In which Ariel shares what areas she focuses on when planning for a deployment - how to nurture your child's relationship with their deployed parent, how to nurture your own relationship with your deployed partner, how to keep the routine going when you are solo parenting and how to make sure you still have energy left to take care of yourself.
Why Do You Need to Plan for a Deployment?
Living through a deployment is the most challenging part of being a military spouse. It is also – ironically – the most romanticized part. Though my husband is no longer active duty, his job keeps him away from home for months on end, several times a year. How do we make it through relatively unscathed? We have a plan in place and do not deviate from it (often).
So while your civilian friends are picturing perfumed letters and wistfully staring at the sky, pre-deployment for us looks like A Beautiful Mind with more laundry and lists - to-do lists, checklists, lists of lists, lists scrawled on post-it notes, lists scrawled on the whiteboard, half-washed off lists on hands and the list goes on. I have heard from multiple sources, including Brianna, that this listomania is not uncommon.
Having a well-thought-out plan in place during a deployment takes the guesswork out of stressful situations. And when you are solo parenting, everything can become stressful at the drop of a hat - even Skyping with your spouse. How horrible is that? When you want to see them, but the kids are dirty, the dishes are overflowing and the plumber is about the come over to fix the dishwasher that broke the second your spouse deployed. So you Skype - and you are genuinely excited to see them because you miss them - but you find yourself snapping at the kids and being short with your spouse, because this needs to get done and that deadline is coming up. The point is, if you aren’t intentional about the deployment, life will get in the way.
This is not going to be a how-to on planning for deployment. There is no magic bullet. No one approach to deployment will work for everyone, because every family and every deployment is different. Each of our families has unique strengths and a diverse array of needs that should be taken into account. What this is, is a reminder of the - often overlooked - areas we should be intentionally planning for. It's important to plan ahead for when things go right or wrong. So accept that things will go wrong and be as ready as you can anyway.
Throughout this article I often use “you” to refer to you AND your spouse. While you, the at-home partner, may shoulder much of the responsibility for making sure the plan unfurls with minimal hiccups, you cannot plan without input from your spouse. You both need to be on board or someone will end up dissapointed.
What Do You Need to Plan for During Pre-deployment?
When planning for your deployment, make sure to address how your spouse will stay connected with the kids, how you and spouse will stay connected, how you will keep the routine going, how you will take care of yourself, and how you will handle the return.
Staying Connected With Your Child
How is your deployed partner going to stay connected with your child?
My husband and I are fortunate that while he is overseas he has a set schedule and access to reliable internet. Exceptions do come up, but for the most part we are able to Skype every day, sometimes several times a day. I know how lucky I am, don’t worry. We still plan, though. Before my husband leaves we make the intention to Skype every day. Every day! No exceptions. Then when he arrives and we know his schedule, we set a time every day. I schedule our days accordingly. This way we all get daily face time.
Plan to make the most out of the time they have together. Depending on the age of your little, daily conversations may not cut it. You can only hold Bean’s attention for so long with words alone. Keeping this in mind my husband packs toys and books. This way they can read together or play when she has run out of things to say.
How will you make the most of the time you have to connect?
Plan on giving your spouses ways to stay connected during downtime. Downtime is a killer. This is when your spouse will miss you the most. One thing I need to work on, is taking more pictures of Bean to send to my husband throughout the day. The next time he is overseas, I am setting the goal to draft a daily email to him, adding to it as the day goes on. By the end I will have a short day in the life of a Bean newsletter, complete with pictures and videos. This gives him something to look over when we aren’t Skyping. It’s just another way for him to feel connected to us.
How will you help your partner stay connected during downtime?
Staying Connected With Your Spouse
How are you and your partner going to stay connected during the deployment?
Plan to keep communication flowing. Sometimes, rehashing your day only goes so far in conversation, especially for the deployed spouse; either his day is the same-old sh*t different day or he can’t tell me. So just like with Bean we plan ways to keep the conversation going. We are avid readers, so we have our own little mini-book club. We take turns choosing books to read. Sometimes it’s a series, like rereading Harry Potter. Sometimes it’s a topic, like positive discipline. This way we always have something to talk about. This works for us. But what will work for you? A good place to start may be to think of ways you and your spouse liked to connect when you were first dating. Did you go to the movies? Instead of a book club you could have a movie club. Did you travel together? Start planning an ideal vacation to take when they get home. Find a solution that sparks joy in your unique relationship and fits into the constraints of this deployment.
Plan to make your partner feel loved. You can start by thinking about what you and your spouse's love languages are. Is your deployed spouse’s language gift giving? Surprise him or her with a care package every other week. Is your language gift giving? Your deployed spouse - usually - can easily go online and order small gifts to be delivered to the house. Or is your love language acts of service? Amazon now offers services, like cleaning for order through their website. It may not be my spouse doing the dishes, but just the fact that he was thinking of ways to speak your language while deployed would make me feel loved. The internet is making it easier to connect while we are separated if only we put the time in to make the best use of it!
Plan to keep your sexual relationship going. And don’t forget to keep the fires burning. You may be connection mentally and emotionally, but are you making your sexual relationship a priority? This one can get tricky depending on your comfort level and how much privacy your spouse has overseas. But make sure you don’t ignore this important aspect of your relationship. If you do, it can cause tension.
The bottom line is: Keep communication flowing both ways. Deployments are challenging. They are challenging for each of you as individuals - despite what my stressed out brain tells me when I am in the thick of it, he is not on a kid-free vacation. And deployments are challenging on your relationship. Do your best not to play the “who has it the worst game?” Nobody wins. You just undermine the relationship in insidious ways. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you make it out the other side still wanting to talk to your spouse.
Keeping the Routine Going
How are you going to keep the routine going by yourself?
Plan to keep your routine realistic. I keep my home running smoothly(ish) by paring down my routine to just the items that NEED to get done, automating as much as I can from this simplified list and then turning the rest into a realistic routine. Realistic being the keyword! You may want to bring Martha Stewart approved pastries to every event, but is that realistic? If you love baking and it relaxes you, then by all means make this a priority. For me, this is not a priority. I suck it up and become okay with the fact that I am going to bring store-bought cookies for the next few months. To put this in perspective, this was my daily to-do list when the Bean was under a year: shower, wash face, deodorize, take vitamins, eat a vegetable, eat a fruit, do the dishes, do one load of laundry and get out of the house. When you have an infant and it's only you, sometimes that is all you can manage. At that point in my life that was all I could manage.
Make sure that when you are writing out your list, contact with your deployed spouse’s family makes the cut - whether it is through Skype or in-person visitations. Keeping up with his/her family is a subtle way of helping them stay connected.
What will you be letting go of?
Plan for things to go wrong and know your go-to people for everything. Who is your go-to emergency babysitter? Who is your go-to fix-it person? Who is your go-to mechanic? Remember Murphy’s Law of deployments - if it can break it will break. Have these numbers easily accessible. So when you need them you have them. Try not to make your go-to people the same person. This can make your spouse feel replaced during - what can be - an incredibly vulnerable time in your relationship.
Who will you call when things inevitably go wrong?
Taking Care of Yourself
How are you going to make time for you? When you can make time for you, what will you do?
Plan for how you are going to make time for you. If you have family in the area, can you drop the kids off once a week? Ask now. If you have friends in the area, can you swap childcare once a week? Set the dates now. Can you afford daycare? If you can, consider enrolling your child now, so they can get used to it before your partner deploys. Too many changes all at once can overload tiny humans. Alright so you don’t have friends/family in the area and you can’t afford regular daycare. You still have options! Do you have a reliable babysitter or mother’s helper? Keep in mind many Doulas offer this service as well. Did you use a Doula? Call them up. When my husband is away I have a mother's helper who comes over for several hours on the weekend. Sometimes when I am overly caffeinated I use this time to clean the house, but usually I make myself a cup of tea, close my bedroom door and read.
But Ariel, none of these are an option for me? Before you start creeping down the slippery slope of feeling sorry for yourself, figure out how you can use your evenings to take care of you. For example, I designate one or two nights a week as my do-nothings. I do nothing except activities that legitimately bring me pleasure. I drink the wine. I watch Netflix. Or I read. Nothing else makes the cut.
How will you make time for you?
Plan out what you are going to do. Now that you know how you are going to make time, I recommend making a list of self-care activities you want to engage in. This way when the opportunity comes around you don’t squander precious alone time trying to think of something to do. Do some soul-searching. What activities recharge you? For me, the short list is reading, napping or going to coffee houses with my planner. My long list includes getting a facial, getting my nails done, shaving my legs, going to the playground and swinging on the swings, hiking, exploring a new town near me and the list could go on. For those of you in the newborn trenches - sleep counts as self-care. Don't feel guilty if your version of self-care involves passing out in a pile of unfolded clean laundry.
What is on your list?
Planning for the Transition
How will you reconnect as a family before facing the rest of the world?
Plan for the transition. Last but not least, don’t forget to plan for the transition! Your spouse is coming home! It feels like Christmas, New Years and your birthday all rolled into one momentous occasion, even if you guys have been at each other's throats the last few weeks of the deployment. Your spouse may want to act like they are on vacation - no rules, no routine, just living life for the sheer thrill of it. Rightfully so! They have been working 24 hours a day for weeks or months - in oftentimes life-threatening situations. Something my husband and I now plan for is when the vacation will end. This is unique to us and families that cycle on and off deployments fairly regularly. When your spouse deploys several times a year, you can’t afford to take a vacation from life every time they come home, especially with small children who thrive on routine! The first year we didn’t plan for transitions and it nearly tore us apart. I blamed him for ruining my routine. I blamed myself for not being able to keep it together. Now we set parameters. We can act like we are on vacation for one week - just one week! We visit all the family and friends he missed. We throw out the meal plan and go to restaurants he craved. We go on family outings every day. Then when the week is over, we establish the routine again and life goes back to our normal.
Remember no deployment is perfect. Don’t beat yourself up when the plan isn’t working. You will have bad days. In long deployments, you may have bad weeks or months. My husband and I make a point of talking frankly about what we refer to as the life cycle of a deployment. The first month or so into a deployment you feel the loss keenly, while the last month or so the excitement builds because they are coming home! But everything in between? We refer to those as the doldrums. The doldrums is a maritime term that means areas of the ocean marked by little to no wind but also sudden unexpected storms. It is a dangerous place to be. If you don’t plan accordingly you can get stuck there and starve or drown in a storm you didn't see coming.
If you and your spouse are intentional about deployments - if you have a plan in place to nurture those relationships that make up your family and keep you going, you will make it out of the doldrums in one piece. Then your spouse will be home! You can reconnect as a family. You can reconnect as a couple! The doldrums will be a distant memory overshadowed by the joy of being together again. You may not make it out of the deployment unscathed - few of us do - but you and your family will be stronger for having weathered it together.
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Ariel and Brianna are friends who met while working in a library. Now they collaborate to develop life-enhancing book club experiences.
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