Military families move an average of once every three years. Next to divorce and death of a relative, experts say that moving is rated as the third highest cause of stress. For military moms, relocating their lives and uprooting their children is simply a way of life. But there are ways to lessen the stress and the transitions of moving.
We spoke with Michelle Cuthrell, a mom to two boys (ages 4 and 1) who's married to an Army ranger. His career path has taken her on a rollercoaster ride where she's moved four times in the past six years. Three of those moves were with her children.
"I don't know if I've stayed sane moving so much, but I have lived through it, and that's a success," said Michelle.
Michelle is a work-at-home mom and the author of Behind the Blue Star Banner, a memoir of her life and pregnancy at home during her husband's deployment in Iraq. After so many moves, she has plenty of advice to offer other parents.
And for more helpful tips, check out Care.com's Guide to Managing Stress.
Find High-Quality Child Care (and Then Use It!)
When faced with the mountainous to-do lists of a move, many parents try to tackle the hill all by themselves. That's a huge no-no!
"Every place we've lived, we've had amazing friends at each station that helped out with babysitting so I could focus on packing and everything else we needed to do," Michelle said.
She also relied heavily on her base's CDC (Child Development Center). For her family, the CDC with its high-quality child care and low rates ($3-4 per child, per hour) was a lifesaver. Both before and after each move, Michelle took advantage of the CDC and booked her boys into its day care programs for four-or five-hour blocks of time.
"They have some amazing providers," said Michelle. "Typically, the CDC hires more experienced child care workers-they're usually in their 30s or 40s. They know what they're doing and my boys just love them."
Don't be afraid of using a friend, hiring a babysitter, or taking advantage of your base's local CDC both before and after the move. If your kids have great child care arrangements, you'll have more time, energy, and freedom to finish all the things you need to do.
After their latest move, Michelle's family was able to get through the seemingly endless amounts of unpacking by inviting their new neighbors kids' over.
"It sounds crazy to have kids running around while you're unpacking, but it works," Michelle said. "Match-make new friends for your kids, offer up your house, and then those kids will play with your kids while you supervise and get your unpacking finished. It's amazing."
Adjusting to a New Community
As soon as you know a move is coming, get in touch with the relocation manager at your new base. They should become your new best friend-someone who walks you through the new base, gives you information on what move entitlements the military has in place, and provides assistance throughout the process. As you collect information, try and paint a picture of what your new home will look like for your kids. You'll help prepare them for the change that's coming.
"The way parents handle the move is important," said Beverly D. Roman, an author of over 30 books on relocation and a military wife who has moved 19 times. "Children will pick up on your mood... It's important to have a good, combined family effort when you have to move. It's a time for your family to pull together and show a good team effort."
If your kids are older, they can help with the background research, too. Whether you're moving to a new state or a new country, encourage them to pick out travel guides at the library and learn the local history. You'll help establish a connection with a place before you've even arrived.
"Try and give your children a sense of where they're going to," Beverly said. "It's easy with the web to see your new home or school online. Giving kids a visual image of what they're going forward to helps take away the anxiety from moving."
Beverly says that moves, though stressful, are actually opportunities for your family to bond. Parents should emphasize that the family is making the move, you're all in the same situation, and that you'll do your best to support each other.
"Dive in headfirst," Michelle said. "Your family has just one-to-three years to make best friends, dive into a church and community, feel like you've lived there for 20 years, and move on."
Before you move, you can use your own network to get plugged in to your new home. Figure out if you've had friends who lived in the area before, connect to a new church through your denomination, sign up the kids for activities like the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, or register for sports leagues to give your family familiar things to do in their new setting.
Once you're there, visit the base's community service center to find out ways to get plugged in, join a military moms' group (many have free child care options), or check out the local visitor's center to find out fun (and free!) things to do in your new home.
Pay Attention to What Your Kids Experience
If you think all the preparation and planning is hard on you, take a step back and look at things from your kids' perspective. They may be leaving the only world they've ever known, all of the friends they've ever made, and the security of a home they know well. Change is a scary thing, especially for children who don't always understand why you're packing up and shipping out. You can help them cope with the move by working through it together step by step. Even before you find out where you'll be deployed, talk with them about the possible locations. Once you know where you're headed, have them work with you to get the actual move done.
If they're old enough to pitch in, encourage them to pack their room (and create a "donation box" of things they don't want to bring along). Figure out what other tasks they can help with such as looking up new activities, boxing up other rooms, filling out endless change of address forms, cooking, and cleaning.
It sounds funny, but once you arrive, you can do a lot for a child's transition by giving them regular chores to do. Things like taking care of the family pet, doing the dishes, or yard work can help normalize the routine and give your children a sense of stability.
Try to maintain ties to your old home, too. Even though her children are younger, Michelle still sets up regular videocam "dates" over Skype so her oldest son can talk to his best friend from the family's last assignment. Letters, emails, phone chats, and visits whenever possible help your kids-and you-stay connected!
If you're looking for other ways to help your kids through the move, check out this helpful guide: Military Families on the Move: A Guide to Helping Kids and Their Families During PCS Moves.
Help Is Out There!
If you're facing a move, you're not alone. All military branches have great resources for families to track expenses, get reimbursed, set up child care, and get settled during a new assignment. And you can always use Care.com to find local babysitters, nannies, and child care centers wherever you're headed!
For more helpful information, check out the following resources:
Military Families on the Move: Tips for Keeping Your Family Healthy
Military OneSource - year-round, 24-hour information on child care, finances, emotional support, and relocation information.