This month the Early Intervention team brings you a unique interview with a mom who is also in the Air Force. We are grateful for her willingness to share her experiences and knowledge with us. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What were the ages of your children when you were deployed?
My daughters were 13 and 8.
What were some things you did to prepare yourself for being separated from your children prior to your deployment?
The local Airmen and Family Readiness Center supplied me with briefings prior to leaving that were supposed to help me emotionally and physically prepare to leave my children. I also asked a good friend of mine to help my husband out if the girls needed a “mom talk.” I had a few hardcopy pictures of the family and asked for a drawing from each child to take with me when I left. Emotionally, I do not believe I prepared myself to be separated, mostly because it did not seem real until I was already on the plane.
What were some things you did to prepare your children for your deployment?
Before each deployment, my husband and I would sit them down, and talk about the possible locations I could go to and the importance of going. We would go on a mini-vacation and spend some quality time with them.
The last time I deployed I remember telling my children that this was something I had wanted to do and that hopefully it shows them that they too can do what they want and be a wife and mom. I now believe I was saying that so I would not feel guilty about going.
Please describe the conversations you had with your spouse prior to your deployment in regards to supporting him and your children.
My husband is very independent and the children were older so there was not too much support that they needed. However, we set goals of what we would like to accomplish during the separation and a family vacation we would take when I returned. The support that I believed he needed, was a female to help out with “female” type questions that could have come up if I was not readily available to answer them.
Also, while I was deployed, my husband took over the schoolwork tracking and the girls would only give me updates and good news. My husband and I decided that since I was deployed in a unstable environment, arguments over homework or not doing what they were supposed to do was not conducive to me keeping my head clear for my job. Additionally, if something was to happen to me, my daughters did not need me lecturing them to be their last conversation. My children had enough on their plate at home, they did not need me telling them to do more. However, I would still sneak a peek at their grades online, at least my older child’s grades.
What were some of your main fears and/or concerns regarding your children’s well being when you were deployed?
My oldest daughter had not started her menstrual cycle when I was preparing to leave; I was concerned that she was going to become a “woman” while I was gone and how that would affect her. Another fear I had was that they would not need me anymore (as if they were good with me not being in their lives on a daily basis).
What were some ways you were able to stay connected with your children when you were deployed?
We Skyped every day I could, and when we did not Skype I would send them emails. Once I got into my routine while deployed, I would work, go to the gym, and then Skype with the family before taking a shower and going to bed. Even with the many schedule changes I still maintained that routine, and my family adjusted their schedule to talk as well. I also sent them postcards and bought gifts online for them (such as flowers for Valentine’s day).
Please describe your transition back home. Did you do anything to prepare yourself and/or your children? Were there any challenges?
You can do all the preparation in the world to transition into your “life,” but you will be filled with too many disappointments if you do. From my experience, it was best for me to take each moment one step at a time, with a few “rules” to follow such as:
My husband and I had realized through other deployments that he would remain the “authority figure” with the children, and the children were told not to ask me for anything. My patience with my children was always low when I came home; I could not handle listening to their “petty” bickering. Also, any decision I made with the children seemed to undermine and undo my husband’s parenting. Because you want to be the “hero” in your children’s eyes, you tend to say “yes” to everything.
The children were given tasks when I got home to help me integrate back into the family, such as showing my around the house, helping me unpack, and doing laundry with me. They knew not to ask me for anything and not to ask to go anywhere.
I am not sure how it was for other moms who deployed, but for me when I was deployed I did not think of myself as a mom. I could not do that because to me I had to be emotionless. I could not let my emotions cloud my judgment when other peoples’ lives depended on it. While deployed I saw myself as a leader whose job was to ensure that lower ranking troops were taken care of and that the mission was executed. I had promised long before my girls were born that I was willing to give my life in defense of my country. When you are deployed you understand what that means and it becomes more of a possibility. When I was on Skype with the girls I was mom but it was not the same because I did not have to deal with the day-to-day issues.
To go from a high-stress environment where you have to be emotionless to becoming a mom again was a hard transition. When you are deployed you are only thinking about the mission and your current surroundings, there is no complaining of who is going to wash the dishes or take out the trash. Coming back to your children and reconnecting the emotions we all are feeling is not as easy as it seems. You love your children, but their rush of hugs, kisses, happiness, sadness, anger, etc. is way too much to emotionally comprehend all at once. I learned that there is a process to handling the emotions that I did not deal with while deployed, accepting that my experiences had changed me in some ways. In addition to overcoming the extreme guilt that life was still moving forward while I was gone, there also were a lot of new emotions that my family had gone through that were foreign to me.
Through multiple deployments we realized how important it was to find and keep a routine while separated, which minimized challenges because the children knew what my routine was and I knew theirs. Without that routine, I am sure there would have been more challenges. My husband was able to adjust at home so we could communicate, there were no missed calls, and there was some predictability in the situation we were in.
Please share a positive experience you had with your children when you returned home from your last deployment.
The last time I came home, we had decided to escape to Great Wolf Lodge. My husband and I decided to surprise the girls with this and picked them up from school telling the girls that we had to go to family therapy. When we pulled up to the lodge (only 15 minutes from our house) they were highly confused about this “family therapy” we were talking about. Since school was in session, we had the place almost to ourselves. We had a great time reconnecting as a family with no pressures from school, work, or taking care of the house.
This post was edited by Robyn DiPietro-Wells & Michaelene Ostrosky, PhD, members of the OneOp FD Early Intervention team, which aims to support the development of professionals working with military families. Find out more about OneOp FD concentration on our website, on Facebook, on Twitter, and YouTube.