In all of my failings as a mother, perhaps “framily” is the least of my sins.
As an active-duty military spouse, I have spent my life building community and then leaving that community in the span of about three years. My husband’s orders rotated us to new duty stations back and forth across the country. For a few of the 11 years on active duty, we lived in my hometown, near my family and the people I grew up with, but most of those years landed us in places I never imagined living. Military life has afforded us many adventures, the best of which involve the people who were strangers one day and chosen family the next.
Recently, a mentor asked me to reflect on how I intentionally created a community culture within my family. How have I built our family’s life to sustain moves, to bolster each other, to be each other’s soft place to land?
I was surprised. “I didn’t,” I admitted.
In my years of intentionally creating community outside our four walls, it never once occurred to me to be so intentional inside my home. I guess I assumed that the ways I did things would be picked up along the way without much planning on my part.
In a lot of ways that is true. My boys are both proficient in speaking Southern (“yes ma’am” and “yes sir”) as well as sailor (four-letter words that I’ll leave to your imagination)—things they gleaned without me teaching them.
As I pondered my mentor’s question, I was pretty hard on myself. How could I have been so good at building community for myself at each new duty station and miss the fact that I was not being intentional at home? You don’t know what you don’t know—and I didn’t know.
Thankfully, the people I crossed paths with over the last few years have filled in the gaps in my family’s life in ways that I could not have planned if I tried.
Almost a year into being stationed in New York City, I was offered a short-term job at the USO of Metropolitan New York. For me, it was the opportunity of a lifetime, a chance to work in an office in Times Square, and plan a two-week-long event. I was living my college self’s dream…except I wasn’t in college: I was the mother of two preschoolers. Manhattan work hours and preschool hours don’t mix well. Enter Miss Ash-a-wee (Ashley), my husband’s cousin, a recent college graduate with nothing to do for the summer. We offered her a weekly paycheck, access to one of the greatest cities in the U.S., and two cute little boys who needed her time and attention three days a week.
From the moment Ashley entered our home, the climate changed. She was everything I am not: soft-spoken, patient, easy-going, adventure-seeking. The boys were drawn to her like a moth to a flame, and I was grateful for her presence. We were in one of the busiest seasons of our lives, and I know we would not have survived it without her. My boys loved spending time with her, and I was amazed at the difference her presence made in our home. When my oldest son learned to read in the months following her departure, the first thing he did when he finished reading Hop On Pop was tell me he wanted to read to her.
In New York, we also leaned on Miss Fiona, a married adult we met at church, who had no children of her own. She often watched the boys in the evening so my husband and I could go out to work events or on dates. She was also nothing like me. She was loud and laughed easily and danced Irish jigs. She was always up for park dates, ice cream parties, and trips to Nanny Candy’s. She doted on my boys simply for being themselves. Miss Fiona taught them all the important things about living in a commuter town: how to get a good look out the train window (cupping your hands around your face then sticking it all the way up to the glass), how to “mind the gap” (jumping over the gap between the train and the platform as if you were Mary Poppins hopping into a sidewalk painting), and most importantly, there’s always a treat waiting for you at Grand Central Station if you are a good commuter!
It was easy in New York to welcome neighbors into our lives, to celebrate holidays together and treat each other’s homes like our own. These people—Ashley, Fiona, our neighbors, and others—were more than friends to us. They were like family, or “framily” if you will.
When we moved west to California, I was worried about the large hole in our lives as we said goodbye to people I knew we could never replace. I wondered how we could be lucky enough again to find another “framily” of people who would love us deeply, people who were all the things I was not.
But it had become second nature to look outside my four walls. Upon arrival in Southern California, though I was grieving the loss of my people and my home, I did my thing again, that outward search to fill the hole in my soul.
I joined a Mothers of Preschoolers (MOPS) group and became part of the leadership team. Through my MOPS group, my family met and made friends. Those families became our people, the people we most needed that season. They didn’t replace our New York framily, but they added to it and made our lives richer.
Somehow my closest friends were the camping, hiking, outdoorsy types. Again nothing like me—my great adventures are found in the pages of a book on my cozy couch, and walking round-trip to school is a gracious plenty “hiking” for one day, thank you very much.
Once again, my boys were gifted bonus moms who are nothing like me. They take my boys hiking and let them pick up bugs, filling spaces that this indoorsy girl was never going to fill.
But it was more than that. Most of our new west coast framily had children younger than my own. So, in addition to bonus moms, my boys inherited bonus siblings too. I got to witness my boys speak a little softer, wait a little longer, and share a little better because of the time they spent with our people in San Diego.
As I sipped coffee and pondered the questions my mentor posed, I was tempted to think only of my failures. “I guess I actually spent more time with friends than I did teaching my kids about community,” I told her with a sinking feeling. I felt ashamed—maybe I had done this all wrong. I wasn’t intentional about creating a family culture that could sustain anything Navy life throws at us. I missed the mark as a mom.
But when I look at my boys and see the things they love—outside, bugs, dirt—when I see their affinity for commuter treats and the tenderness they possess, I am reminded that I did the best I could. I didn’t always provide the softest place to land, but by living in community I provided the people who did. From my own shortcomings came some of the greatest community members—framily—any family could ask for.
Jenny Lynne Stroup is a military spouse, writer, teacher, mental health advocate, and an active member in both military and civilian communities. She loves coffee, quiet time, and community. Her work has been featured on Her View from Home, Task and Purpose, SpouseBuzz on Military.com, Legacy Kids Magazine, and her personal blog.