My mailbox is jammed with back-to-school catalogs and it got me thinking about one of my Army families. Dad is deploying soon after the school year starts. Last time his son was an infant. Now the boy is starting preschool and they also have a two-year-old girl. Along with backpacks and crayons, I wondered what was on their to-do list as they prepped the kids for the year ahead?
I found many sites with long articles and early childhood development-type strategies that sounded smart. But I kinda just wanted to know, mom-to-mom, what the deal was. So I called the wife and asked. Elle* was kind enough answer a few questions and share a few tips (*all names changed for privacy.)
ME: Last time, you were a new mom, your son was a newborn and your husband John missed the first year. Is it harder this time or easier?
ELLE: It’s harder now. Last time, Jake was a baby. John missed milestones. Now he’ll be missing Jake expressing his imagination and the person he’s becoming.
ME: What’s the most important thing you want to do right now?
ELLE: I want to make sure both kids have the best relationship possible and make great memories with John. The impression John leaves now is what they’ll have left to hold onto and that I’ll reinforce. So I’ve been doing a lot more of the disciplining. Being more of the “bad guy” and letting John be the “good guy.”
ME: What’s one of the harder parts?
ELLE: You don’t want to scare the kids but, other kids talk. They hear the news. You can’t control what your kids will hear. And bedtime. That’s when they miss John most. During the day, they’re busy and he’s usually at work so, they don’t expect to see him then.
ME: What’s a wish-for? What one thing could a civilian do to be supportive at this time?
ELLE: I think it would be nice to be invited to things without the invitation being all about John’s absence. So it feels normal and not overly dramatic. So we just feel included. It is a big deal for us that he’s gone, but I want to give my kids as much normal as possible. Dad’s just at work. Dad will be back.
A big thing is maintaining a routine (good for all kids!) You also want them to feel connected to the deployed parent and help them visualize the passage of time. Below are some tips from Elle. I also spoke to an Air Force wife, Christina, who has a teenaged daughter. Of course, these tips work whether it’s daddy or mommy that’s deployed.
–Take one of Daddy’s shirts, sew the arms and bottom closed, then stuff it with batting and sew the neck closed so kids can snuggle with it. They also make plush daddy dolls that have a picture of the soldier.
–Help them keep a journal each night of the exciting things they did that day so they can remember and tell Daddy.
–Start a deployment chain where you either make the paper chain and take one link off each day as a count down. Or add a link for each day they’re gone. Or put a penny in a jar for each day, then use that money to buy Daddy something or go shopping with Daddy. Or you add jelly beans to a jar for each day.
~Make a Daddy Map. We put up a world map and then added tacks for where we were and where Daddy was. Then we used yarn to attach each point. Every stop he made along the way to Afghanistan, we added another tack and more yarn. So we were always connected. We only took off yarn with each stop on his way home.
–Record Daddy reading bedtimes stories. Skype whenever you can.
–Let my daughter “take care”of something that belonged to Daddy. Always just something small, but she was in charge of it and got to give it back to him.
–Let your child make a life-sized drawing of themselves and then mail it to their deployed parent.
–Take lots of fun picture of them together, laminate them and let the kids play with them.
-There are some awesome ideas on Pinterest too.
Every child is different
Even if you make awesome routines, follow tips and do everything, “right,” every child is different. I knew one boy that was having a hard time so I called in the FDNY to give me a hand. I’m hoping Elle and John’s kids do well. But I will keep them in mind and from time to time I’ll consult my Child Expert; my 8-year-old daughter Sofia. She’s full of great ideas on how to make someone smile in any situation.
© Gina left the mall, 2013