Sometimes I work with a retired Army captain who teaches aspects of leadership to some of my students. He served multiple tours in Iraq and Afganistan and later ran part of our ROTC program before retiring and staying on at the university.
The last time we met I was telling him a bit about our students and how this particular program is run. At one point in our conversation he smilingly said to me: “You have a bit of the DS in you, don’t you?”
“What’s ‘DS’ mean’?” I asked him. Continuing to smile, he responded, “Drill Sergeant.”
I must admit I wasn’t sure how I felt about being perceived as a drill sergeant. But I figured from him it was intended as a compliment and said as much. He laughed and nodded vigorously and we continued on with our planning.
It stuck in my head, though.
Then it came up the other morning with Joshua. We had had two challenging experiences that weekend: one on Saturday and one on Sunday. Both of them were about helping the family finish up with an outing and move to the car. On Saturday we attended a book fair at the local library, had a great time, knew it was time to get going but had to hand in some papers and move the children along in the process. On Sunday, we had just finished Mass—a pretty challenging Mass in the parenting realm, but successful. We wanted to pick up some items at the farmer’s table outside the church and ran into complications with timing, communication and space.
We could identify that both situations went badly and that they seemed to have gone badly between us in the same sort of way, but we struggled to put our finger on precisely what it was.
After getting home we spent some time continuing to talk it through in the kitchen. At one point in the discussion, Joshua was trying to explain how he felt in those two situations and he very innocently referred to my demeanor in those situations as “Sergeant Stacey.” Yeah. He said that.
At the same time that I was surprised, I understood that he was not trying to call me a name or say it in any sort of unkind way. So I didn’t take it with any kind of negative intention on his part. But it sure got me thinking.
I think it was a real God-send that I had had the “DS” exchange with the retired Army captain. It had not only given me time to think through how I felt about the image of being a drill sergeant, but it also gave me another person’s objective perspective to draw upon in this conversation with Joshua. It was a gift that I really wasn’t the least bit defensive about Joshua perceiving and naming me to be sergeant-like. Instead I was able to enter fully into the conversation, and we were able to break open the implications for our communication and interactions in those specific circumstances.
I am pretty clear-sighted in a given “family moving” situation, which Joshua attributed to my ability to make incisive decisions instantaneously. But I was able to help him understand that, to the contrary, I had a decision ready to go because I had been anticipating the moment for a while and was thinking things through constantly. He said he would like to make a point of being better about that way of thinking himself.
We realized that the drill sergeant thing has two sides: For Joshua it is hard to feel he has no agency in fixing a given situation. For me it is hard to work at getting our family through a situation and feel underappreciated. The best part is that now that we’ve named it, and it is something we can each work on, we are looking forward to trying to be better for each other in the future.
Marriage is about helping one another to grow in perfection. After being married for 13 years, we’ve started to feel like we really have the communication thing down; that our rough edges are smoothing out nicely. But realizations and discussions like this sure remind us how much further we have to go (especially me) and how happy we are to be partners on the journey.