When I was newly married and my husband was exploring career options, he asked what I thought about him entering the military. You see, he grew up an Air force “brat” and that seemed a natural career path for him.
I, on the other hand, grew up with a university professor dad providing the most stable childhood you could possibly imagine. I was raised in the same home in the same town. So naturally, I answered my husband with, “No way. Not on your life!”
Although I eschewed anything military for a personal family lifestyle, I support the military 100%. It’s just that as a social researcher and family scientist, I have studied the disequilibrium that upsets the balance of family life when one or more parent is serving full time in the military. Normal family life and parenting is hard enough without throwing in extended duty, deployment, and stressors of life-and-death job assignments.
As fate would have it, my oldest son decided (on his own) and announced out of the blue that he was going to follow his uncle and grandfather’s honorable careers and enter the Air Force. He’s on his 4th year of service and I’m super proud of him even as I hold my breath and say a little prayer each day.
My in-laws volunteered for one year after retirement as special military relations chaplains at Ft. Stewart and did a LOT of marriage and parental counseling. This family type special challenges that I’d like to address through these tips to help keep the “balance” of normal family processes.
(I’d like to credit the source, but I don’t remember where I read this originally)
- Establish and continue family routines. Children in any family situation thrive on routine. They feel secure with predictability (don’t we all!). Routines and schedules are special anchors in a child’s life who is feeling a few storms like separation from a parent due to death, divorce or military service. Bedtime routines, frequent mealtimes, chores and playing together give a child reassurance. No matter what else is happening, he can count on other certainties in life. Can you write down your daily and weekly routines? If not, begin today.
- Keep open communication. The military has improved dramatically in providing a family-friendly venues for communication. No doubt technology is the vehicle for keeping families talking. Real-time conversations are real life savers. Some children may find these awkward and distant, but it is certainly a way for couples to continue talking over significant parenting issues. If a child prefers phone calls, emails or letters in the mail, do what works for him. Write individual messages or letters, not a general one to the family.
Additionally, keep listening and talking with your child over their feelings and thoughts. Acknowledge fears and uncertainties and validate them. “I don’t like that mommy is away for so long either. Sometimes I am sad and feel lonely.” These words let a child know he is not alone and should not be ashamed of his feelings.
- Provide a security blanket. When a parent is absent, the child feels ambiguous loss, meaning that the parent is gone but not permanently. It is a different kind of grieving and loss than felt through a death. In lieu of a parent’s physical presence, the child can feel a connection through a physical object, or “security blanket.” Preferably, the child will want something that once belonged to the absentee parent, such as a hat or shirt or some other significant belonging.
Tangibles are powerful. A TV commercial picked up this theme when a child gave her father a teddy bear and he took pictures of the bear in different locations on his business trip. He sent them to her via a phone. This is a great idea for a military parent! Sending postcards are also tangibles…something I hold that you once held.
- Share responsibility (but not too much). When one parent is gone, help fill the void by everyone stepping up to the plate. Discuss as a family who will do what now that dad or mom is gone for a while. By filling in, the child can feel like she is walking in her parent’s shoes. As a child takes out the trash, she thinks, “This is what dad does when he’s here, but I’m helping him now” which helps her feel connected through a shared activity.
Doing a little more is a personal sacrifice that unifies the family. It empowers a child to know she makes significant contributions to family life. However, don’t pile on too many chores or the child might resent her parent’s absence. And don’t give a child a harder job than she is able to do.
- Stop parentification. Another way we can pile on too much is emotionally dumping on our children. “Parentification” is an unhealthy overreliance on a child to meet your emotional needs. When you are alone and lonely, it’s easy to turn to a family member to sympathize. We have a natural need to vent and share our feelings. Just don’t choose a child! They are not equipped to handle the emotional baggage nor is it appropriate for you to put them in the role of therapist, parent or adult.
- Find other military families. for support–kids can relate. I was delighted to hear about a group of military wives who organized a choir (put a link here).
- Use other support systems. Living in the military system is tough because it often stations you away from friends and family. No matter where you live, you can find a new “family.” There are organizations nationwide that offer great support for all families. Look them up and join whatever fits your family life. Boys and Girls Scout program are excellent for children and give the child other adult role models; organized religion can also be a great social community and spiritual strength. My mother-in-law chose to move to live with her parents for the year her husband was on tour in Vietnam. That stability of extended family was an enormous help to her.
- Be on the same parenting page. Let’s face it: the military is a dictatorship. The sergeant says jump and you say how high. The leadership style is not one conducive to parenting or a marriage. You are not the Sergeant of your home and the kids are not your Privates. Children shouldn’t salute or “hup two” when their parent give an order. But too often, a parent who is immersed in authoritarianism 24/7 will return home with that in-your-face approach. Yelling and punitive measures might work in boot camp, but not at home.
So leave behind your soldier stance and bring home the nurturing, compassionate mom or dad. Work on learning new strategies that consider the needs and sensitivities of a child. Both parents should learn the best parenting style, a balanced approach of love, boundaries and self discipline.
- Restore the military parent at home. My mother-in-law’s observations from many years living among military families as well as her work at Ft. Stewart: the coming back is harder than the leaving. The wife has assumed so much responsibility (or husband, if that’s the case) in his absence and has become pretty darned good at it! Once he returns, it’s difficult to give that back. It’s crucial that the wife steps back and let her husband return to his role. If she took over the finances, let him assume that again. He needs to feel important rather than marginalized. It she edges him out because she has been so competent, he will likely opt out of family life, not being the husband and father he needs to be.
- Take care of yourself. Don’t allow yourself to be miserable. It’s hard, yes. Harder than most people appreciate and harder than you probably imagined when you signed up for this family arrangement. The trouble with dwelling on the bad parts of separation is it gets you into far worse places. Those who stay home feeling sorry for themselves often turn to the computer to complain and vent their frustrations. They will find virtual friends who can easily turn into online romantic partners. Run. Away. Fast. This can lead to the ruin of your family. Remember the commitment you made to one another and the children who deserve the loving parents who brought them into this union.
When those feel-sorry-for-yourself imps whisper in your ear, brush them aside and get up and get going. Get out and find some interests. Nurture healthy friendships, and military wives have a great sisterhood to share. They will save your sanity! Your husband is doing highly stimulating professional work: physically, emotionally, socially and intellectually. What are you doing to advance yourself in these areas so he returns to an equal partner?