In 2004 when we were told Japan would be our next duty station I truly thought it was a joke. Here I was eight months preggos with our first baby. The detailer had to be kidding, right? Well, to make a long story short he wasn’t kidding but we did get two more years and expecting another baby later we left for our three year tour in Japan. I felt excited, nervous, sad and anxious all at the same time. I used to say that I left the Navy to see the world because in my almost nine years I never left Virginia except on small trips here in the states. But, I was excited at the notion that I would living elsewhere than the east coast of America, however, I didn’t expect to do that with a almost two year old and pregnant. As a Navy wife I promised to follow my sailor anywhere he had to go except Wheeling, WV (I love my in-laws dearly mind you and I was only 22 when I said that) so off we went. In my excitement I never expected it to be one the hardest adventures I would survive to date. Everyone we talked to said how much they loved the country and tour itself. So why wouldn’t I think it would just as awesome?! Well, for starters I am not one to go out and say: “Hi, my name is Kate. Can we be friends? Want to set up a play date?” For the first time ever I was going to be away from my husband for longer than a few days with little to no communication. Oh, then there is the whole having a baby without the support of my mother. Let’s not forget that two year old I wasn’t used to being around. But, through it I learned so much about myself and life as a military spouse and here is how I did it:
1. I decided to not be afraid to get out by myself and my little man. The decision was fairly easy to make since about a week after we got there and moved into our stark white house my husband was going to leave us to travel for two weeks. So, everyday me and my kiddo would take long walks out into the community and tried new foods and found playgrounds. Then there was the hours of being at playgrounds and forcing myself to talk other moms. It was incredibly hard for me to do but I knew I needed to. This can be very difficult for some of us who by nature are very shy but it is important that we make the effort. It can be easy to stay home but that can be very lonely and depressing.
2. Remember the command events I mentioned in “Marrying the Military”? Well, go to them all! Overseas you only have each other. There is no family to rely on, they may come to visit but they aren’t going to be your “go to people” when you have a kid with a 103 degree fever and it is the middle of night and there are other children sound asleep in bed and no husband around. Those other military spouses WILL be your family and it starts with the command spouses. Together you will endure the lonely deployments, if they occur. I went to all command functions and any party I was invited to. It took sometime to get to know them but I have life long friends from that command. I love these women like my sisters and miss them terribly now that we are spread around the country.
3. Be involved in something. This can be anything from giving English lessons, volunteering for NMCRS (or the equivalent), going to story hour at the library. I find it important to create a life for yourself. From my experience jobs can be far and few between but there is always something. If you are into exercising look into whether there is a class you can teach at the gym or maybe helping during reading at the school. It is very important that there is something that is all yours and it doesn’t require your spouse to be home. My children were babies and so I didn’t have a whole lot but I did get my younger son into some toddler classes and I met lots of great woman through doing that and most importantly I felt like I had a life outside of my home. Do something and make sure it is something you enjoy and is social.
4. Travel, travel, travel!!!! This is the one thing we didn’t do enough of. Having small children I felt scared away from doing it, thinking traveling with babies was just way too hard. But, I now believe that was the wrong decision. I knew lots women who traveled in packs and would fly “space A” and meet their husbands when they were in port. In Japan it was Australia and Singapore and Thailand. What is space A? Space A is a military flight for those who are flying for leisure. I highly recommend looking into it if flying is your mode of transportation. Also, overseas ITT offices have lots and lots of trips that you can book through them and they arrange everything for you. All you need to do is show up at the meeting place. Don’t stay on the base or just travel home to see family. While we certainly didn’t confine ourselves to the base, I only flew home and I wish I had traveled more. Moral? Travel!!!
5. One thing we don’t have in great abundance here in the states is hourly daycare but overseas there is plenty of it. So, if you are reading this and have children 10 and under listen up. Don’t spend everyday wishing you had your mom to step in and watch your kids so you can grocery shop or meet friends for drinks put them in hourly daycare!!! It literally made my three years in Japan possible. It is cheap and you can choose between the center or a home provider and that is all they do. No full time kids, they have their own building and home providers. Overseas deployments can be long and tough but if you take advantage of the hourly care to do simple things like going for a run or shopping or even a lunch date with a friend it can help make it easier. One summer I put my kids in hourly care three days a week for three hours. This was going to be my “cleaning and errands time”. Turned out to be my reading the Twilight Saga time and watching a full season of Grey’s Autonomy. My house wasn’t clean and I had to take my kids to the Commissary but I felt renewed and energized all summer. And, no I didn’t have a bloody mary while I was reading but, that isn’t a bad idea if you don’t plan on driving.
6. Lastly and probably the most important tip is to go the New Comer Orientation. Most times the dependent is not required to go BUT I highly recommend that you do. This is a one stop for all the information any one person will need in order to survive living overseas. It will cover everything from cultural norms to the country’s food. Plus, there will be a day where you will have to venture off base and visit a local attraction. In Japan this was important because we had to use the trains. It is a day I will never forget because I was by myself with our older son (not yet two) and we went to a local zoo. I had heard about the Japanese taking pictures of American children but didn’t believe them until that day. There he was in all his toddler cuteness running around in circles at the petting zoo area and the Japanese were smiling and snapping pictures of him. He was completely unaware of what was going on. A moment I would have never had if I hadn’t gone to the class. I am glad I did it and I was never hesitant to take the trains after that day. Take not, that if you have children make sure to ask your sponsor about daycare prior to arriving so that you can attend the orientation with your spouse.
To sum it up, make the most of it. You are having the chance of a lifetime to live in another country and learn their ways. Follow the saying: “When in Rome do as the Romans do.” Embrace the culture don’t turn away from it because it is unfamiliar and scary. Please, please don’t be those people who never leave the base. That is such a waste! My overseas tour taught me so much about myself as a mother, wife and most importantly a person. I feel so much stronger and willing to take on any challenge. I still get butterflies doing new things and I probably always will but I won’t ever let that stop me. At this point it is about ensuring my children have life long memories and experiences that a great majority of American children don’t get. To this day our older son, who was four when we moved, talks about his favorite things from Japan. Like the sushi train and an indoor play area we used to go to during the rainy seasons. The most memorable moment I have from those long three years is my younger son’s first birthday. We were on the world’s largest ferris wheel and just as the sun was setting we could see Mt. Fuji. I have many more but that is a rare one that if we had never left base we wouldn’t have experienced. So, grab hold of your inner tiger and go for it. It will be exciting, interesting, hard and many times lonely but you will come back to the States and all it’s familiarity and you will be a stronger person with worldly experience.