A Tale of Three Deployments and their Deployment Challenges
By Charlene Wilde
Any military spouse will tell you that each deployment is unique and brings new deployment challenges. Just when you think you’ve mastered the art of keeping things tied down on the home front, changes in your life, both within your own family and in the world around you, can turn everything on its head. No matter how practiced you become at tackling childcare, work and household responsibilities, deployments are always going to be emotionally challenging. While no two deployments are the same, I wanted to share some stories and lessons learned from three unique deployments my family and I went through at different stages of our life.
Deployment Challenges during the overwhelming Early Days
The first deployment that my husband and I went through as a married couple occurred when we were newlyweds and brand-new parents. My son was six weeks old when my husband deployed for nine months. At the time, I was still in the Army myself. As a servicewoman who also comes from a military family, the concept of deployment was not new to me in the slightest. However, this was my first time playing the role of military spouse and mother during a deployment, a task which ended up being far more daunting than I anticipated.
Rather than make too many lifestyle changes during this first deployment, I tried to jump back into the same routine as before my son was born. This meant returning from my (very brief) maternity leave to continue my own career with the Army and making use of childcare resources. Unsurprisingly, this set up didn’t last for long! Juggling work, home responsibilities and an infant can really take a toll, particularly when your spouse is overseas. My desire to be a good mom and bond with my son very quickly began to outweigh my career aspirations.
It was at this time that I decided to leave the Army and be a full-time mom. I felt like I needed a hard reset on my new role as a partner and mother, so I ultimately decided to take my son and stay with my parents for a while. I realized that it’s okay to fall back on others to help get through challenging times. My family was a great support system, but I also discovered on-base resources and opportunities to mingle with other like-minded spouses, which came in handy as time went on.
Deployment Challenges of Communication, Rules and Routine
Looking back on that first deployment as a spouse, I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to drop pretty much everything, visit my parents for a while and spend time sorting out our next steps. With one infant, it’s easier to uproot your life temporarily. Once kids reach a certain age, this becomes almost impossible to do, no matter how challenging a deployment may get. Fast-forward to the next deployment: my husband was gone for 15 months and I was now a full-time stay-at-home mom with two sons starting kindergarten and preschool. They both somewhat understood what was going on, so communication was key. This meant explaining where their father was going and for how long as well as giving some high-level, kid-friendly, descriptions of the work he’d be doing and its importance. It was also helpful to stress upfront what was going to change and/or stay the same at home, to avoid any surprises.
Once things were underway, we found that routine was crucial, particularly during these formative years of childhood. What really helped us was trying to stick to our prearranged schedule as much as possible. This wasn’t always easy, but it was worth it! For us, this meant Friday night pizza and movies and afternoon outings to the park or local attractions once a week. This was the first longer deployment we went through where the kids required more hands-on help and were aware of the situation so naturally, I was proud of myself for finding my footing. On the flip side, this created new challenges when my husband returned.
We found that we had both changed a lot during the deployment. He had to readjust to family life and the new routines we had fallen into while I had to get back into the habit of sharing responsibilities and consulting him on day-to-day decisions, even ones that seemed trivial to me. Ultimately, we decided to take advantage of the post-deployment counseling available to us. It was hard to get over personal and societal stigmas associated with these services, but I have no regrets and am thankful to this day that we took the time to work through those challenges.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Today, my sons are both (somehow!) teenagers, I’m back to working full-time and my husband is nearing the end of his military career. However, he’s still faced with deployments and long periods of travel. At this stage of our lives, my sons and I are very set in a routine when he’s away. Even though the boys are more independent and don’t always love the idea of hanging out with Mom, we’ve found that it’s even more important to have traditions and expectations that we uphold. It starts before my husband leaves; we sit together to go over his schedule and our expectations for how things will be handled at home during his travels before each trip. By now, my sons understand the importance of the “rules” when Dad is away, even if these rules result in extra chores or scheduled family time, which is more of a treat for me than for them!
Our new routine incorporates old and new elements. We still do Friday night pizza whenever we can, but we also go out to dinner one night a week and the boys take turns choosing the restaurant (within reason!). For the most part, they enjoy being able to take on more responsibilities around the house, especially if it means keeping Mom from getting too tired or stressed out! The boys and I strive to talk more openly about what’s going on in each other’s lives, which makes the whole family stronger at the end of the deployment.
It’s no secret that it’s nearly impossible to achieve a perfect balance between work, family, household responsibilities and (hopefully!) some self-care during deployment. However, for all military families, the health and wellbeing of each member of the family always comes first, and rightfully so. It’s common for other activities or tasks that you used to consider priorities to fade to the background as you focus on getting everyone through each day, so don’t beat yourself up too much when this happens. The biggest lesson I’ve learned through these three deployments (and countless others) is to rely on routines but also to remain flexible and open to new traditions as your family’s needs change and mature. Lastly, don’t forget that the military offers spouse and family resources for a reason, don’t be afraid to seek them out!