“So I’ve been thinking about something…and I think we need to talk about it,” I said nervously over our dodgy Skype connection. Why did the picture always have to be so pixelated? Wouldn’t it be nice to just have one conversation while seeing his face clearly?
“What is it?” He asked.
I had gone back and forth about whether I should bring this up. We Army spouses were always being told to keep things positive, to avoid stressful topics, if possible. Our soldiers had enough to worry about during their deployment. I was deeply familiar with all this advice, but I was used to talking to him about everything. It felt strange and dishonest not to share the fact that I had changed my mind about a major aspect of our future together. And it would be months before we were together to talk in person again.
“I’m pretty sure I only want two kids.”
Not exactly an explosive revelation, but for me, it felt like a huge departure from what I had always pictured. Only a few years earlier, as a starry-eyed young couple dreaming of our future together, we sat on a park bench in our hometown discussing family size.
“I don’t know, probably four or five kids,” I mused. “I love kids, and growing up in a family of six just felt right. I was happy. It’s what I picture for us.”
In fact, for me, my “normal” and happy childhood felt right in every way. It never occurred to me to wish for anything very different. When I thought of my future, I imagined something similar to what I knew.
House in the suburbs.
Lots of kids.
Holidays spent with grandparents and cousins.
Sports on the weekends.
Beach trips in the summer.
But so far, our family life looked nothing like my childhood. From the inception of our relationship, I knew that my husband’s future would include military service. But when we were dating, I had no idea what that might actually look like, and we didn’t even know if he would decide to serve beyond his initial four-year commitment. I only knew how to picture what I remembered from my own childhood experience.
By the time our first baby was a few months old, my husband was deployed to Afghanistan, and we lived ten hours away from our extended family. There were so many new things to get used to, but I felt like I was thriving as a member of my community, as a mother, and even as a spouse – despite the long separation. I could easily take my docile baby with me wherever I needed to go, or find a friend to watch her if needed. When we flew home to visit family, she sat in my lap and slept through the flight. My confidence grew, and I believed we could do this – we could be a military family. But I wondered how I could ever solo-parent more than a couple kids. I started to envision something different, and my expectations shifted.
It wouldn’t be the last time.
Two years later, we were getting settled into our new home overseas. Living in Italy was an actual dream come true. We lived in the city, owned only one car, used public transportation, and learned how to navigate the language barrier. We spent Saturdays exploring medieval towns nearby. We traveled to other countries during long weekends.
This was nothing like the lifestyle I knew, growing up. It was nothing like what I had ever pictured for my own kids. It was exciting, but I also felt a bit guilty about missing holidays with extended family. I felt bad that my daughter was missing out on time with her cousins, but I decided to embrace it. I was all in. I had a new vision for my family. A different kind of lifestyle filled my imagination now. More simplicity at home. More experiences and travel. We would take this mindset back to the States with us, I told friends and family. No matter where we lived, I would make sure my kids could see the world. Vacation time wouldn’t be used solely for family gatherings, instead we would keep taking trips to explore new places together. We wouldn’t need a big house and a lot of stuff, I declared, because we would spend our free time out and about. I was passionate about bringing our European lifestyle with us when it was time to leave Italy.
But life took a different turn after we moved back to the U.S. I was disappointed that we ended up in a suburban, colonial style home, much like the one I grew up in. Years ago, I thought this was what I wanted, but not now. It felt like we had fallen into a trap. Discontment started to fester as we found ourselves spending weekends doing yardwork, instead of taking day trips. I missed being able to walk everywhere and the spontaneity that I had grown accustomed to. Then, a difficult pregnancy and recovery kept me close to home. When I finally took a trip with the baby, I started to feel optimistic and ready to dream about traveling again. We started planning a trip to California, but in March 2020, everything changed. We were stuck at home in the suburbs.
It felt like all my expectations were dashed. This isn’t what I had pictured for our family. We were supposed to be out exploring new places, instead of settling into a dull routine at home. Like everyone else, I had plenty of time to think about things during that year. And by the time we moved again, I was ready to try a different approach. I realized that it was time to let go of any narrow expectations about what our family life should look like in the next season.
When it comes to expectations, maybe less is more. Maybe I should go into this next home/season/chapter with an open mind about what life might look like for our family. Maybe we would all benefit from me letting go of specific expectations about what kind of family life and routine we might experience. Maybe it’s less about deciding ahead of time what sort of lifestyle we should pursue. Instead, maybe I should look at each member of my family and try to determine what they need, in order to thrive in this moment – more stability, or more adventure? More predictability, or more risk-taking? Maybe the answers will continue to change and shift over time.
I am still learning what it means to let go of specific expectations. After yet another big move and transition for our family, I can say that keeping an open mind allows for more growth and contentment. Being open to different possibilities has allowed me to be at peace, even when things don’t pan out the way I expected. I am able to find joy, even when our lifestyle doesn’t match what I once thought would always be our “normal.”
We have recently been getting settled into a home in Italy for the second time, and part of me wants to recreate our earlier experience here so very much. I loved that urban, European lifestyle. It felt so right, and it was – for that season. But now, my kids are craving familiarity and stability. Attending an American school that is similar to their last one gives them confidence – even if it means spending lots of time in the car. Having a quiet home outside the city to retreat to has helped us bond as a family. Having our own outdoor space for the kids to run around in is a source of stress-relief for everyone – even if this means less stunning architecture during daily walks. Weekdays packed full with school and sports means that weekends are used for catching up on chores and rest, rather than regular day trips.
While there are certainly things that I miss, I can honestly say that life is good. I have finally learned that I can think fondly of other, very different phases of my life, and still be completely happy with my life as it is right now. I am free to love my currently full (albeit somewhat predictable) life, without worrying about how it could or should be different. I am at peace, rather than consumed with feelings of discontentment. There is room in my life and heart for all of these different chapters. And letting go of narrow expectations has allowed me to find the joy and beauty in each one.
Julie Barnes is a mother of three and wife of a soldier. She vowed to follow her husband wherever the Army would send him, and lucky for her, that promise has brought her to Italy two times. Julie spends her free time studying Italian, reading, sight-seeing, and writing. She is a contributing writer for Military Moms Collective and Legacy Magazine. She believes that storytelling can help us understand each other’s unique journey and perspective, and will ultimately bring us closer to one another. You can learn more about her journey on Instagram at @juliecodabarnes.
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