Why “Keep Busy” is Toxic Deployment Advice

The advice to “keep busy” during a deployment is so common it’s almost ubiquitous. The truth is: it’s bullshit.

Any two second Google search can yield you hundreds of results for military spouses on “how to survive deployments.” Many of them have some really sound advice. But I have noticed one piece of prevailing advice that I’ve come to realize is actually pretty toxic: Just keep busy.

Seems pretty innocuous right? And actually kind of makes sense when taken at face value. If you’re busy, you won’t have time to count the days passing or to even realize how lonely you are.

I am totally guilty of both following this advice and offering it to others. So allow me to tell you why I now think that it’s complete bullshit.

The word “busy” can have a variety of dictionary meanings, but in this context it means that you should be constantly doing something. And that that something should be productive, or meaningful, or necessary, or important.

So, in the interest of busy-ness, at the outset of a deployment, what do we do? We sign the kids up for 163,482 new activities, because, after all, we should keep them busy, too. We volunteer for those FRG events we had previously been dodging. We start taking classes, pick up new hobbies, create intense and demanding new schedules that no one in their right mind could keep up with. We take all of this new busy-ness and pile it right on top of not only our previous responsibilities, but also the ones that have automatically been foisted upon us by the absence of our spouses. We brush our hands off and gaze proudly at our new jam-packed schedules. “Why, this deployment will be done in no time!” we declare proudly.

Yeah. About that.

What happens next?

Cue overwhelm.

At some point we realize that we can’t be in 3 places at once for ballet and football and karate. Homework or schoolwork (for both ourselves and the kids) falls by the wayside because someone has to make dinner and it isn’t going to be the 3 year old. Brand new projects go unfinished because someone had a doctor’s appointment and then the oil needed to be changed and oh yeah can you make the super important FRG meeting that happens tomorrow at 8?

That feeling of drowning is like a wave – crashing over us, capsizing our life rafts, washing away this semblance of control we thought we had. There is no one to help rescue us because the deployment still goes on. Rather than going by in a blink of occupied bliss, the days stretch into Groundhog Days of stress and exhaustion.

Groundhog day movie image
This guy only thought his repeating days were bad…

We just need a break, we think, and we’ll be all set. So we get a babysitter or schedule a playdate and take a 2 hour time-out to get a mani and a pedi or a massage because hey, self care is important, too, right?

But the busy-ness is still there when we get back.

And so is the loneliness. There is no one to the share the burden. If you’re lucky, there’s at least sympathetic voice on the other end of the phone or the screen of the video chat. They try to encourage and remind us that they’ll be back soon, and sometimes it comforts. But sometimes it just rings hollow because it doesn’t make our immediate problems disappear.

Problems we created. Because we were trying to stay busy.

We turn to our friends and peers for advice. “Well, are you keeping busy?” They ask. You prattle on about all the busy things you’re doing as if saying it aloud will remind you how good all your keeping busy is doing.

Cue self doubt.

We’re so busy with this and that it’s like bailing out our life raft with a colander. And yet we take on more. Planning the next playdate. Organizing the unit event for when the deployment ends. Another kid activity. Another household project. Simultaneously, we look around at all the things we’re NOT doing. Going to the gym. Managing our diets. Getting that last load of laundry done. Scrubbing the bathroom.

And God forbid you utter those four little words to anyone within earshot: “I don’t have time.”

“Well, what are you doing?” They ask, preparing their judgments for how you spend your time. “Of course you have time. So many people spend a lot of time doing things that are worthless. You just need to schedule your time so that you can be more productive!”

We wonder if we have been doing this all wrong. Clearly that 15 minutes of scrolling Facebook was a complete waste. I could have cleaned the entire hall bathroom in that amount of time!

So we go back to the schedules and the calendars and try to cram in more things in order to feel more accomplished with how busy we are. We were busy before, but it was the wrong kind of busy!

JUST. STAY. BUSY.

Cue feelings of inadequacy.

If you’re not busy enough doing the right things; things that others perceive as valuable and worthwhile, you’re doing it wrong. That’s the problem. You need to do more things that are productive…

So the answer to having too much on your plate is to do more. Do more better things. Do them faster. Stop wasting time.

Friends, this is bullshit.

The idea that you should be busy just for the sake of being busy is nonsense. Running yourself ragged to the point of mental and physical exhaustion accomplishes nothing. Necessary, important, meaningful, or not, overwhelming yourself is no way to live, especially when you’re on your own. It doesn’t make time pass faster. Time is a constant. It just makes you suffer while the time goes by at the same old pace.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a routine or a schedule or that you should just lay in bed every day feeling sorry for yourself (but if you need to do that one or two days, totally do that, just throw some cereal at the kids, they’ll be fine).

Do things: Things that you need to do to keep your household running. Things that you enjoy doing. Nothing else matters.

Have a routine or a schedule: A schedule that is necessary to keep yourself and your children happy and healthy. Nothing else matters.

For fuck’s sake, just do nothing once in awhile. For an hour. A whole day. A week.

Do things that other people would view as worthless: Read a novel. Lock the bathroom door and take a longer than necessary poop. Take a bath. Spend the entire day bingeing Netflix and eating popcorn. Play video games (my personal favorite). Sit outside and let your kids run around like screaming banshees and shamelessly scroll Facebook while you do it. Take your kids to the zoo for no reason at all on a weekday. Skip the gym and ride your bike or walk the dog. Quit the extra sport or activity that your kid wasn’t really into anyway.

Notice in the above I said “yourself” before “your children.” You are the most important one in that equation. If you are not happy and healthy and confidently paddling along while your partner is gone, who is there to keep the raft afloat?

In closing, I would like to propose some alternative pieces of advice to, “stay busy:”

Stay engaged. Stay engaged with your children. Stay engaged in conversation with friends, even if it’s online. It’s equally important to get offline and be with your kids AND to have that portal to the outside world, so at 9pm when you’re feeling at your most alone in the quiet house, you have friends at your fingertips, even if they’re 1000 miles away.

Little boy riding a bike ahead in the distance
A perfectly engaging bike ride

Stay immersed. Stay immersed in a good book. Stay immersed in learning how to knit. Stay immersed in beating that boss level in the new Zelda. Immersion in something you enjoy and that makes you happy is never worthless.

Stay involved. Stay involved in only the things that are important to YOU. Kick everything else overboard. There’s no room for it on your raft.

Sometimes the answer to surviving deployments isn’t to be busy, but to just BE.

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