana: How do you prepare your kids for a move?
Rachel: When my kids were babies, we didn’t have to do much preparation with them beyond making sure the Pack ‘n Play was ready and rounding up the favorite blanket and a few toys. When they got older, we found that checking out library books about moving several weeks ahead of time helped start some good conversations. One my then-3-year-old loved was Mitchell is Moving by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. Your local librarian may also have more recommendations. We also had a small, designated box for each kid’s “must have” toys, books, and games—stuff that wouldn’t get packed in the moving truck and that they would have right away. Since we’re a military family and were living on a base for our last move, we also scheduled a casual neighborhood potluck out in the front yard to say goodbye to the families we’d grown close to. It was a tradition in the neighborhood dating back before us, and it helped to have some closure and make moving a bit of celebration, if only for one night. Scheduling fun stops along the road, even if it’s just ice cream, helps. We also have a purple iris that another military family gave to us years ago that we take with us and replant everywhere—since it’s a bulb plant, it’s pretty hardy, and we can break a chunk off the roots, leaving some irises behind and taking some with us. That plant is living in three states now!
Leana: How did you create a sense of normalcy as a military spouse? How did you find support?
Rachel: It’s a big challenge, and one that I’m constantly working on. In general, I try to seek out and nurture connections both within the military community and outside of it in each new city. That’s not a judgment on either culture, but rather an understanding each has its own ways of accessing what’s best about the place you’re living. This came naturally when I was working, but after we had kids and I made the decision to stay home for a few years, I had to change my strategy. Informal playgroups and things like MOPS helped when my kids were young, and now we’re entering the stage of team sports and school activities, which are great for getting to know new families. I’ve also had amazing luck with book clubs. I’ve tried to model a sense of adventure and curiosity for my boys, a willingness to put myself out there and be patient with that awkward stage of being the “new kid,” but some days are easier than others. I’ve been fortunate to find at least one close friend that I still stay in touch with, and sometimes more, at each place we’ve moved.
Leana: How do you think being a military spouse differs from being a single parent? What is the hardest part of parenting on your own most of the time?
Rachel: The two experiences probably share some logistical similarities, but I would never presume that my situation compares with the financial responsibilities of being a single parent. I find the loneliness challenging. Over the years, I’ve come to hate some lengths of separations while others don’t bug me—two weeks apart sucks because it’s not enough time to develop a new routine, but just enough to have your old one disrupted; a month is somehow more doable, but definitely lonelier. Longer than that and I have to come up with milestones and a stronger infrastructure to try and find breaks for myself, which gets challenging. There’s also the delicate dance of being the sole disciplinarian and then shifting back to team parenting. We tend to have different rules and schedules when my husband is gone, and it takes prep work on either side of a departure or a reunion to make that shift. I tend to rely on my network of friends more during the solo stretches, but when something big comes up—a significant illness or injury, an emergency in our extended family far away, the death of a pet, a major appliance or a vehicle biting the dust—those are the times I really miss having my partner’s input. Sometimes we’re able to connect via phone or email, but sometimes we’re not. Sometimes these are opportunities for me to come away feeling more capable, stronger—doing a household move by myself while he was deployed, for example, but other times, like the death of the dog he’d had since before we were dating, just make me ache for the distance between us.
Leana: Did you have any hesitations about writing a book about your own family life or struggles?
Rachel: Absolutely. I dispute the idea that “writers are always selling someone out” (Joan Didion), or that memoir somehow drags partners and family into the public view against their will. I worked very hard to come up with a set of ethical boundaries to protect my husband’s and my children’s privacy while still being able to tell my truth about the challenges of our life together. My husband was very brave and generous in helping to come up with those boundaries, but it was a long and very rich series of discussions—we grew from that. When I was writing this book, I weighed the risks and benefits of being open with my own struggles with depression and all the ways I struggled with fitting in as a military wife. I wanted to share a story where it’s OK to admit to imperfection, even in high-stress environments where the pressure to appear completely competent and unconflicted is strong. I am proud to be a military spouse, and I’m proud of my husband, but that doesn’t mean our journey has always been an easy one, or that we’ve always felt only one way about it. I think recognizing that, owning it, makes our commitment to each other, and to his service, that much stronger. My biggest hope is that telling my story will encourage others to tell theirs.
Leana: If you could share one thing with a new military spouse/mom, what would it be?
Rachel: Be patient with yourself. You’ll become many different people over time, and so will your partner. That’s as it should be—you’ve entered a full-immersion experience and no one comes out unchanged. Find good confidantes and lean hard; brace yourself to be leaned on. On the days that everything falls apart, take a picture, or write it down, and then let it go—it’ll become funny eventually, I promise. But most of all, be patient. It’s all worth it.
Resources for military parents + families: