Stories from Home: Fortitude

Jen Dunn

Ask a military spouse about her deployment experiences, and it won’t be long before she tells you what broke. There’s always something. The roof starts to leak, the refrigerator stops working, the dog runs away. After a deployment starts, something is bound to go wrong, often several things at once. For Natalie Laffin, whose partner is deployed on HMCS Athabaskan, the brakes went, bank cards were lost, and her son got sick – all in the same week. “I’m coping pretty well,” she says, “but sometimes you feel overwhelmed. It can be hard.”

Natalie never thought she’d become a military spouse. Then her partner of 28 years became a Stoker at age 42, after the auto parts company he worked for shut down. “I thought it was a joke,” she says, laughing, when asked how she first felt about him joining the military. “I didn’t think they’d take him!”

Take him they did, and the couple, along with their two children, packed up and moved to HRM from Cape Breton in 2012. By Natalie’s account, the children adjusted smoothly to the relocation, but for Natalie herself, things were a little harder. “I had to give up a job of twenty years,” she says, “and my sister, who lived eighteen feet away from me… We shared a backyard. Our children grew up like siblings.” While Natalie has made new friends and found a job in her field that she enjoys, adjusting to the move hasn’t been easy. “It’s hard to make really strong friendships because everyone is busy.”

The sacrifice was worth it. “For us it’s all about job security,” she says, “and with the military I feel we have that. It’s a very good feeling.”

In addition to job security, Natalie acknowledges the enjoyment her husband gets out of his relatively new career. “He really loves what he does,” she says, her voice full of pride. “He’s always busy. He loves it when something breaks, because he can fix it.”

While the Stoker’s full schedule doesn’t always allow for daily emails, the couple manages to stay in touch. “I’ll send him two, or three, or four,” she says, speaking of her own emails. “And he’ll answer them all at once. I’ll open them randomly.” Spacing out the communication in this way extends the connection, sustains the comfort that the emails bring. It’s a little trick she has developed, and it makes the time go by a bit faster, keeps the days a bit brighter.

Proud of her partner for starting over in order to support their family, Natalie is experiencing her own new adventures, particularly during deployment. Taking on the responsibilities that her partner would normally look after – dealing with cable guys and car guys, paying the bills – provides opportunities for growth and learning. The best part of deployment, though, has been the strengthening of the connection between herself and her children. “My kids and I are probably ten times closer,” she says. “Stuff they would do with him, I do with them.” She appreciates the extra time, the renewed closeness. “When they get older they start to drift away; they have their own lives,” she says.

As she looks forward to the end of the deployment, she marvels at the fortitude of the other spouses she has met. “Most are here hundreds or thousands of miles from home with no family close, but yet some are raising families with four, five, or six children basically on their own… but most have embraced it… It’s hard not having our partners here, and I have so much respect for the wives who have lived this for most of their adult lives. They are truly amazing.”