Can Mandatory Fun Actually Be Fun?

Heads-up: this video has mild language.

Whether it’s a First-Friday potluck, a holiday event, or a summer barbecue, unit-sponsored gatherings sometimes fall in an unfortunately named category: “mandatory fun.” Much like Liz Lemon’s staff, grumbles and moans often follow the PowerPoint announcement of these events.

Mandatory fun is commonly derided as a nuisance, where unit members and their families are supposed to show up with a smile, meet, greet and eat, and then go home.

But, not everyone looks at it that way, and the way I see it, mandatory fun has a lot more to it than obligatory food and small talk. In fact, I think it’s a crucial part of our lifestyle.

When we first roll into town, we face the inevitable task of making new friends, which often bears the uncomfortable resemblance of asking someone out on a date. Our service members have it a little different; they walk into a structured environment where their role is pre-determined and socialization is built into their day.

But for us spouses, hanging out in that limbo of post-PCS-dom can be tough. Every step we take can feel clumsy and unsure. I’ve often thought it’s like trying to figure out where to thread an unusual color into a tapestry that looks already masterfully woven.

Occasionally, we might know someone in the unit before we arrive, someone who can introduce us around and make us feel welcome. Other times, we must forge our path on our own. Regardless, settling into a new group of people who already have established relationships can feel uncomfortable. Like me, perhaps you, too, have stood in new circles, casually laughing along or inserting a general comment here and there, feeling clunky and awkward the whole time.

But, over time, new faces become familiar faces. We become accustomed to various personalities, and we discover new friends who have had experiences similar to our own. We ask questions, share stories, and with luck, we find that one person who is so relatable that we’re sure we heard a “click” somewhere in the distance.

Mandatory fun provides us with the opportunity to reach that point. Recurring, organized get-togethers give us the chance to move away from being “the newbie” and discover how to thread our color into the fabric of the unit. We might become known as the person with the killer chili recipe, the one with incredible artistic talent, the funny one, the outrageous one, the one who’s read every book on the planet. The quiet and sweet one, the strong and assertive one, the life of the party. The leader, the supporter, the friend to all. Hopefully that last one is something we all can be.

My family and I PCS’d into our current unit just seven months ago, and I was struck with the usual uncertainty and mild shyness. But the first thing I asked my husband was, “When is the next barbecue?” I wanted to shed that “new” feeling like it was an itchy wool sweater in summer – quickly. I wanted friends, I wanted a community, and I wanted it as fast as possible.