Saluting Military Moms This Emotional Life - PBS

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 Dr. Barbara  Van Dahlen

Dr. Barbara Van Dahlen's Bio

Barbara Van Dahlen, founder and president of Give an Hour™, is a licensed clinical psychologist

Saluting Military Moms


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This content is provided in conjunction with This Emotional Life’s Early Moments Matter initiative. Early Moments Matter is dedicated to making sure that every child has the best possible chance at emotional well-being. Find out how to receive the Early Moments Matter tool kit and provide one to a family in need.

Having a child changes a woman’s life in so many ways—some dreamed of and hoped for, others never imagined. For most women, the love they feel for their children is unlike anything they have ever experienced. It is different from romantic love but is certainly as intense and can be as consuming. The bond that forms (and for many it forms the first moment they see their baby) will inform and guide a mother’s decisions for the rest of her life. 

Mothers worry about and feel responsible for everything that might not work out for their children. They feel every disappointment, every pain their child experiences, even more intensely than their own. They make frequent sacrifices, of time, sleep, money, and energy, willingly if not always easily. And most mothers would—without hesitation—sacrifice their own life to save their child’s.

Mothers can be great teachers, excellent advisors, and amazing sources of support, sharing their knowledge, wisdom, and skills as their youngsters grow and mature. Most mothers have impressive patience and tolerance for the mistakes and missteps their children must make in order to become adults. These mothers want the best for their children, take pride in them, and enjoy the journey as much as the final product. Indeed, enjoyment of our children is the best reward for the time, effort, and work required to raise healthy, happy, and productive human beings.

Under the best circumstances, being a good mother is a very difficult job. Many mothers in today’s busy world must juggle career and domestic duties. Many feel torn as they try to care for their little ones, add to the family’s income, and cultivate their own careers. Even with a caring and involved partner and a supportive and loving extended family, a mother’s work is rarely done and can often be stressful and demanding.

Mothers who are members of the military community often work to raise their children under far less than ideal circumstances. And while all mothers should be celebrated every Mother’s Day—for their love, dedication, and devotion—our military moms deserve special recognition for the unique sacrifices they make and the sometimes daunting challenges they face.

Anyone who has had the joy of raising a child can remember the chronic fatigue that frequently slides into exhaustion during those early years. The sleepless nights, aching muscles, and frayed nerves are normal experiences for the parent or parents of the zero-to-three crowd. Now imagine the experience of a military mom navigating these same strains while her husband is deployed or just back from his second or third or fourth deployment . . . Perhaps this military mom has other small children, perhaps one of her children has special needs or chronic health issues, perhaps her husband is struggling with one of the many invisible injuries of war or is recovering from a physical injury. Imagine being a mother whose husband never comes back home at all. The stress any of these mothers experience is hard to overestimate and may be further compounded if she is living in a community far from her family of origin. 

And let us not forget our female service members who are also mothers. These courageous women must say goodbye to their youngsters for months at a time when they are called to duty. They may miss their child's first steps, first field trip, or first kiss because they have chosen to serve our country during this time of war.

Many of us know the joys and demands, the pushes and the pulls, of raising a teenager. Testing limits, rejecting values, experimenting frequently—these are all normal and necessary components of an adolescent’s journey into adulthood. Regardless of the normalcy of these aspects of development, negotiating adolescence is no easy task for parent or child. Mothers (and fathers) experience frustration, anxiety, and irritation, and yet they must try to remain centered, calm, focused, and reasonable. Imagine the military mother who is raising an adolescent while her partner is serving our country in Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya. Her partner is in harm’s way every day, and as she worries about his safe return, she must remain focused on the needs of her understandably moody and demanding teen. Imagine trying to comfort or contain a teen who is angry because anger is easier to tolerate than fear, loss, or sadness but who doesn’t want to be comforted and who is dangerously close to or already is acting out. Imagine the mother—she may be a  soldier, marine, sailor, or airman—who listens helplessly to her husband's report from home about their struggling teen, knowing that there is little she can do to help those she loves.

Many military moms, with children of all ages, report considerable stress when their husband comes home after deployment to a family that has out of necessity developed its own rhythm and structure during his absence. Military dads acknowledge this concern as well. Earlier this year I spoke to a sergeant heading home to Fort Hood after his third tour. He told me that he knew he had to be careful as he reentered his family. He had been away from them for over a year; his oldest was now a teenager, his youngest had developed new interests. This soldier was exquisitely aware of the likelihood that it would take time–and work–before he felt comfortable again with his family and they with him. Of course, our female service members face the same challenges and struggles as they attempt  to resume their roles as wife and mother in the families they come home to.

Transitions for military families are understandably very challenging, and it is typically the mother who assumes the role of broker and keeper of the peace. It is the mother, for example, who tries to ease the tension between the rebellious adolescent and the father who is trying to reassert his authority and reclaim his role. And it is the mother who will carry the emotional burden of the conflict, encouraging her children to be respectful and obedient to a father who comes home carrying the weight of war, hoping her husband can be understanding and tolerant of children who have learned how to function without him. Even the mother who returns from war is often expected—by herself and others—to  resume the responsibility of keeping the family from crumbling under the strain of reintegration.

And then there are those mothers—thousands as a result of the current conflicts—who have suffered the unbearable loss of a child during these wars. Tens of thousands more have seen a son or daughter return home with severe injuries. We cannot erase the pain and loss these mothers have suffered, but we can try to ease the ache they must endure. We can listen when they want to talk, or sit quietly with them if that is what they need. We can find ways to take the small or large responsibilities off their plate so that they can have the time and space they need and deserve to heal.

Those of us who know a military mom or two will attest to the fact that these women rarely seek attention or recognition. Women who join our armed forces, marry into the military, or raise children who choose to serve are unlikely to show the strain they experience or the worry they feel. And they are unlikely to complain—even if we think that they have good reason to. These mothers are proud of the role they play in our military community. 

Fortunately, Mother’s Day gives us the opportunity to celebrate, honor, and support these extraordinary women—even if they never ask. Mother’s Day is the perfect day to show them the gratitude and respect our nation feels. We must try to lighten their load and ease their journey. Some of these mothers serve by putting on the uniform, others by continuing to love, support, and care for those who defend and protect our country. All deserve our salute.

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