My sisters and I were all born in different states and hospitals while my father was in the navy. I had the distinct honor of being born at the Bethesda Naval Hospital, just outside of Washington D.C. As young children in the 70s and 80s, his service did not extend overseas, but we did move often domestically. By the middle of 2nd grade I had already been in four different schools.
I got REALLY good at the “fake it ‘til you make it” torture of being the new kid.
It is humbling to think about the thousands of families who are not only struggling with the day-to-day challenges of parenting, but also the added layers and burden of having a partner gone (and an uncertainty of return); plus being uprooted and transferred every few years. I am in awe.
Recently, I had a conversation with a new mom whose husband is active in the military. They have a 17 month old and she was sharing how hard it is to maintain the “memory” of his dad when their child is so young. She also shared that when her partner came home, their little one seemed confused and more emotional. We talked through some strategies:
1. Stick to the routine
When your partner is overseas, make sure to stick to a consistent, predictable routine around mornings, naps, and bedtime. When your partner comes home, it can be tempting to have a “special” occasion to keep your little one up late or skip a nap to have more time together but this can be confusing for children, leading to more melt downs and greater emotional swings. Focus on quality, connected time.
2. Bridge the gap
It is also tempting to have your partner jump completely in, but this can also be jarring for children. In the beginning, share the routine duties together so your little one does not associate a complete separation from you.
3. Daily doses
Have special time each day as part of your routine to “remember” their parent while they are away. Keep a bulletin board with pictures and notes from the parent. Then together, you can draw a picture together for the parent to send, write a letter, or look at photo albums or pictures on the phone. If Skype is an option this is even better! Share many stories. Little ones love knowing details about you so include fun facts. “Mom’s favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip.” Or “Daddy has two brothers, your uncles, and when they were little they loved to catch lightning bugs in jars.”
4. Bedtime story and song
Pick a favorite bedtime book and the next time your partner is home, record them on video reading the book. Every night, play the video while you and your little ones read along. You can also record a bedtime song so the parent can “sing” each night too.
The challenges of moving also offer opportunities for children to learn executive functioning skills: organizing and categorizing as you pack and unpack, and decision making as they help and are given control and choices with new rooms. Children feel empowered when they feel capable and you need help! Let them be active members with family work (chores) and pitching in.
Community is critical for any family, especially those who include active duty and deployed soldiers. It can feel isolating when your partner is gone. Be sure to reach out for support groups and even babysitting co-ops so you get time for self care.
I am filled with gratitude for the brave Americans who are in service for our country, and for their partners who are at home with a tougher job than most. The selflessness is sobering. This is just the beginning of the conversation; I would love to hear from those who are living it.
What are your tips and challenges?