NYT Motherlode

Dear Santa, Please Bring Daddy

An installment in the New York Times Motherlode Deployment Diary

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Standing on top of the 10-foot ladder, just higher than the “do not go above this step” label, I said a silent prayer that I wouldn’t fall and break my neck during nap time.

As I am only 5-foot-6, rebelling against the caution and using those extra rungs was necessary to hang the pre-lit garland above the outside windows. After climbing, putting in a nail, climbing back down, moving the ladder two feet and repeating these steps several times, I was finally at a point where I could actually start hanging the boughs of holly.

I climbed again, this time with my 14 feet of decorations draped around my shoulders like a fur stole. As I separated the wires in order to position them on the nails I’d just finished hammering, my concentration was interrupted by a package delivery driver. Going to the mall with two toddlers sounds about as fun as, well, going to the mall with two toddlers, so I’ve done most of my purchasing for Christmas online this year.

The delivery man cautiously approached, and after watching me rest a foot on the windowsill for balance as I stretched to get the red bows “just right,” softly asked, care and concern in his voice, “Are you stable?”

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Deployment Work-Ups: ‘This Is So Stupid Hard’

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

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And just like that, he’s gone, again.

We had him for eight days straight, long enough to get a Christmas tree, to make lasting memories, to get into a routine. I can’t remember a time I laughed harder than watching him climb through the window of our S.U.V., after accidentally rendering the doors inoperable by tying twine on the inside handles to secure our 10-foot pine on top. My heart warmed as I watched him enchant our daughter with stories of his favorite Christmases, before hoisting her up on his shoulders to place the star at the top of the tree. As I passed by our son’s room during bedtime, I paused to listen to their conversation about excavators and cement trucks. I stood in the hallway, beaming, knowing I married a good man and a wonderful father, and simultaneously wishing these eight days wouldn’t end.

The time between work-ups and the number of days that he’s gone vary with each mission, and until just recently, the mood while he’s home would too. There is a steep learning curve when it comes to reintegrating every few weeks and for generally only days at a time. Occasionally, the hellos can be almost as daunting as the goodbyes, as the break in routine is challenging.

I cast a vulnerable line at the command Christmas party last week, when talking to a few of the other wives (all of whom I’d just met) about the aggressive schedule. “This has been really difficult on all of us,” I confided. A collective, audible sigh of empathy from the hushed circle. “This is so stupid hard,” one agreed. Another said, with a laugh, “I told him I’m moving back in with my parents until this is all over.”

All relationships, especially marriages, take work, and military couples are certainly not exempt. We’ve often thought that so long as this lifestyle doesn’t break you, your bond with your spouse will be indestructible. Our motto when we moved as newlyweds to Guam was, “You and me against the world, kid.” While I would put our marriage up against the best of them, we are far from flawless. The time before last that he was home, the flaws, and the claws, came out.

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Counting the Days: ‘It’s Too Many Whales, Daddy’

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

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If you’ve ever spent a day with a toddler, you know a great majority of your time is spent fielding questions. From the inquisitive (“Why is water wet?”), to the untimely and mortifying (“Is there a baby in her belly?”), to the disgusting (“Mommy mad I just ate worm?”), their questions are equal parts incessant, unfiltered and amazing.

Since my husband began the shorter departures (called work-ups) that precede his longer deployment, the questions from my two children have started to get harder to answer, both literally and in their emotional complexity. From “When will Daddy come home?” to “Mommy, will you please come back after work?”, their thoughtful contemplation often transports me to the brink of tears, and I find myself looking over my shoulder, as if expecting magical backup to appear where I know there is none.

For a 2-year-old and a 3-year-old, “He’s gone for 17 sleeps, and then back for four, but then leaves again for eight” is just too much for them to process. Our daughter whispers to her “Daddy’s Girl” locket that she wears while he is away; our son clutches his “Daddy Doll” in his sleep, as if the screen print of his father in his flight suit will somehow hug him back. Challenging times, challenging questions, many of which are my own. The one I seemingly grapple with most is, “What can I do to make this easier on them?”

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This Holiday Together; the Next, Apart

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

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As I watch my babies sleep sweetly, one curled up on my lap, the other snuggled next to me, I am in awe. First, I am amazed that they are actually sleeping, at the same time, on an airplane, allowing me to write and start (and finish) a cup of coffee. And second, in that lasting Thanksgiving spirit, I am overwhelmed with my love for these two. I know this quiet moment is fleeting, and I yearn for the power to slow down time. “The nights are long, the years are short,” I constantly remind myself. For someone who ascribes so much value to being present, living in constant countdown mode while waiting for my husband’s returns feels ironic at best, overwhelming at worst.

It’s in these tiny occurrences when I miss my husband the most, as I know the magnitude of what he is missing. Our daughter’s first ballet recital, our son’s new sentences. The quiet cuddles, the powerful hugs. It is also during these times when I find my heart fraught with conflict; the calm that comes with the silence and the anxiety I experience as I worry about their well-being. With every goodbye, every day at sea without a phone call, every week that passes without any physical interaction with their daddy, I worry about the long-term fallout and the implications for each member of our family.

Will he resent the cries for me, the inevitable “No, Daddy, I want Mommy!” when he returns? Will he begrudge my allowing them to climb into our bed in the middle of the night, because I am lonely and exhausted, and I know it won’t last forever? Will the bond that the three of us are forming without him, the strength that will hold us together through the next two years, flex and allow for him to reintegrate seamlessly somehow when all this is done? Will I have the grace to let him do things “his way” after it’s been a one-woman show for so long? Can I keep those “home fires burning” when instead of sending him a thoughtful email after bedtimes, I just want to melt into the couch and binge-watch my TiVo’d episodes of “Ellen” and “Scandal”? And for my two angels, so young, so malleable, in these formative years where they will learn right from wrong, how to love, how to grow and so many lifelong lessons, I worry, am I enough?

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Traveling Solo With Children, and Playing the Deployment Card

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

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When talking about the possibility of having a third baby, my husband and I joke that the switch from man-on-man defense to zone is a game changer. With him deployed, I’m finding more and more that the one parent to two toddler ratio is a constant fast break. This week has been no exception.
While helping my 3-year-old get a drink, my 2-year-old got into my makeup bag. When I heard that guilty voice yell from another room: “Mommy! Look at me!” I knew he had found trouble. Luckily, it was just a tube of lipstick. I got him (and our walls) cleaned up just in time to find my daughter “helping” clean by spraying liquid Clorox on my bag of groceries. Is bleach GMO free?

While daily life can be challenging now that I’m outnumbered, the most daunting task has to be traveling. Armed with sticker books, colors, snacks, movies, more snacks and absolutely every trick in the book, it all boils down to this one, unequivocal fact: You have no idea how it is going to play out. Flying with toddlers reminds me of riding in a cab in college with drunk sorority sisters. Maybe they will sleep. Maybe they’ll cry. Maybe they’ll vomit. Maybe we will just laugh the whole way and create great memories. Both scenarios demand a sense of humor and a healthy dose of cautious optimism.

The last time I traveled for Thanksgiving with both children when my husband was deployed, I was graced with three out of four incredibly easy legs. The second flight, however, will remain etched in memory as the worst of all time. Our first flight was delayed. Wearing my then 6-month-old in a carrier and pushing my almost 2-year-old in a stroller, we barely made it to our plane before the cabin door closed. I carried both children half-way down the aisle, sweating, bumping elbows, offering apologies and promising everyone around us drinks, only to find someone sitting in one of our two seats. I politely informed the woman in 16D that I believed she was in the wrong row. She, visibly annoyed, waved her boarding pass in my daughter’s face saying, “Tell mommy I’m in 15D and I’m not moving.” Knowing that my daughter was watching this interaction, I tried to de-escalate. In my calmest voice, I said: “Ma’am, you are sitting in 16D. Would you mind moving?” She refused.

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‘He’s Gone.’ A Daddy, Deployed

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

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The distinct pitter-patter of her 3-year-old feet on our weathered hardwood floor awakens me. The sun is still hidden from the horizon, and any other morning I would pull her into my bed in the dark silence, with the intention of us both catching a little more sleep. Instead, today she looks at the empty pillow next to me, and with heavy sadness in her eyes, only offers, “He’s gone.” Two little words for one little girl — half statement, half question — hoping the outcome has changed overnight, from a month at sea to just a normal day at work.

I nod my head, whispering how proud we should be of daddy, and how we will be brave like him until his return. I pull her close to me, hoping to validate her emotions as the tears stream down her face. Her quiet cries are just enough to wake her brother. He runs at full pace into my room before jumping on my rib cage. “Sissy crying?” he asks.

I listen as she repeats, almost verbatim, what I’ve just told her. It’s a moment fraught with emotional conflict for me. While I’m so proud of her empathy, I’m also wistful for my first minutes with her in the hospital. Stroking her soft hair, memorizing every inch of her sweet little hands, and promising her aloud that I would always protect her. I swore the same to my son, born just over a year later. In this moment, I can’t safeguard their hearts; I am unable to spare these tears. It’s a powerless feeling, before the sun is up.

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On Veterans Day, Offering Gratitude and Accepting It

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

motherlode-veterans-tmagArticle-v2When I told the man at the baggage counter that my husband was deployed, he immediately replied, “Thank you for your service.” I didn’t quite know how to respond, so I smiled uncomfortably and nodded, graciously trying to clarify that my husband was the one serving. When I think of the phrase “service to our country,” I can hear the bayonets and see the tattered flag waving valiantly in the breeze.

I conjure images of the wounded, the battered, the proud declaring victory on Yorktown battlefield. I picture my grandfather in a foxhole in Saipan watching bullets fly overhead in the pitch black sky, a long way from his bride in South Dakota. I imagine my other grandfather, writing letters to my grandmother from Germany and asking about his new baby (my mother), only five days old when he deployed. I imagine the steely resolve juxtaposed against trembling bottom lips of high school students, taking their places on the front lines in Korea, Vietnam and the Gulf.

I think of my husband and our friends who have served in peacetime and in wartime, in jungles and in deserts, and I am humbled and honored by their commitment to our country. The land of the free, because of the brave. But never would I think of what I do — loving a man in uniform — as service.

Until today.

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‘What You Sign Up For’ When You Marry Into the Military

The first installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

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Through the lump in my throat, I’ve just finished telling my friend that my husband, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, is leaving again in a few days. It will be his fourth deployment since we were married, the first since the birth of our two children.

She looks at me, sympathy and confusion in her eyes and asks, “But you had to know what you signed up for, right?”

I tilt my head slightly, furrow my brow, and contemplate an appropriate response to what feels like an attack. I remember the “for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health.” I do not remember him vowing, “Sweet wife, when you have norovirus and our two toddlers demand constant attention, the Navy will still demand I go to work.” In fairness, I’m certain mine didn’t include “Loving husband, my inability to open a package without shredding cardboard everywhere will drive you absolutely crazy.” No one really knows what they’re getting into, right? With marriage, parenting, a new job: Don’t we convince ourselves that the mystery is part of the big adventure? After all is said and done, you can’t help who you fall in love with.

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