A Conversation with Military Mom Christina Piper
As part of our mission to serve military families and share their stories, Care.com's Editor in Chief, Wendy Sachs, spoke with Christina Piper, co-author of military-blog Her War Her Voice and mom of a 7-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son, just days before moving her family from the middle of the Mojave Desert in Ft. Irwin, California, to Joint Base Lewis-McChord in the state of Washington.
Piper, 37, spoke of life as a military mom, the excitement and anxiety of the PCS, preparing her kids for her husband's deployments and taking care of herself.
WS: How are you feeling about the move?
CP: The kids are a little anxious but I am excited. We're close to home for the first time in 10 years. My husband and I are both from Spokane, Washington. It's going to be a bigger house and yard and it's green. After living in the desert, we are all excited for green.
WS: How do you prepare your kids?
CP: I usually start having them make a scrapbook of the place where we are. We can show the great things about the home we are leaving and then we start talking about what we're going to do in the new house, what will the room look, etc.
And then I help with the packing. When we pack the kids' rooms I let them color the boxes and put their special animals in specific boxes and make them part of the process. And when we went house hunting, I made them part of the conversation. I think asking about your kids' feelings, tends to get forgotten.
WS: What is entirely different about being military mom than being a civilian mom?
CP: The biggest thing is that we have the conversation about service in our families every day. They really get to see service first-hand and it is truly a sense of pride for the family. When Miley Cyrus did a military concert, my daughter told her cousins, who are not military, that the concert was for our family. The sense of pride, country and self is hugely different from regular civilian families.
WS: What is the biggest misunderstanding that civilian moms may have about military moms?
CP: The disconnect is that when our spouses are gone military moms are considered single moms and that's really not the case. We have to have the connection to our husbands. We have to show our kids that we have a healthy marriage and healthy family even though we know our spouse may or may not return.
WS: How many times has your husband been deployed since you had children?
CP: He's been deployed three times in five years. Each deployment has averaged more than a year - twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan.
WS: What is the hardest part of being a military mom?
CP: In the current environment with the wars, the hardest part is reassuring our children, even though sometimes we don't have assurance ourselves that our spouses are coming back to them. You have to look into your babies' eyes and not promise them that they will come home safe.
In our family I have a rule that I won't make any promises. So when my kids come to me afraid for their dad, I can't make them any promises. But what I do say is that he's got the best equipment and the best training and he's going to try as hard as he can to come back to you.
WS: Is that enough to reassure your children?
CP: Sometimes it is and sometimes they are angry. They are kids and they deserve to be selfish and wanting your dad isn't selfish, it's normal.
WS: Your mother was also a military mom and your family has served for generations. How is being a military mom now different from previous generations?
CP: They didn't continually go back and we weren't fighting on two or three fronts. It's remarkable how fast and hard you have to live between deployments, trying to get all those things we missed or will never get packed into the short amount of time here. Previous generations were able to breathe. Before the last deployment we weren't even able to get reacquainted when we found out my husband was leaving again.
WS: Do you use technology to stay connected?
CP: Technology can be a double-edged sword. I am against it. I feel like nothing will replace a handwritten letter. You can touch it and see it and feel it. With Skype, depending on the age of your kids, they can't understand why their dad can't be on any time they want. And you hear background noises like artillery going off and then the lines go dead. And if there is wounded or dead there is a black out period until next of kin are notified. It can be days before you know what's going on.
WS: What do you do to stay connected to your husband?
CP: I like to write letters. Matthew likes email but I like to force him to write to me. If he calls me and I'm in the middle of screaming kids or trying to get dinner it's really hard. The calls are usually 10-15 minutes, but you can't really have a relationship in 10-15 minutes on the fly. Writing letters allows me time to process; it also gives him a better sense of what's going on. I find with emails there's room for so much miscommunication.
WS: How do your kid keep in touch with their dad?
CP: The kids like the emails and their dad changes the font to the specific child, like red or blue fonts. We also have a box and they can put whatever they want in it to send to dad. Troops in Touch does great little postcards that dad can send to the kids. The kids color the cards and then send them back to their dad.
WS: How do you do it every day - get up in the morning and take care of your kids and yourself?
CP: I fail a lot and I just keep trying. I don't have another choice. You can't help whom you fall in love with. If I don't do it no one else is going to. I think the kids help at times too - you can't just stay in bed. You have to get up and feed them. They keep you busy, not that I'm depending on them to help me function, but my needs do not come first.
When I am having a bad day or when I see something on the news that's upsetting, I am not one to hide tears from my kids, but I'm also not going to make them try to make me feel better. I feel like I need to show my kids to deal positively with emotions. I will tell them that I'm just sad today or I really miss dad and let them know that there's nothing abnormal about being sad.
WS: How do you prepare your kids for their dad's upcoming deployment?
CP: We don't start talking until a few months out. We say that we know that dad has to go away for work. But we don't hide the fact that he's in Afghanistan and Iraq. We start to point to those countries on a map. We open the floor for the communication. We ask how they are feeling and check back in. We just take it head on.
WS: Do you feel that military kids are particularly resilient or should be tough?
CP: I am a big proponent that they need to be kids for as long as they possibly can. If my son wants to be totally pissed off that his dad isn't home to watch him spar in karate, that's ok, those are his feelings. I understand that he's mad. As a mom it's my job to let him feel what he wants to feel and not dictate what he should be expressing.
WS: What is the hardest thing about the soldiers coming home?
CP: Finding out who they are now. War changes them and war changes you. You don't see your own changes but they are obvious. The first time my husband was gone I had just become a new mom. I had a year under my belt of being a new mom and he had a year under his belt of being a warrior. It becomes a choice of wanting to be together. A military spouse knows she can do it on her own, it's now just a matter of if she wants to.
The husbands have to realize that you can't give back independence. Before they are deployed maybe the wives were taken care of, but now their wives are responsible. It's hard on the soldiers too.
I would get pissed that my husband would come home and mow the lawn because it was the one thing I could do that looked done for more than 5 minutes. I was proud of mowing the lawn and dealing with the logistics of making it happen with one baby strapped in on my back and one pushing a fake lawn mower behind me.
WS: Do you have any words of wisdom for new military moms?
CP: Take time to enjoy your children, no matter how crazy and insane your life is, this is your only time. Also it's ok to smile when the baby makes their first laugh and your husband isn't there. You can and should enjoy it. Don't feel guilty. Don't compare yourself to other military moms or other moms in general because you need to do what's right for your family.
I think it's an overwhelming feeling for military moms because we look at every moment that our spouses are missing and feel bad about it. I was dreading that my daughter would start walking before my husband got home and that he wouldn't hear my son's first words. But it's all right to enjoy it yourself and acknowledge that they are missing it because if you don't enjoy it there are two people who are missing those moments.