When Carter was in preschool, he had a good friend named Tommy. Tommy's mom Emily Warner Eskelsen was one of those women who stood out to me on the playground. Her love for her children was fierce; I could feel her gentle determination that her children be happy, secure and strong. It took me a while to realize that for the time that we saw each other every day that Emily was essentially a single mom, her husband on a military assignment for an extended period of time. I remember not knowing exactly what to say when I heard that news and then not knowing what to say again when he finally came home. I asked Emily to share her experience with us as PBS Parents has a special focus this month on helping military kids adjust to family changes when a parent comes home.
How long was your husband away? Where was he sent and how old were your kids when he left?
My husband was away for just over fourteen months. The year before he was away for four months in JAG school, so in a 28-month period he was gone a total of 18 months. He was stationed at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. When he left my son was just over 4 and my daughter was 20 months. He got back when my son was 5 and a half and my daughter was turning 3.
How did you explain this absence to your children? What's your advice to other parents who need something clear to say that can really help kids get through?
I explained to my son, many many times, that his dad was a soldier and was helping America. He of course developed his own varied understandings. One was that his dad was in charge of a room filled with hundreds of computers that constantly needed fixing. Another was that there was a jail full of bad guys that kept escaping, and his dad had to run them down and put them back in. I was clear that his dad worked in an office and did no fighting, but at some level my son did not believe that, because his fear of his father's injury or death was unabated.
I did a few things to help my children through this time, and I felt that they were important and effective tools. First, I never talked badly about the military, about our country, or about their father to my children, and I never allowed anyone to do so in their presence. Further, at no time in their presence did I admit to discouragement or depression, and I never let anyone treat us with pity or talk as though we were in desperate or unusually difficult circumstances. I did, however, point out any time anyone gave us respect, and spelled out for my children that people were proud of their father, and proud of them for what they were doing.
What helped you the most during this time? What helped your kids?
There were many people who helped us during this time, but a certain few were clearly inspired and directed to serve a specific role in our lives. There was a family who had us over for dinner and family night every Monday night that Jon was away. More than the food, more than the hour of games and fun, that family gave us the feeling of being part of their family through the continuity of their welcome. We would go sleep deprived, temper tantruming, or in pajamas, and we were treated as part of their casual, tumbling, food-grabbing crew. I still feel emotional about the depth of what that family did for us, when our family was far away.
The other person who comes to mind was a single man of our acquaintance who laboriously took the time to befriend my socially-phobic, hurting son. His patience and interest in a child so many others had given up on resulted in my son having an adult he could talk to, something I would have paid any amount to get for him. I found that many people were willing and able to help me--a dear friend used to come and help me clean my house! Heaven!--but what I could not get enough of, what I needed and valued and treasured most, was for people to connect to and be consistently involved with my children. I am overwhelmingly grateful to those people who did that, especially this man who could allow my son to laugh and talk and express himself freely.
What was your biggest challenge when your husband came home? What was the hardest part for your kids?
A few weeks after my husband came home, I sat my children down, just the three of us. "I know we're really happy that Daddy is home," I began cautiously, "but sometimes we have other feelings about that too that we can talk about." I then brought up confusion, resentment, unfamiliarity, and other emotions I felt sure that my children should be feeling. They stared at me blankly. I tried again. "Tommy, do you have any feelings about Daddy coming home that you want to talk about?" "Yeah, mom," he said impatiently, "It's great. I like having him home." I turned to Ilse. "Darling, what about you? How do you feel about Daddy being home?" My wise little three year old was not fooled. "Mom," she replied, "how do YOU feel about Daddy coming home?" They both stared at me reproachfully. And they were right--they never had a problem, but I did.
I was sensitive about the distance there was between my husband and his children, about his accidentally heavy-handed discipline, or his ignorance of what their behavior was really communicating. My kids weathered it just fine. My relationship with my husband was a different matter entirely, of course. The military told us to expect one month of recovery for every month he was gone. We felt sure that we would be above average on that. We were wrong. I joked with a friend at the two-month mark that I was no longer actively seeking a way to send him back, but I'd still be open to it. At a full year back I was still wondering if we were going to get through this, and at sixteen months home I decided that yes, we might actually be able to stay married after all.
Luckily my husband is humble, communicative, and patient, so he was able to survive my frustration with his refusal to understand how our family worked now, how the house should be run, how to care for our children, and what I was thinking. Within the first few months he relearned an obscenity-free lingo and the empathetic model of family communication, but I am very sorry to report that although he has now been home two full years, he still folds t-shirts wrong.
What advice would you give to friends who want to be supportive of military families during a deployment? Any tried and true tips on how to be truly helpful?
We humans have a terrible habit of deciding how we would feel or react in a certain situation, and then demand that of others who are actually living that reality. I'm afraid that I disappointed many people in the way I coped with this deployment, and some of them turned away from me in confusion. Yes, it was true that sometimes I was quite desperate, nearly depressed, or hysterical, but I could not do that on demand and I could not open up to just anyone at any time "how bad it must be"! When I was succeeding at fighting my demons some people would feel so alienated from me, guessing (incorrectly) that they could never do this thing, and I must be so different from them. The very first helpful thing that anyone did for me was to not assume they knew how I felt or how I was doing, and to not treat me with pity. Pity always includes condescension, and that is never helpful.
Second, I would say that a small gesture done consistently was worth far more than random acts of kindness. One of my friends had lunch with me once a month. One agreed to host us for a playdate once a month. We needed a schedule, and we needed consistency. We didn't need to go to dinner one time at the home of people we barely knew where we would have to overcome our own shyness and perform socially for virtual strangers. That's who we were; others in our situation might feel differently. Unfortunately, I lacked the courage to tell these well-meaning people what a nightmare it would be for me to drag my poor kids to their house for the evening, so I made us all suffer in the name of shared kindness. The lesson for others who are well-meaning: make the effort to find out what would actually help; don't assume.
Third, I mentioned before that the best way for anyone to help me was to help my children. I could not be okay when they weren't; it had to start with them. Similarly, I needed my husband to be okay as well, and I deeply appreciated those friends who managed to keep track of a complicated military address and remember a guy who used to work with them, or go to church with them, and drop him a line here and there.
Thank you, Emily. Leave a comment today in support of our military families and PBS Parents is giving away green PBS Parents photo envelopes and two PBS Parents bookmarks.