Parenting is hard. It is joyful, rewarding, exhausting. It is always hard. Parenting during a deployment? It’s like in the old school Mario Brothers when you made it to the next level and immediately made some crazy simple mistake and DIED.
Except, in this, there are no breaks or start overs. I can’t turn off my son and walk away to recharge. I have to plug along, doing the best I can and knowing there are days that I am failing spectacularly.
To be fair, even when I “fail” my child still has a safe and nurturing home, nutritious food, and people who adore him. Failure is relative. But understanding that on an intellectual level doesn’t make me feel much better about myself when I completely miss the signups for something he wanted to do or when I make a pb & j for dinner 2 nights in a row. It’s hard not to feel like I’m failing at some arbitrary standard I have created for myself. A while ago on Army Wife Network’s Loving A Soldier, I wrote about the fact that we can look around and see stories of military spouses doing amazing things while I’m struggling to avoid any kind of catastrophe.
Being kind to myself is a bit of a work in progress.
The truth is that although it may not look the way I pictured my life at 31, I am building something amazing during this deployment. I have made tremendous strides in the last few years towards actively *making* my life what I want it to be. And a HUGE part of that is the fact that despite working full-time hours between my social media clients, free lance writing, and blogging, my son stayed home with me over the summer. We are traveling to see family (possible both because I work and because I’ve developed career capability that allows me to work from anywhere).
For me, parenting during deployment means creating a routine and being willing to throw it out the window on days when it isn’t working. It is staying up and working at 11:30 pm in my vacation hotel room (which is the epitome of fabulous-ness thanks to Westin) while the munchkin snores away so that I can spend tomorrow with him.
Parenting during deployment means being willing to do the things that Daddy normally does (because they drive me NUTS) like playing Legos, building ramps to send matchbox cars hurtling down the stairs and thanking god for washable paint after a particularly messy “art session.”
Preserving my sanity while deployment parenting requires that when my husband has 10 minutes to sit on skype I park my child in front of the laptop on my bed while I dash into the bathroom to take a short but blessedly alone shower.
There are painful moments. I have to force myself to find calm, reassuring answers when my then 4-year-old asks startlingly perceptive questions about the possibility of “bad guys hurting daddy” in Afghanistan. I always want him to feel comfortable bringing me his thoughts and fears so I can’t let him know that I won’t take a real, deep breath until my husband has his boots firmly back home. I encourage my son to keep his Daddy Bear and the recordable book with him ALL.THE.DAMN.TIME. – even though that has meant countless trips back to the house when its been forgotten or figuring out how to fit them in my carry on bag or staring down a fellow passenger shooting irritated looks my way when he listens to it for the third time on a 2 hour flight. There are expressions and mannerisms and sassy little quips that are so much his daddy that it stops my heart.
I’m Not A Single Parent
I 100% understand why military spouses reference solo parenting during deployment. My husband and I have very different, complementary relationships with our son. I am quieter but have much firmer boundaries and expectations. I am very affectionate and will drop whatever I’m doing for a hug or to read a book. My husband will sprawl on the couch or floor in silent companionship or rough house for some made up purpose. My husband “races” constantly and is much more tolerant of snack food, toys everywhere and the mess required for imaginative engineering feats. Our son’s life is immensely richer for the disparity between our parenting styles.
During deployment, I have to fill that need as well as I can. I can’t replace my husband – who on a whim based on a 4 year old’s crooked drawing built an 8+ foot tall rocket complete with window and control panel out of a couple moving boxes. But I can put aside my work, the dishes, and the laundry to make time to lay on the floor and build some truly ugly vehicles out of Legos.
At the same time, my son still has a father who is an active part of his life. I have to discuss decisions and concerns and potential issues with my husband. I have to deliberately and carefully NOT belittle or dismiss the activities that THEY do together. Because I’m NOT a single parent.
What Works For Me
Everyone’s relationships are different and will require a unique “battle rhythm” and coping skills. But it’s always nice to start with things that have worked for someone else.
- Recordable books: We’ve used recordable books with both sets of grandparents since our son was very little. Since he loves books, it was a way to associate something he loved and was comforted by with the sound of their voices. The same applies with a deployed spouse, especially now that he is old enough to work it by himself. He “reads” it almost every single night while he lays in bed.
- Continuing with the normal routine: My kid likes to know what’s going to happen next so I wanted to make sure that he didn’t feel like life was turned upside down when Daddy left. Despite being tempted to stay in bed all day and let him eat ice cream for dinner, I stuck with our usual routine.
- Expect some emotional turmoil: I can only speak to my experience but my kiddo’s emotions simmer. It’s typically after about 3 weeks of separation that the emotional impact of my husband not being there will start to show. He gets a little moody and emotional – swinging from super clingy to not wanting anything to with me. There will be SOME KIND of behavior impact, so now that you will need to find depths of patience you didn’t know you had.
- Put on your mask first: As much as I hate trite, overused sayings, the traditional analogy of taking care of yourself is an unavoidably accurate one. You will need time to recharge and refresh. Know what works for you and make it a priority.
- Keep your soldier part of the conversation: My husband struggles a bit with feeling like he is the “side car” when it comes to parenting. I have to be proactive in asking for and considering his opinion and letting him know that it helps.
- Ask for help: Need 10 minutes? Dealing with a behavior that has you stumped? Ask. Ask loudly, frequently, and be willing to listen to the answers. The military community is brimming with wonderfully experienced spouses who can walk you through what worked and didn’t work for them – a veritable library of resources and ideas perfectly tailored to your specific challenges. USE IT!
Speaking of that library – tell me about your deployment parenting challenges and wins?