the domestic tales of four sisters

Maximizing Family Time for Military Families


If you’re like me there are some weekends that you can’t help but think, “Okay, I need the next 12 hours to go impossibly slow.” But somehow they don’t and you go to bed half depressed on Sunday evening because your weekend with your Marine (airman, soldier, sailor … etc.) went by faster than you expected. And maybe you’re not married to someone in the military but you or your spouse (or both) work full-time jobs that take you away from your family more than you would like. This may help you, too!

For the past 18 months my husband has worked about an average of 78 hours a week. I know, you’re scratching your head wondering how that is physically possible. Unless of course you’re married to a Marine yourself; then you’re probably giggling because your husband worked 85 hours last week. You one-upper you … ūüôā While Recruiting Duty is a little more stressful, we are used to not spending a ton of time together. We often make the joke that in the past 6 years we have been a couple (4 of them married) we truly have “only spent like 6 months or something together …”¬†That’s probably an exaggeration, but I gather if we added up all of the deployments and trainings and hours spent working yeah … It would be maybe like a year out of 6. Now that we have kids the biggest hurdle we face is how to maximize those “awake hours” with the little ones. I think this is something every military family faces. Dad or mom come home from work to sleeping kids and a wife or husband half asleep on the couch while their dinner rests in the microwave. It is just part of the job, and that whole “if the Marine Corps wanted you to have a wife they would have issued you one”¬†statement really makes sense when you live this lifestyle!

For the past year I’ve been trying to figure out which schedule works best for our fast-paced-never-see-daddy/husband lifestyle.¬†Surprisingly I discovered it isn’t so much¬†what we do, but¬†how¬†we do things that truly maximizes our time together.

Here’s some of the ideas I’ve come up with along the way that have helped us immensely!

1:¬†Learn to say ‘no’ – with confidence.

Being a military family you most likely live away from your extended family. In the first year of our marriage we made many, many mistakes of agreeing to spend holidays here or there or with this set of inlaws. Guess what happened? We hated it. We ended up miserable from all of the traveling and we fought the whole time from stress. We didn’t feel like our effort for traveling all over God’s creation was appreciated, but “required of us.” We both agreed – we were better off staying home. From that point forward we made a promise –¬†learn to say no. And not say “no” and then feel guilty (or made to feel guilty) for months on end. A straight-up, no-nonsense type of no.

Will people get offended? Yes. Is that your problem? Not in this case.

If you are a family member of someone in the military I am going to let you in on a little secret – it is not our responsibility to travel to you all of the time. And I’m sorry that we don’t say that to your face. Yes, yes, we moved away. We live the lifestyle that takes us away from you. We have the grandkids and the nieces/nephews/cousins that you don’t get to see. But priority #1 has to be our immediate family. If putting our kids on a plane or in a car to travel to you for 3 days doesn’t sound too appealing, don’t let the “butt-hurt” flow. Offer to come and visit us – as often as possible. If finances are an issue for you and you simply cannot – no harm, no foul. We’ll catch you when we get the chance (and desire) to come home for a visit. Do not take this as a personal offense. We do want to see you, and we do want to spend time with you, but sometimes we have to place things ahead of you. Skype and FaceTime are WONDERFUL things. Let’s use those more often, okay?

Military family (or really busy family) Рlearn to say no. 

“No, we can’t come home for Memorial Day weekend. We just haven’t spent enough time together as a family and we really want to take those 3 days to ourselves.”

“You know we really don’t feel like loading the kids up for just a 3 day weekend and spending all of that time in the car doesn’t really maximize our time spent together. Maybe you guys would like to come visit us?”

“No, we are actually really trying to save up some money for a vacation in the next few months. You are more than welcome to come and visit with us, however.”

“No, we really can’t make it home for Christmas/Thanksgiving this year. We’d like to maximize the amount of money we have to spend on the holiday. We would rather invest it in the kids’ Christmas than the trip home. Would you like to maybe come visit for New Years?”

And do it with confidence.

2: Schedule, Schedule, Schedule. 

Many will disagree with me here. Maybe it is my personality, but I have found that scheduling the weekends or times off really helps – especially with young ones! Knowing exactly when the kids will want to eat or sleep works out great and saves you from standing in the aquarium on a Saturday afternoon when hunger or tiredness strikes and you have a major toddler meltdown (MTM) right by the stingrays. Outing? Ruined. Even though I am a stay at home mom I love a good schedule. Because that means come Sunday when my husband is off of work (hopefully) we know that we can do this, this, and this at such and such of time without coming into a major, awful toddler/infant moment.

3:¬†“Cluster the Fun.”¬†

What the? So last Sunday my husband and I had some stuff to pick up at the store. Our daughter loves shopping. She gets to wave and smile at old ladies and yell at other children who she feels are making too much noise. Bossy much? So we decided to knock out Home Depot and the grocery and then we took her for frozen yogurt. We did plan on going to the park after froyo, but it was getting way too close to her naptime and we didn’t want to have an MTM. I’ve discovered the best way to maximize our time is to cluster the fun. This is PERFECT for families with little kids. Toddlers and little ones don’t really require too much planning of activities. They truly are happy just going out into the world and seeing stuff.

Here’s an idea of how to “cluster the fun.”

Plan a morning walk after breakfast.
Run your errands (grocery shop, make a trip to the bank, pick up a few things at Rite Aid).
Go to the park for an hour or so.
Lunch & Frozen Yogurt.
Home for Nap.

Or maybe you’d like an afternoon –

Run your errands after nap.
Go on a walk.
Go to the park for an hour or so.
Dinner & Frozen Yogurt.
Home for bedtime routine & sleep.

We live 2 hours away from Mount Rushmore, an hour and a half away from Devil’s Tower, a few more hours away from Yellowstone, etc. Basically we live in a part of Wyoming that has great location to some really awesome places. But I assure you, even with my awesome “roll with the punches” toddler, I’m not planning a whole day to Mount Rushmore. I would look for 3 or 4 different things to do around Rapid City, SD (city right by Mount Rushmore) and make sure we hit them all with the toddler. If I took her for a half a day to stare at faces on a mountain she’d straight up ruin the whole day. For everyone.

So pick 3-4 things to do over a 3-4 hour period of time and get out of the house as a family!

4:¬†Don’t Overschedule.

This may seem counter-redundant based upon what I talked about previously. However, you don’t want to overschedule your days together. Sure you want to “cluster fun” and get out of the house for 3-4 hours with a few various activities, but you don’t want to plan a whole day of fun hopping around to 18 different places and then crawl into your house at 9PM with two screaming kids that still need bathed and fed. That’s not fun for anyone. Schedule outings and trips based around what your kids and your family can handle. Otherwise you’re looking at a seriously crappy time.

About three weeks ago my husband (last minute) asked me to accompany him on his trip out to South Dakota for the day. I agreed because we had not seen him in what felt like weeks, but unfortunately it ended poorly as I had not planned too well and I overscheduled our day. The two hour trip out and back was taxing on the little ones, and I was driving by myself so it made it that much worse with no parent to entertain while the other drove. It was rainy and a little chilly. And … I planned a little bit too much in the 5 hour window that we were there. It resulted in some seriously grouchy kids which then resulted in some seriously grouchy parents.

Bad day. BAD DAY.

5: Plan time to just be at home and do nothing.

Yesterday my husband was off all day long due to the holiday weekend. You know what we did? Nothing. We hung around the house, did some laundry, vacuumed, and hung out with our kids. We watched a lot of TV and made calzones. Drank some beer. I painted a chair while the kids napped. He listened to the Orioles game. Was it productive? Heck yes. He somehow managed to wash every ounce of dirty laundry in the house. But! Our kids didn’t have to be toted all over town, we didn’t have to plan around naps or bottles. We just … hung out. And it was wonderful.

Surprisingly a lot of my “fond” memories with my husband are days that we just stay at home. Maybe we did some work around the house in the morning, but usually in the afternoon we just stayed in and watched baseball or played with our daughter. And truthfully, he’s much more rested at the end of a day off like that versus when we are running around.

My recommendation is to plan two of these days a month. We are always de-stressed at the end of these days – they’re totally worth it!

6: Plan 1 night Рno kids.

Yes, I know, “date night” is so cliche. Seriously though. Find a good babysitter and go out (we have a girl that we took on when she was a senior in high school and now when she is home from college we still have her come and babysit.) Maybe all you have money for is to cover the cost of the babysitter and a double cheeseburger at McDonalds. Who flipping cares! It doesn’t have to be fancy to be time alone. Our daughter goes to bed at 6:30PM, and she’s usually asleep soon after. We ask the babysitter to arrive around 7. All she has to do is hang out with the baby and go check on the toddler should she stir or freak out. It’s a piece of cake for her, which means it is less stress on us. I highly recommend this for all parents who want to get out of the house but have little ones. Just plan your “date” a little later and get the kids situated in bed before you go. Not having to worry about instructing the babysitter about bedtime or baths or when so and so needs to eat is a lifesaver!

If you don’t have a lot of money to spare think like this, “If we were seniors in high school and on a date, what would we do?” Because what senior in high school has the money to go out to a restaurant and drop $56 on the bill and then another $40 at the movies? None. Unless they’re drug dealers. I’m kidding. Set a $25 budget for the whole night and I guarantee you that you will have a ton of fun.

My husband and I love going to batting cages, playing mini golf, going on walks, or diving into the 2/$20 menu at Applebees. Unless we are back on the East Coast – then it’s Chickfila all the way. The truth is dates don’t have to be fancy. Pay the babysitter and spend a minimal amount on the date. I promise you’ll walk away with a bellyache from the laughter and be rested and relaxed just from time spent together.

7:¬†Save the “honey-dos” and deep cleaning for once a month.

We all know this feeling – military family or not. Saturday arrives and you jump out of bed at 0800 like a bat out of hell ready to clean every nook and cranny of the house and fix that pesky light switch that has been acting up or clean the grout in the bathroom. Unfortunately, many of our Saturdays and Sundays become days to get stuff done around the house. And that sucks. And it doesn’t maximize time spent together, but makes you busy. Plan to have one Saturday or Sunday a month to deep clean your house and accomplish the “honey-dos.” Fridge needs a thorough cleaning and the bathroom needs a whole bottle of bleach? Mark on your calendar which day of that month you are accomplishing these tasks. Make sure you’re both on the same page. Write up the list and tackle it that day, and only that day. The remaining 3 weekends of the month belong to you and your family. Don’t let housework strip you of time spent with your kids or your spouse.

8. Look for free or inexpensive activities.

If you live near a military base and you AREN’T using your resources – you’re failing at life. Yeah, I said it. I’ve lived away from a military base for 18 months now and I am KICKING myself for not using my resources when I had them. Look for free and inexpensive things to do with your kids. Why does this maximize time spent with your family? Not spending money is awesome. If you can simply get in the car and go to this place and do this activity and not have to pay a dime for it there is virtually no stress or fuss. You just get to spend good, quality time together without a dollar sign next to it.

If you have young kids (under 3) you will most likely be able to find a lot of “free for kids” activities in your area. Home Depot has their little project workshop that Danielle has reviewed & talked a lot about in the past. Parks are always free. Walks around the neighborhood. On-base swimming pools.

Quick Tip: If you live in Havelock, NC and are a military family – head over to Nugent Cove on base. Their swimming pool in the community is simply the best. And NO ONE ever swims there! Before we moved off-base my husband and I would spend at least 2 hours there each day before he would go in for his night shift. It’s beautiful, it has a lifeguard, and it is right by a little play place & basketball courts. You seriously cannot go wrong.

Use your resources! Find the free or inexpensive things to do.

Another quick tip – one of our favorite things to do is go get frozen yogurt. But that crap can equal out to be liquid gold if you don’t plan it out the right way. My husband and I always share with our toddler. However, if you have little kids, and they’re all “I DON’T WANT TO SHARE!!!!” here’s a great idea. Get one cup to split between your kids and then bring along your own little paper cups or even little bowls. Divvy it up and then the world can go on in peace without some kid totally melting down in the middle of Sweet Frog because he has to share his gummy worm topped chocolate froyo with his “stupid brother.” It’s the right thing to do.

9: Save for vacation once a year or every 2 years.

This actually comes from a former Commanding Officer that my husband had. He looked me square in the eye after my husband promoted to sergeant and said that if he doesn’t take me on vacation once a year I’m supposed to get a hold of him so he can “beat the crap out of my husband.” (Uhm, Lt. Col Cooper … James hasn’t taken me on vacation in like 2 years.) The truth is you NEED time away from the distractions of life. For Danielle this will be a trip to Disney World. For my husband and me, however, this is a trip to an all-inclusive resort or Sarasota, FL during Orioles spring training. Either way we need to save up for it and make a promise that when the time is right we go – whether with or without the kids it doesn’t matter. We just need to get away, catch our breath, and then come back to reality.

For a military family this takes some planning and saving. My husband and I are planning a very nice vacation for ourselves after Recruiting Duty while our kids go spend the week at Camp Gramma in PA. It gives Gramma a chance to spend time with the kids (and the kids to spend time with Gramma and their cousins) and mom and dad the chance to go away. We have a budget that we want to spend, and we are beginning the saving process shortly.

Again, these vacations don’t have to be super fancy or super expensive. They just have to equal time spent away from work and from your normalcy of life.

10: Marriage first. 

You may be scratching your head wondering what I mean by this. Or how this could possibly maximize time spent together. Hear me out. With the military lifestyle and kids on top of that you KNOW that your marriage is slacking. You aren’t as intimate as you used to be, you don’t spend a lot of time alone unless its after the kids go to bed and you can barely hold your eyes open yourself. You struggle when you DO get time alone because it seems foreign and weird. You know how when your spouse returns from a deployment the car ride home is painfully quiet? What do you say to this person who you have spent ZERO time alone with in months? And you guys just sit there … “so uh … the weather is nice, eh?” Okay this was our first date after we had our daughter and got settled in here in Wyoming. I am not kidding. We went on this date and we just sat there and stared at each other like .. what the heck.

Unfortunately the military becomes so significant in your day to day and even your marriage that you forget that you are two people in a relationship and in a marriage. You forget that you are sharing life together. And when you have all of that other stuff between you, it’s hard to reacquaint yourselves with each other.

After that super awkward first date I made myself a promise – my marriage was going to come first. That meant that I had to ensure the kids were on a great schedule and well taken care of so that when my husband came home at 9:30 they were in bed sleeping soundly and that left us a few precious minutes alone. It meant that we had to pay a little extra for a babysitter a few more nights a month so that we could get out and just be James and Kelsea for a little bit. It meant learning to say no to our parents when we were asked to go on trips or to do this or that. It meant that we said no to graduation parties for poolees because we hadn’t spent any time alone together in months. Our marriage HAD to become priority over all of this junk that fills our life. When your marriage is priority your kids are better off and your lifestyle is better off. You’re a team, and there’s no messiness between you that prevents productivity or meaningful time together.

One of the things we always say to each other is this, “When you are 86 years old who will be wiping your ass? Me or the Marine Corps?”¬†He responds, “You’ll be wiping it.” And I respond, “Yeah, but the Marine Corps will be paying for the toilet paper.”¬†This lifestyle is unique, but it is so beneficial. What he is doing here, today, in this moment will transcend years and years. It will be a part of us for the rest of our life together. I have to be his teammate, I have to have his six. He has to be my teammate, he has to have my six. And we have to have mutual appreciation for what his job provides for us and be willing to sacrifice for it. But never, ever, ever do we sacrifice our marriage or intimacy for it. When we begin to compromise our marriage is the very moment we step away from this. Maybe you don’t have the same values, but remember, one day you’ll be wiping his ass. Not the military.

Invest where it counts.

Well, that’s all! Hope this helps! Have any tips to maximize family time for very busy families? Comment below!

Happy Monday!


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