More Than a Hundred Sleeps: A Father Deploys

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “live like he deploys tomorrow.” I remember thinking it odd at the time, since my husband, a Navy helicopter pilot, and I somehow always spent the day before deployments frantically getting uniforms ready, packing bags, responding to last-minute tasks and making tearful goodbye phone calls to parents, siblings and friends. Nothing about it was worth trying to live like that every day. This round, however, was different. Dickens very well could have been talking about the days before deployment when he said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

My husband was supposed to deploy on a Saturday. For months, it sat on our calendar in pen, taunting us with inching proximity. In what felt like the blink of an eye, we went from next fall, to next month, to next week, to “he leaves on Saturday.”

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With Daddy Deploying, a Child’s Nightmares Echo a Mother’s Fears

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

Monsters under the bed are one thing. You grab a flashlight, lift the dust ruffle, and prove that there is nothing to be afraid of. But what happens when the nightmares are based on rational fears? How do you tell a 4-year-old everything will be O.K. when you can’t guarantee that it will?

With my husband’s deployment just around the corner, we are down to our last two “work-ups,” each close to a month long. The night after our latest goodbye, I awoke to my daughter’s sobs. “Daddy, No! Daddy, No! My Daddy!” I ran into her room, where she was sitting on top of her bed, blankie clutched in her little hands, tears streaming down her face. It’s a scene I wish I could forget, but I can still see it so vividly. Her fear. Confusion. Sadness. I cuddled her in my arms and lay down next to her, whispering soothing words of safety and assurance.

The next morning, I woke up with her still in my arms, and the blankie still tightly in hers. I watched her sleeping peacefully, drinking in the rare, quiet moment that life with two toddlers often prohibits. As she opened those big beautiful blue eyes, we talked about the night before. In a trembling voice, she told me that she dreamed that my husband had fallen off the boat and bad guys had picked him up. I was at a total loss. We’re not a big television family. We read age-appropriate books. The only children’s app I have is “Bake Shop With Strawberry Shortcake.”

How did she construct those images? And, what could I possibly say to her? I didn’t want to mitigate her emotions. I didn’t want to tell her that her fears were silly or unreasonable. I didn’t want to admit that I worry about those same things. Instead, I held her a little tighter, and told her we could send her dad an email to see if he could call later. We did, and hours later through tears, she told him her scary dream. I imagine feeling helpless on the other end of the phone is just as much of a nightmare.

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Deployment Is Confusing for Children, Which Makes Children Hard on Parents

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

I recently read somewhere that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results was not the definition of insanity, but rather, the definition of parenting. The sentiment perfectly sums up bedtime with our 2½-year-old: routinely insane. We’ve cried it out and cuddled it out. We’ve bathed, read and rocked our way into different routines, to no avail. We’ve finally settled on “good enough” which consists of a bath, a story, only two trips to the bathroom, bedtime prayers and a hug and a kiss. In my son’s defense, I was (and, let’s be honest, am still) the same way. The struggle is real. I don’t like going to bed any more than he does.

Bedtime around here is the time I feel my husband’s absence the most. We generally tag team dishes and bath, so once the kids are asleep we can enjoy some precious alone time (we also have a 4-year-old daughter). With him gone, I keep holding out hope for a fairy godmother to come do the dishes and fold laundry while I handle bedtime.

After several snow days last week, getting both of my babies to sleep was particularly stressful. My little guy would not stay in bed. The sound of those size 9 extra-wide feet running on the wood floor reverberates through the house. I’d already gone through our routine and I’d already been up an extra time to tuck him in.

About the fifth time he got out of bed, I went up the stairs prepared to use my scary mommy voice. I paused about halfway up, took a deep breath, and reminded myself that getting angry at him would not make my night any easier. I walked into his room, where he was standing on top of his (bolted down) dresser. I put both hands on my head, and felt myself literally trying to pull my hair out. Another deep breath. I gently picked him up, placed him on the floor and knelt beside him.

Trying to stifle my exasperation with the only ounce of patience I had left, I asked him, “What is going on?”

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The Military Marriage Trapeze Act

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

Photo Credit: Trapeze School New York/DC

I clipped in my harness, took a deep breath at the base of the metal ladder and slowly started the long, precarious, 23-foot climb. As the ladder gently swayed with every movement, I tried to create the illusion of composure while getting to the platform at the top as quickly as possible. The mixture of adrenaline and fear is my version of a Long Island iced tea: seems like such a good combination, until you get sick or black out. I remind myself that people (like me) actually pay for this feeling.

It was my sixth flying trapeze class. I was still fairly nervous. A handler greeted me on the platform and reviewed the trick I was attempting: the Pullover-Pump-Shoot, my first “blind catch.” I had done the trick close to 30 times, but never with a catcher. Jump from platform, feet come over the bar for a complete backward rotation, and upon command, pump my arms and shoot over the bar into his upside-down hands. “Seems easy enough,” said no one ever. A blind catch is exactly that: You can’t see the person catching you while you’re in the air; rather you just have to let go and have faith that he’s there. I missed him on the first attempt, plummeting to the safety net. My second (and final) effort was textbook. I could be heard yelling “Wooh!” on the video when I felt his hands grasp my forearms. That rush is tough to beat.

My husband’s cousin Clare introduced me to Trapeze School New York over a year ago, and I was instantly hooked. Our bimonthly class and dinner has become a sacred ritual. The logistics have become more challenging while my husband is away on a Navy deployment, so I greatly cherish those few hours, doing what my mother used to threaten us children with: running away to join the circus.

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Resolutions for a Year of Change in a MIlitary Family

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary

Two toddlers, painting a new picture at home for 2015.
Two toddlers, painting a new picture at home for 2015.

I’ve never cared much for New Year’s resolutions. Mostly, I subscribe to the mentality that if you want to make a change in your life, you don’t need a specific date to do it. This year, however, I’m giving it a chance, hoping that “if I write it down,” I’ll be more inclined to commit.

With deployment hanging over our heads, 2015 will come with incredible challenges for our marriage, our children and ourselves. My husband’s leaving will wreak havoc on so many aspects of our lives, and the anticipation of the actual departure is just as hard, if not more difficult. In the military spouse community, we talk about just wanting to rip off the Band-Aid, instead of slowly tearing it away, prolonging the inevitable pain deployment bears.

I have to believe my feelings about being a temporary single mother are synonymous with anyone in this situation. It’s incredibly daunting. And so, how to manage? The piece of advice I receive over and over is that in order to not just survive, but also to thrive, is to take care of myself first. To do that, I need to make some changes. This year, I am pledging to own my choices, invest in myself, and be more intentional with my time.

Perhaps it’s my daughter’s fourth birthday today that has thrust me into a near-constant reflective state, wandering through the coming complexities of life as a single working mother. Last week while my toddlers were painting, my 2-year-old spilled his glass of water, intended for cleaning brushes. As the colors on his paper quickly melted together, blurring the distinct patches of primary colors, my daughter gasped, “Beautiful!”

A beautiful mess. I think about that moment frequently, as I struggle to keep my work and home lives separate and balanced. Try as I might, they often bleed across the boundaries I’ve set, and I find myself in constant apology mode.

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Dear Santa, Please Bring Daddy

An installment in the New York Times Motherlode Deployment Diary


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

An installment in the New York Times Deployment Diary


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


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


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


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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