When Daddy goes to work and work is a year-long job in Afghanistan, Hallee Bridgeman knows just what to do to help her family get by. From how they manage holidays to how they mark milestones, Bridgeman acknowledges that military children experience a very different upbringing than their civilian counterparts. The Hallee the Homemaker blogger says that being an Army Brat made her stronger, and for her three kids (ages 14, 5 and 3), whose father has spent four years of their lives in a war zone in the National Guard, she hopes for the same. Her trick? Keeping Daddy present in her kids' daily lives, whether through conversation or even a cardboard cut-out.
Please tell us a little about your military family.
My husband is in the Kentucky National Guard. He was in the Reserves and served and was deployed for 23 months in the First Gulf War. He had a break in service, and reenlisted September 2001.
Can you tell me more about what life is like for you and your kids when your husband has been away?
Our youngest son, Johnathan, never really had him home. But, he longed for him. When he was home, a few weeks a year, Johnathan would cling to him, afraid to let him out of his sight. Our oldest son is 5 now. He talked constantly of "going to daddy's airport" to get him. He would cry for daddy, and would not like to give me back the phone when he called.
Life for me wasn't easy, but it was what it was. My middle child has insomnia, and our youngest child was always very clingy and had a hard time sleeping if he wasn't being held. I spent a good portion of the first two years of his life in an exhausted fog. Couple that with a very active/social tween/teen - it was hard to juggle being alone, two little ones, and getting [our 14-year-old daughter] to and from where she needed to go. I often would qualify her going somewhere with whether I could pick her up or drop her off, but I couldn't do both. We spent a long time juggling rides for her.
Do you believe military kids have differing needs as compared to their civilian peers?
I think military kids are more aware of the world around them. I think they understand, on levels, that they can be affected by world politics. I am a military child. My father retired from the Army when I was 26 years old, so I know how a military child thinks. Military children these days, though, are affected by over 10 years of war. Whether little Joey down the street whose father is an accountant understands it or not, little Scotty whose dad is a paratrooper is fully aware of war and how it affects his family and the families of his friends.
If your family has experienced any deployments or long separations, how do you and your children navigate the separations?
My youngest son did not live with his father until he was 3 years old. I feared that he wouldn't react to him as a father, but he did. It was wonderful. Our 5-year-old pined for his father, and when he came home this last time (August) it was like a spark of life was lit inside of him. Our 14-year-old handles the separations with grace. There is a little bit of an adjustment period for her, but it's not as bad as I've known for other families.
What gets you and your family through those long separations?
My way of handling the separation with the kids was to constantly talk about daddy to the kids. He was a part of every moment, whether he was there bodily or not. He talked to them on the phone as often as he could. We sat at the table and made him cards, painted pictures, colored coloring pages, wrote letters. We prayed for him all the time. I never left "Daddy" out of the conversation. Whatever I did worked. When he came home, he fit right into the family dynamics as if he'd never been gone.
Do you have any creative tips or strategies for supporting your family through the separation and reunion?
During my husband's first deployment, he made a poster of himself with words of advice to our daughter (listen to your mother, help with the household, etc.). We hung it up in her room. He sent her regular notes and we hung them up all around the poster. During the most recent separation, we had videos of my husband reading favorite children's books and poems to our sons, and we watched them often. He occasionally had good enough internet access to allow delayed video conferencing, which really helped with the younger children talking to "daddy".
How might your children describe life in a military family?
It is all they know. They look forward to drill weekends, where they can be surrounded by "the soldiers." They love watching airborne operations and seeing their dad jump. Soldiers are "like daddy," and sometimes "work" means he's in "Afghanistan." I don't think they would know how to relate to life otherwise.
What's the "darndest thing" you've ever heard your children say regarding military life?
My children are huge fans of Captain America. When my husband recently had drill, he came home in uniform. My 3-year-old said, "Daddy is a soldier." His 5-year-old brother corrected him and said, "He's not a soldier. He's a super soldier."
What pointers would you give other families entering into military life?
Military life is a world of its own. Nothing is the same as in the civilian world. There's an air of camaraderie - even in the grocery store. Military families are there to support each other, be each others' families, love each other. Accept that relationship, hold it as something valuable, and don't damage it. There is nothing better than having a friend you can trust and count on - especially when your husband is 8000 miles away.
What would your children say is the overall greatest challenge they faced as being part of a military family?
There's this acknowledgement of the danger involved in a military career. You wait with each phone call, each letter, each card, to know that at that moment, everything is fine. I think as a parent, that fear, that anticipation, is handed down to the children even when we try to hide it the most. There is NOTHING like the reunion in the airport - and we've had so many of those that seeing the way my children cling to their father tells me that they've understood on some instinctive level the fear I've felt.
If you had to write the book on thriving as a military child, what would be the top tips you would include?
Be flexible. Respect your parents' position in the military. Understand that duty often supersedes family, but love is always there, even when your soldier isn't. Be willing to make friends. Learn about the different cultures of the friends you have. Take each duty station as an adventure and learn as much as you can about the region. Love the specialness that comes with being a military child.
Check out the rest of our Care.com Interview Series: Making the Most of Military Childhood »
Hallee Bridgeman lives in Kentucky with her National Guardsman husband and three children. She shares her family's story, photos and recipes on her blog Hallee the Homemaker. Hallee also writes Christian romances. You can find Hallee on Facebook and Twitter.