Hands down, parenting is one of the most difficult, yet rewarding, jobs going these days. Add in mom, dad — or both — serving our country in the Armed Forces and, suddenly, it gets tougher.
My husband and I know this well. A Captain with the United States Air Force, he recently retired after serving for 22 years. During that time, we moved six times between five different states. I was often asked by new neighbors and co-workers, “How can you move so much?” and “Isn’t that hard on the kids?” I imagine they also quietly wondered if our lifestyle was a strain on our marriage. The answers aren’t cut and dry, and everyone’s experience is different. But I can tell you that service members, along with their spouses, know what they signed up for when they entered the service. I would say it takes devotion, perseverance, and some grit — qualities everyone possesses, but not everyone has the necessity to use.
Co-Parenting and Staying Connected
“Hey, peanut butter, Daddy loves you and misses you, see you soon!” This is a relic from my past that still sing-songs through my head at the oddest times, even five years later. It is a recording of my husband talking to our then 21-month-old son.
With three children between the ages of 1 and 8, my husband deployed to Bagdad, Iraq, for six months. He left just days before the first day of school, missing the big to-do, along with many other notable events that took place over the next six months.
To help our kids cope with his absence, we took them to one of those make-your-own stuffed animal stores prior to his departure. He recorded a special message for each child, which was placed in the stuffed toy of their choice. My boys loved those toys and still have them today. My husband also recorded himself on video reading “Yertle the Turtle” by Dr. Seuss, for my then 4-year-old. My son is now 9, and to my surprise, just the other day asked if he could watch it. It meant a lot to him then, and I suspect it still holds a special place in his heart today.
When my husband deployed in 2009, Skype existed and email was much more prevalent than in years past. He emailed daily, which allowed us to exchange thoughts and ideas about our children, their behavior, and their day-to-day successes and challenges at school. Technology made his absence easier on all of us, and I did not feel completely alone in my role as parent. Because of Skype my husband was a real, tangible, almost in-the-flesh parent for our boys because they could actually see and hear their Dad talking to them. We even Skyped during our 2-year-old son’s birthday party so he could be “present” for that milestone.
“When Brian came home, thanks to all the pictures and calls Josh knew who his daddy was,” says Gina Willette of South Hadley. Willette is the wife of United States Army Staff Sargent Brian Willette, who retired in 2012 after 22 years of service. SSgt. Willette spent the better part of 2010 deployed to Afghanistan for 12 months. At the time of his deployment, their oldest son was only 6 months old. The Willettes used Facebook and phone calls to stay connected while Brian was in Afghanistan.
“Facebook really helped,” she says. “I could keep Brian involved in what was going on in our lives. He got to see a ton of pictures and videos of our son. Brian also purchased an Afghanistan cell phone. He could check in almost daily.”
When Brian returned home from his deployment, their frequent communication not only helped the Willettes maintain a strong connection during Brian’s deployment, but it also helped make the transition back to a two-parent household easier.
“I remember getting mad at Brian when he returned because he didn’t know where Josh’s sippy cups were, because they were where they had always been,” Gina recalls. “But I had forgot that he had been gone for so long, he didn’t know! But it almost felt like, because our communication was so strong and so frequent, that it was like he had been here all along.”
Unfortunately this is not everyone’s experience. Stacylee Aylward is mom to three boys in Southington, Conn. In 2011 her husband retired as a Chief with the United States Navy after 20 years of service, much of which he spent assigned to a fast attack submarine. She says she lost track of how many times her husband deployed because they were so frequent and with no set schedule.
“Parenting the boys during that time was my job alone,” she says. “I tried really hard to keep things consistent for the boys. It was matter of fact that he had to be gone and I was not going to let the boys think that I couldn’t handle it.”
Aylward’s husband not only deployed frequently, but a lack of communication also made co-parenting difficult at best.
“During the earlier deployments there was little-to-no contact while he was out to sea,” she notes. “I was able to send him ‘family grams,’ which consisted of 50 words and were read by administration before delivery to the sailor — so [they were] definitely not a means to communicate about anything important.”
Family grams were also only a one-way means of communication. They could be sent to the sub, the sailors could not reply.
“The first deployment I spent a lot of time wondering, worried, and at times mad that I had to do everything alone,” she says. “After that I just enjoyed the time he was home and kept busy when he wasn’t.”
Aylward explained the transition back to a two-parent household after many deployments has been challenging for her family, and it is something she and her spouse continue to work on today.
It Does Take a Village
Ask any service member with kids and they will tell you that they cannot do what they do without support. All humans need to feel supported, and a military parent feels that need tenfold at times, especially during deployments. Family, friends, neighbors, teachers, and whole communities contribute to the success of a military family. We simply cannot do it without support.
Willette says she was able to lean on her family during her husband’s 12-month deployment, as they all lived nearby her home in South Hadley.
“It was hard. I was living as a single, married mom,” she says. “My family was a huge support. They helped me with my son and with the emotional support of having a husband deployed.”
I, too, needed someone to lean on during my husband’s six-month deployment to Iraq. While stationed in Oklahoma, my husband and I were nowhere near anyone who could even pass as a second cousin, let alone parents or siblings.
At 2 a.m. one night three months into his deployment I had one child vomiting and another crying inconsolably. Without thinking, I called my neighbor. I was sleep deprived and feeling desperate. Without hesitation and with no questions asked, she walked over to my house in the cold night air, bleary-eyed with sleep, to comfort and hold my sick child for me so that I could put the other one back to bed and then scrub the vomit out of my carpet. At that moment I was overwhelmed with love for her, even though we were just “neighbors” still getting to know each other. At moments like that, you really just need another adult present, so you know you’re not alone.
I had more than one occasion like this while my husband was in Iraq and, every time, different people in my neighborhood stepped up and filled that void as best they could to get me through that moment. My village in Oklahoma helped me stay strong and wear a smile for my kids while their dad was away, despite the challenges I faced, and I will always feel great affection for them because of this. I will forever be thankful for non-military families who help our service members and their families in ways great and small. Know that these small acts of kindness do not go unnoticed and often touch us deeply.
Personally, I didn’t mind moving to a new location. I always saw it as a new adventure for our family, and that is how I pitched it to our kids when the time came around every three years. I knew that if I was excited about our impending move, they would be, too. “Just think, we’re going to live right next to the beach in Florida!” I said to them the last time. “How exciting is that?” Children can be very adaptive and resilient, if we as parents allow them to be. In all our moves I only saw one of my four children struggle with a new place, and that was when we moved to a non-military community where most kids had known each other since kindergarten. At 10 years old, he struggled to find his place with his peers, most of who already had an established circle of friends.
“Moving was not hard during our time with the Navy,” agrees Aylward, having relocated five times over 20 years. “Even though you’re new, acceptance was easier for my kids and there’s more support while you’re in the service. It’s harder when you retire and settle down and your whole life changes.”
After missing a sports registration deadline for her son by only two days during one move, Aylward began signing her boys up for summer sports before even getting to a new place, which had an unintended benefit. By doing so, her kids were able to meet peers from their community whom they would not have otherwise met during summer vacation. This made the transition to a new school a little easier for them when they saw a familiar face. She then continued this practice with each subsequent move.
Now that we are done traversing the country with the Air Force, I admittedly breathe a deep sigh of relief. It is comforting to know that the kids my children meet today will likely be the same ones with which they’ll navigate the difficulties of middle school and high school. They will have their own circle of friends in our community after years of Cub Scouts, Little League, recreational basketball and the like. I, too, am establishing connections — building a new village, you could say. I’m optimistic that these friends and neighbors of today will likely still be here years from now — and so will I.