When my husband, a Navy helicopter pilot, told me that he was going to spend 15 months in and out for weeks at a time doing work-ups, followed by a 7 to 10 month deployment, I laughed out loud. Surely he was joking. We had a 2- and 3-year-old at the time and I had no idea how I was going to make military deployment parenting work.
He made it home and, miraculously, we all made it through. But, over the course of those days (and days, and days and more days), I learned five valuable lessons about military parenting solo while he was gone:
1. They can smell fear
Kids are like sharks. They know your mood before you do. God help us when our flight home was cancelled two days before Christmas. Thankfully, there was another mom just ahead of us in the two-hour customer service line. She treated it like an adventure and although I know she was surely suffering from the same murderous my-flight-was-just-cancelled rage as I, her kids barely noticed. They’d ask how much longer and with a laugh she’d say, “Twenty more days, can you imagine? Where will we sleep?” Her laissez-faire attitude brought a sense of calm and humor. Once I was able to channel my inner-zen, I noticed my little ones found theirs too. I think this lesson could also be called “fake it ‘til you make it, military deployment parenting style.”
2. Embrace the suck
We know you’ve heard the saying in the military community that you have to “embrace the suck.” Wherever you go, whatever you do, you have to make the best of the situation. Another one of our favorites: Murphy’s Deployment Law, in that everything that could break once your spouse leaves, will. Only days after my husband deployed, our car broke down 200 miles from home. We embraced the suck, made it into a fun vacation, and used it as a teachable moment about tow trucks. Good times. When the dishwasher broke, I called a repairman for a quote. Rather than pay the $300, I ordered the part online for $16 and watched a YouTube video to replace it. I told the kids about the different tools I was using (full disclosure: I had to Google several of them). Solo parenting is what you make it. We made it a lot of movie nights, snuggling and telling stories. And at the end of the day, I reminded myself that my husband would give anything to switch places with me.
3. Outsource where you can
Being a solo parent, whether you’re working or staying at home, is exhausting. You do not get a break. Ever. Even the simplest things like returning a phone call can feel monumental because it adds one more thing to your never-ending to-do list. So when one brilliant spouse suggested using paper plates for dinner, I immediately adopted it. Coming downstairs after bedtime to minimal clean-up was beautiful and key to keeping my sanity during military deployment parenting.
4. Just say YES
People will offer to help you with military parenting. It took me a long time to realize that for the most part, when people offer assistance, they actually mean it. They want to help. So when a neighbor would offer to bring dinner, my answer would always be “Yes, thank you.” When someone else offered to drive carpool? “Yes, thank you.” Accepting help (and finding a way to pay it back or forward) isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of maturity and a sign of strength. If someone offers to help, let them. They may be military parents, too — they know the struggle is real.
5. Take care of YOU
Somewhere in the midst of packing lunches and care packages, meeting deadlines and making teacher conferences, the only thing I wasn’t doing was taking care of myself. When I went to get a much-needed haircut, my stylist gave me a hug and told me she could tell I wasn’t taking care of myself; my hair was literally falling out. Long on exhaustion and short on temper, I realized that I’m a much better human being and mother with a little self-care. Skip the guilt trip and book a massage. Schedule time to hit the gym. Get a babysitter and go out with the girls or the guys. The happier I was with myself, the more that positively impacted the rest of my life. (Bonus tip: here’s a discount for Care.com!)
It’s tempting to take everything on yourself when you’re solo military deployment parenting, but you can only do so much. Ask for and accept help, take care of yourself, keep a positive attitude, and outsource when you can. It makes embracing the suck so much easier.