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When I met my husband, he was an active duty pilot instructor at a small Mississippi Air Force base, working long 12 hour days while I went through the motions of teaching college classes and trying to survive what I thought was a challenging existence of solo parenting on most mornings and evenings.
It's funny how these days that sounds like a vacation.
Don't get me wrong. With his current job as a commercial pilot and National Guardsmen, he's probably home more than he ever was when we first became parents. But those long stretches of four, five, sometimes even 10 days away are enough to make me wish for the nights when I sat tapping my foot by the hall window waiting for his car to pull up.
On some levels, I'm fortunate that when he's home, he bears more than his share of the brunt of parenting and housekeeping. But even then, I'm still not enjoying the free happy hour at the Las Vegas Westin and the big, comfy bed with no children coming to visit at 3 a.m.
And even his days at home don't necessarily make up for the days and nights when I'm the only parent and housekeeper to three small children, stuffing them all in the car to take my daughter to school, or go anywhere for that matter, cooking and cleaning up three plus meals a day, and doing my best to maintain some sort of order in what could end up being a remake of Animal House.
It's only taken me a few years to finally figure out that our roles will never be even, at least in the traditional sense. In a life that I have certainly chosen, I will be the primary parental figure for my kids, I will have to schedule my life around my husband's work, and I will be mostly responsible for the house and all its piles of dirty laundry.
There are other smaller sacrifices that are hard to explain, but easier to swallow. I'm not able to plan ahead or RSVP for parties any earlier than the last minute. I'm not able to be as involved in neighborhood or school activities due to my own work schedule and the fact that I have to determine whether the event is worth me paying $15 an hour for a sitter.
Others aren't as simple as finding a sitter. The loneliness can be brutal as are the short, sometimes non-existent phone and email conversations that usually just involve talking about what kid pooped on the floor and how many walls now have drawings on them.
But what's most surprising about this whole experience is that the challenge does not lie in being alone. Like one Marine mom in my neighborhood explained, I get in "the zone" and everything just moves like clockwork. My way is the only way and I live or die by my schedule. Autopilot goes on and even though there's definitely turbulence and pretty rough chop, I've got my hand firmly on the throttle and I don't have to argue with anyone about how to handle it.
However, the hours prior to him leaving and the days after he returns are brutal. The world stops so he can pack his bag and track down everything he needs for his trips that really should be in one place but somehow end up all over our house. Fortunately, the kids no longer wail at his feet as he walks out the door.
Thankfully, I don't either. Well, most of the time, anyway.
And when he returns, it feels like someone has stuck a stick in the wheel spokes of my well-oiled motorcycle -- once speeding along at a rapid pace now turned upside down on the side of road with smoke rising from the wreckage. The amount of extra dishes is astonishing, as are the piles of laundry that I can't believe came out of his tiny suitcase. And the head-butting over everything from the kid's bedtime to our own annoying habits that weren't annoying to just us for the last few days is exhausting.
Settling back into a workable parenting and sexual relationship takes just about the amount of time that he's home and then he has to leave again, thus starting the cycle all over.
I tell myself that it'll all work itself out at some point. That like the time that he's away, we'll get into a groove and it won't be as hard. But after three years of this lifestyle, I'm coming to understand that this is just one of the many challenging facets of being a sometimes single mom.