by Angelina Newsom
It’s no secret that there are unique challenges for families in the military. Not everyone is aware of exactly how grueling those challenges can be. In addition to early days and sometimes late nights, families are often faced with deployment. Although you usually have advance notice, there is a multitude of situations that arise where parents may have to leave at a moment’s notice. This can affect school activities, sports, and many other aspects of a child’s life. It can also cause great stress on parents. Many experience separation anxiety and guilt for having to leave their families for long periods of time. In the winter of 2012, I was deployed to Afghanistan, leaving my then 6-year-old daughter behind. Of course, she had no idea what was going on and thought I was just “going to work.” While it was a hardship, we had a huge amount of support and many resources that helped us stay connected.
How to stay connected:
Technology is your friend. I found technology to be the key tool in long distance parenting. While I was gone, I purchased and had shipped an iPad Mini for my daughter so that she would have her own device to talk to me on. It was fun for her and she felt directly connected to me because she had her very own iPad. We would set up times for video chatting and spend as much time as possible talking to one another. She would also send me text messages through her device. It gave her an extra source of comfort to know that I was only a text message away if she needed to talk to me.
- Take advantage of useful programs. The USO had a program where I was located that allowed service members to read a book on video to their child(ren) and the USO would send the video and book to the family. There are also military-sponsored programs available to assist service members, as well as family members during a time of separation. There are many highly trained individuals who work for these programs who are very helpful and caring.
- Regular communication with the other parent is crucial. By discussing the day-to-day activities, behavior, and routine, I was able to get a feel for how my daughter was doing on a daily basis and what effects my absence had on her. I also enjoyed her reactions when I mentioned something cool she had done that her father had told me about. She was happy to know that I was kept in the loop with her good work. It’s also important to make sure both parents are involved in decision making. It might help to not feel thousands of miles away all the time if a parent can participate in small things like choosing an outfit for a special occasion.
- Snail Mail! Probably the most underutilized form of communication. I loved sending my daughter handwritten letters and receiving them from her. I was also able to hang the drawings she sent in my living space, as well as my work space. This was a tremendous morale boost for me. There are also usually little shops that sell trinkets and little souvenirs that are perfect to send back home as gifts. Also, photographs were very much appreciated. I feel like in the digital world we live in, people forget the power of a printed photo. I hung pictures of my daughter everywhere. I also carried a picture of her with me at all times.
- Make lists. Sometimes I would think of things I wanted to tell my daughter and by the time I got on video chat with her, I completely forgot what I was going to say. This is where my lists came in handy. I would jot down thoughts and ideas throughout the day. Maybe a cool story I heard or a question I had for her. This helped me keep everything organized and is also a great reminder if there are important things that need to be discussed. It can also be therapeutic to take a few minutes to write these things out, knowing it’ll be a good conversation.
Upon my return, I realized that my daughter had grown quite a bit. It was a little comical at times, especially when I was preparing to help start her shower and she looked at me weird and informed me that she had been showering on her own for a while now. These are the little things that get overlooked during communication and I enjoyed unlocking many of them. Her interests had also changed and she had new hobbies she hadn’t mentioned to me during our chats. However, our Mother/Daughter relationship hadn’t skipped a beat. She was right back to requesting trips to the mall. Although I wasn’t there for every little thing that happened, I never felt like I was completely absent from her life. It can be very difficult, but long distance parenting is possible for anyone.