Today we continue our series, “Insights from a Military Parent,” an ongoing discussion in which Rhonda, National Guard spouse and mom of two young boys, responds to questions that arose from her telling of her family’s experience living through two deployments with two young children during our webinar presentation, “Intentional Connection: Establishing Positive Relationships Between Child Care Providers and Military Parents.”
In today’s post, Rhonda describes some of the military behaviors that took a while for her husband to shed after returning to home life, and how those behaviors were perceived by others, including the boys’ teachers. Awareness, communication and patience, Rhonda explains, are the keys to supporting military families (particularly Guard and Reserves) who are experiencing reintegration.
Question: You’ve said that reintegration is a process that can take a while. What advice would you give a teacher/provider who wants to support that parent as he or she reconnects to the child’s daily life, including school/child care, in ways that are sensitive to his or her adjustment?
The two most critical times for our family were the months during pre-deployment and post-deployment. These are the times when routines are disrupted, finances are being juggled, family roles are evolving and revolving, and dad is acclimating – either to leaving or returning.
Try to connect with both parents before the actual deployment if possible. This will help lay the groundwork for the post-deployment interactions. My husband joked at our pre-deployment teacher/parent meeting that he was just there to model his uniform. Ok, I was the one doing all the talking. However, we did talk about post-deployment issues in that pre-deployment meeting and his presence was important. He and I have discussed his post-deployment return to civilian life and reflected on how much our lives have changed. We anticipate that we will evolve again when he returns this time.
Post-deployment is different for everyone. What we expected from reading the books and literature on post-deployment were insomnia, nightmares, aversion to crowds or large social gatherings, being in a state of high alert, and adjusting to family life. Sometimes we joked about going through a checklist of behaviors or situations that were outlined in the books.
As a Guard family the transition from active duty in the war zone back to home is far more abrupt than for full-time military. He goes from being in a full-time military environment where everyone is in uniform, procedure and protocol are the norm, and everyone is on high alert – into a civilian world where people invade your personal space in the check-out line, honk their horns less than a second after the light changes, and debris on the road is really just debris. Every instinct and reaction, honed through military training and reinforced in the war zone, is still active, but the environment is more benign.
As a family we had to help him bring out his civilian persona. Some adjustments are comical and others are a bit more stressful. For the first few weeks I felt like I was living with a teenage girl because he would stand in front of his closet with his hands on his hips staring at his clothes, then declare he had nothing to wear. After suggesting several different combinations of shirts, pants, shorts, etc. I left the room frustrated. He emerged ten minutes later back in uniform. This went on for several days until we went shopping so he could buy khaki cargo shorts and plain t-shirts in black, gray, and white. It took a few months to help him transition to a more varied wardrobe, but he still wears combat boots most days.
Dressing wasn’t the only thing that went through a period of adjustment. He also switched his field of work. He could no longer work indoors in an office setting. He became a communications and cable installer which kept him physically active and constantly on the move. He had the right mix of human interaction and physical labor to keep him focused and at ease. This helped considerably with re-establishing a routine and adjusting to the routine of family life.
Friends, colleagues, and teachers also experienced a period of adjustment with us. The first few times he picked the boys up at school it was a “mission” and they were his “packages.” He was in uniform, moved briskly, didn’t speak, and barely made eye contact. When I picked the boys up a few days later I was updated on all the upcoming activities that were posted on the doors and on flyers that dad didn’t acknowledge. One of the teachers tentatively asked me if he was upset with the school. I was confused until she described his demeanor when he picked up the kids. I smiled and explained that he was doing the same thing at home. I shared with her what I had learned from the books about the process of going from a military to a civilian mindset, and that it would take time. Within a few months he was greeting folks, retrieving flyers, and exchanging pleasantries with other dads.
The teachers and I worked together to make sure important notices weren’t overlooked or forgotten. One morning they called me at work to ask if i knew it was picture day. I dropped my head to my desk as I recalled what the boys were wearing that morning. You know it wasn’t good if they called. I asked how long I had to get them a change of clothes, hung up the phone, and raced to a Target. Luckily, I was only a few miles from the school and store and found suitable clothes for both of them. When dad picked them up that evening our oldest put his hands on his hips and snapped, “You forgot picture day! Mommy had to get us clothes and we do not like them!” Dad bought them ice cream. Guess who the hero is in our house!
One other vestige of deployment that raised alarm with me and the teachers was dad’s tone. For the first few weeks his tone of voice was harsher and louder than prior to deployment. Again, this is the result of being in a war zone and interacting with other adults in tense situations. I would remind dad that we weren’t troops and that he was being really loud, or overly sensitive, to minor infractions. These were conversations best handled by me in private. If you encounter this with a recently returned military parent, take it up carefully with the home-front parent. Odds are it is already a topic under discussion in the home. If it isn’t, there may be an opportunity for helping the home front parent.
Finally, be patient and be observant. Stay in communication with the home-front parent and don’t be surprised if certain events or activities are skipped or only attended for a brief time. Music programs, graduations, and other group events were difficult at first. I sat, he stood, in the back of the room and usually left right after the boys were done with their part. As time went on, he mellowed and actually sat through an entire event. Reintegration is different for everyone and it can take months, sometimes years, to find balance and harmony.
Rhonda will be sharing more insights and recommendations about the reintegration process during our webinar, “Getting to Know You (Again): Helping Young Children Adjust to the Return of a Military Parent,” on Tuesday, June 18, 2013, 2:00-3:00 EDT. This link will take you to the page where you can log in – no registration is necessary. The webinar will also be recorded and available at the same link approximately 2 days after the live event.