My husband is currently on his second deployment with the military. The first time around Eli was only 18 months old and didn’t really notice dad wasn’t there. Even at that young of an age I expected some tantrums but we had moved back home by my family so he was surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and I think having the added family around blurred out the fact that dad was gone. Now just because Eli wasn’t screaming for his dad (he didn’t even talk at this age anyway), doesn’t go to say that there weren’t other behaviors relating to the deployment.
Then and now Eli likes to push the limits with me; from what I gather this is very common with children who have a parent that may be gone for certain lengths of time (military, general long work shifts, truck driving, travel/training, prison, etc). I don’t have the same amount as authority as my husband does. I’m not sure why but I think, and this may come across as sexist here (sorry feminists), men are the heads of the household. Sure, some may not work as hard as their spouse, make as much money, spend as much time with the children; however, men are usually bigger than their wives and usually have deeper more demanding voices. I could yell in my ‘mean voice’ for Eli to “STOP JUMPING ON THE COUCH” and see no reaction, but my husband can walk in the room and start with “HEY…” and not even have to finish his sentence because my son already sat on his butt and gave him a sorry expression. There’s no denying that my husband has a lot more authority than me, it is what it is. So, during these deployments Eli feels as though he can get away with a lot more because his dad is gone. He’s not completely wrong, especially because this time I’m pregnant and don’t have enough energy to yell. Most of the time I’m so exhausted that it’s easier to let him make a big mess and clean it up by myself later than to go with him hand over hand making him pick up the entire basement. I mean honestly, I get breathless walking up the stairs. Once we start therapy though I will have a second disciplinarian in the house to help back me up.
This time around Eli has obviously noticed that his dad is not around. I have stressed from the beginning that daddy is at work. He understands this and says that daddy is at work back at mommy’s house (San Diego, close enough). In the beginning, he never really wanted to video chat with his dad; he would tell me “no, daddy is busy. He’s at work…” I would say “Hey Eli, your dad says he loves you!” Eli would answer, “no, daddy is at work.” To me it appears he thought, ‘daddy isn’t here so he doesn’t love me anymore’ or ‘daddy is too busy for me.’ Of course, he was only 3-4 years old and maybe I’m just reading too much into it, but nevertheless, it made me very sad to hear him say things like that.
So where do we go from here? How do we bridge this gap between father and son when they are many time zones apart? There are many books, articles, blogs on how to help your children during deployments, but there isn’t a one size fits all for children. Children may not be feeling the same way or may not respond to techniques that another child responded to. My best advice is to try out anything and everything.
- Phone calls, video calls
- If your spouse can communicate while they’re away this is usually the best way to keep them connected with children. We do this occasionally but Eli generally doesn’t have much of an attention span for video calls. I usually have to close the bedroom door and just let him play while dad talks a big. Eli will acknowledge him sometimes, answer his questions, and show him certain things then it loses its luster and he ignores both of us completely.
- Daddy Dolls
- I’ve seen a lot of these in the military community. They are little fabric dolls with a parent’s full body picture printed on. I’ve also seen necklaces, picture frames, etc that the child can take around with them and when they are feeling sad they can hold onto their parent and talk to them.
- Deployment wall
- This one (in my opinion) was a little too advanced for Eli to appreciate, but it is a visual aid for the kids to understand more about where daddy is. Include a map with pinned areas, clocks so they can see what time it is there, a mail station to send out their letters to dad, etc.
- One thing Eli has been really into lately is texting his dad. Of course, he can’t read and the only thing he can spell/write is his own name. He mostly uses it for the emoji’s. He likes taking his time and selecting just the right emoji to send to his dad and gets a kick out of what emoji’s dad will send back to us.
- Bedtime books
- There is a lot of literature out there on helping children deal with a deployed parent. I got lucky at Barnes and Noble and found one in the clearance rack. It’s not exactly a deployment book but it is about a parent leaving and how the child can stay connected with them. I got extra lucky because Eli really likes reading this book at night!
Nobody wants to have a parent gone, no matter what the reason, but there are a lot of ways to keep the family connected. Every family and child is unique so finding what works for you is the key.