As a parent who serves in the military you have two very important obligations - to your country and to your children. While plenty of support is available to help you balance your two roles, it can be difficult to manage your feelings, particularly when deployment calls you away from home. However, there are steps you can take to make your separation easier for your children and to ease your mind while you're away.
Reacting to the news
Even if you know you're going to be deployed, receiving your orders can stir up a lot of emotions. You may:
- Question your decision to join the military. If this happens, remind yourself why you chose a military career. Those reasons are probably still valid today.
- Worry about your child's well-being. Remind yourself that children are very resilient and while separations aren't easy, children tend to do well when they have support from their parents and other adults in their lives.
- Be concerned about your own safety. It's natural to worry that you will be injured or that you won't return home from your deployment. However, if you find yourself distraught or unable to concentrate because of your concerns, talk with someone you trust - a friend, a counselor or your chaplain. Military OneSource can also help you manage these fears.
- Feel overwhelmed by the tasks ahead of you. Think about other challenges that you've managed in the past and take the same approach. Break big jobs into smaller, manageable ones and ask for help when you need it.
Preparing yourself and your child for your deployment
Having as much as possible in place for your family before you deploy can go a long way toward easing your mind. Of course there's only so much you can do if you receive little notice before you go. Do what you can and trust that your child's caregiver will be able to handle matters without you there.
- Talk with other parents who have deployed. Find out how they managed. Ask what worked for them and what they would do differently. Even though no two deployments are the same and everyone is different, we can all learn from one another.
- Talk with your child in an age-appropriate way about your deployment. Emphasize the positive aspects of your mission and your separation. Maybe your child will be cared for by beloved relatives or will get to live in a new place and make new friends.
- Let your child know who will assume your typical responsibilities. If you're the one who usually prepares the meals, drives your child to activities and helps your child with homework, let him or her know who will do these things in your absence.
- Talk about how you'll stay in touch. You and your child will feel better if you know that you'll still be in contact. Once you know how you'll be able to communicate, let your child know about the different ways you'll stay in touch. Be sure your child knows there may be times when he or she won't hear from you, and that it is normal.
- Help your child connect with other military children. If you don't live on or near an installation, your child may feel he or she is the only one with a deployed parent. Get involved with your unit's family readiness group and contact the military and family support center at the nearest installation or Joint Forces Headquarters state family programs to find out about programs for children.
- Spend time alone with your child. Do special things together or just hang out enjoying each other's company. Go to your favorite places or find new ones to explore. Play games, read together or ride bikes. What's important is to get a lot of one-on-one time with each other and build happy memories that will sustain both of you during your deployment.
- Make sure there's a support system in place for your child's caregiver. The adult caring for your child will have his or her hands full and shouldn't be expected to shoulder the responsibilities alone. This may mean enrolling your child in child care or after-school care. You may ask relatives to move in with your spouse to help with child care or arrange for someone to come in the mornings to help get your child off to school.
- Notify your child's school of your upcoming deployment. Let your child's teacher and school principal know you'll be gone so they can watch out for any signs that your child needs extra support. Let them know who to communicate with in your absence. Give your child's teacher your contact information so you can stay in the loop.
- Take a few days to settle your child into a new home if your child will be moving in with friends or relatives. Bring familiar items from your home, such as stuffed animals, a favorite blanket or a picture of you. If your child will be attending a new school or child care, visit together and help your child find his or her way around.
Dealing with your emotions
There are likely to be times when you miss your child terribly, and there may be times when you feel guilty because you realize you haven't thought about him or her at all that day. Here are some ways to deal with your emotions during your deployment:
- Keep busy. Many parents say they miss their children most when they have time to think about them. If this is the case with you, stay busy. When you're not working, go to the gym, read and find other ways to keep your mind occupied.
- Expect to feel sad on holidays and other important days. Mother's Day, Father's Day, birthdays, holidays, "firsts," such as your child's first word, first step or first day of school, and special events, such as recitals and sports games, can feel very lonely. You may be able to be part of your child's special day from afar, via a webcam or phone connection. If not, focus on how you'll celebrate when you get back.
- Set aside time each day to think of your child. Allow yourself a block of time to let your emotions flow. When that period of time is over, focus on other things.
- Stay in touch. But don't feel guilty if phone and video-cam calls are too painful and you need to take a break from them for a while. If this is the case, look for other ways to show your child you care. Letters, postcards and gifts are all ways to keep the connection strong without having the immediate contact of a phone call.
- Remind your child - and yourself - that your deployment is temporary. It can be hard to keep that in mind when you're missing each other. When you are within a few months of returning home, it might help to encourage your child to count down the days on a calendar or make a paper chain with links to tear off for each day until you're home.
- Seek out other parents. It can be very comforting to be with others who are going through the same thing.
Remember that your deployment is a temporary situation and that approached with thought, planning and the right attitude, being away can actually strengthen your relationship with your child and other family members.