Children and Separation
Military kids become accustomed to moving, starting new schools, and meeting new friends, yet saying goodbye to a parent leaving for an extended amount of time can be a most difficult challenge. During this period, it is normal for children to experience stress. Young children may not understand why Daddy or Mommy is leaving; it's crucial you sit down with your kids and explain why their parent is leaving, where he or she is going and for how long. Reassure them that the parent loves them very much and is leaving only because of work, not because of anything the children have done. Emphasize that your kids are not alone—there are others just like them whose parents have also been deployed.
Kids may experience changes in behavior with such an upheaval in the family—expect tantrums, acting out, and whining. Children may have sleep disturbances, eating and behavior troubles, or they may test the discipline boundaries of the parent remaining at home. Also alert your children's teachers or daycare providers of the separation. If troublesome behaviors continue or your child seems depressed, don't hesitate to seek outside help.
Remember, kids take cues from you on how to handle emotions. Be honest with your children about feelings of loneliness or sadness. They should also understand you will go on and have happy times while waiting for the reunion.
If possible, show your children where their parent will be living. You might post a map on the wall or use a globe to explain where the parent is. If you have a return date in mind, mark the time the parent will be gone. You can do this with a calendar, paper chain, or even eating one chocolate kiss from a pre-set number of treats in a jar—be creative and let your children be involved!
Coping Techniques for Wives
Wives of servicemen learn that the military is not just a job for the husband—it is a lifestyle that affects the entire family. Although you may not don a uniform, you are strongly affiliated with this special community and its culture: you may live on base, give birth in a military hospital, or shop in a commissary. Where you live and how much time you spend with your husband are dictated by his role in the service. Coming to terms with this and maintaining a positive attitude about your lifestyle will go a long way in preserving your sanity and your marriage.
Military wives shouldn't feel compelled to smile in the face of all obstacles. Long-term separation can be difficult for even the most seasoned military wife. A pre-deployment briefing may offer you information on the emotional cycles of deployment. Review these and remind yourself that mounting tension before a departure is normal, as are feelings of loss, shock, anger, frustration and eventual stabilization; yet if you meet the challenge head-on, you may surprise yourself with personal growth and learn you are a strong, self-sufficient woman.
Following are tips on making your "married but single" time a success:
- Stay connected: The military generally has a strong sense of community. In times of deployment, military families often become closer, sharing in their joys, heartaches and fears, offering help with babysitting, bringing meals when you're sick, or watching your pets when you leave town. Nobody can understand how you're feeling better than another wife like you. Don't be afraid to reach out to others, go to family support group meetings, join a wives organization, or find new friends on BabyZone's Armed Forces: Support for Military Parents, Families and Friends message board. You may also want to take a class that interests you or volunteer your time with the military, your church or temple, or a community organization. The key is not to isolate yourself.
- Establish a routine: This can be comforting for you and the children.
- Take care of yourself: Eat well, get some exercise, and do things you enjoy. Treat yourself to dinner and a movie with a friend (this is a good chance to see the movies your husband doesn't care for!). Take a trip if you can afford it—sometimes a change of scenery is good for the soul. Try a new hobby.
If you find your feelings of depression and loneliness aren't going away, seek help. Talk to a friend, spiritual leader, or physician. Many military installations have services available to help you through this period.
If you are pregnant and in need of assistance during birth, check out Operation Special Delivery, an organization providing free doula services to women who are preparing for and giving birth while their mates are deployed with the US military. Check with your military installation for other services available to pregnant women and parents of newborns.
Open Lines of Communication
The emotions that accompany separation vary from person to person, yet communication is the glue that holds the military family together. Spouses and children need to keep in contact with the service member. Help your kids find fun, inventive ways to stay in touch with their parent.
- Letters and care packages: Depending on where your loved one is, mail delivery can be slow and is often unreliable. Yet there's nothing a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine loves more than mail from home! Have children send drawings, cassette tapes with recorded messages or goodies they helped make or pick out. Daddy or Mommy can send letters, cassettes and photos, too. Items to send in care packages vary depending on where your spouse is stationed and based on the regulations of his command. Using the guidelines given to you, be creative! Moms of infants can help far-off dads learn about their little ones. Send plenty of pictures, cassettes or videos (if your loved one has access to a VCR) of baby's sounds, and lots of letters describing baby's development, likes and dislikes, habits and looks.
- Email: Some service members can send and receive email from specific military addresses. Don't allow email to completely replace your handwritten love notes, but enjoy being able to keep in close contact so easily! See if your spouse's command offers a website as well—some ships, for example, have sites for family members to look at pictures of the ships' daily, weekly or monthly activities.
- Phone Calls: While it is wonderful to hear your loved one's voice, overseas calls can be extremely costly. Keep a list of things you want to tell your spouse near the phone so you can make the most of your precious minutes.
Life as a spouse of a member of the armed forces brings its share of laughter and tears, and whether it's your first major separation or one of many, you'll get through it—and likely find yourself a stronger, more confident person when it's over. Be proud of your loved one and how he or she is serving our country, and be proud of yourself too—you are an amazing pillar of strength behind our military, offering your encouragement, support and love.
Thank you to all the military families—spouses, children, parents and siblings—for your quiet and unselfish gift to your nation.
Christine Beaudry is the wife of a former US Naval officer.