Three weeks ago, I became a mom again. I walked into my mother’s foyer, greeted to cries of ‘mommy, mommy’ and hugged my daughters close for the first time in over six months.
In that moment, I was mom again. I know that sounds off. Just because I deployed didn’t mean I wasn’t a mom, I was just gone. In my heart and soul, I still worried about my kids, I still missed them. But I didn’t have the day to day things that make me mom in my kids’ world.
When my husband deployed both times before this tour, each time, he came home to little strangers. Our oldest was three months old the first time he came home. She didn’t know him but she adjusted easily. Our youngest, though, was a year old before he came home the second time and their relationship has never been quite the same as his relationship with our oldest.
My husband has never had to sit back and watch his child crawl toward another woman, saying ‘mama,mama’. They might not have known him but they’d never replaced him in their hearts.
I have. When I left for officer candidate school, my youngest was just shy of seven months old. I was in Fort Benning, GA, my kids were in Maine and my husband was in Iraq. It was my first taste of what life in the army as a mom was truly like but I had no idea how hard it was going to be to deploy and come home again. I knew my mom was taking great care of my kids. I was not prepared for my baby to crawl after her, calling her mama. In that moment, I had a taste of the true heart break that military moms go through.
I’ve always been an emotional parent. But this week when I took my oldest daughter to her first day at school, she clung to me, sobbing that she didn’t want me to leave her. It was only school but in her world, it might as well have been another year. She cried. I cried. And I looked at her teacher, a woman who just met me the day before, and admitted through my tears that I did not know what to do.
It’s a hard confession to make. What kind of parent doesn’t know what to do when their child is upset and crying? Me. The mom who just got back from Iraq doesn’t know how to deal with her child’s separation anxiety. The mom who just got back from Iraq was prepared to hear I don’t love you or I want Grammy when her kids got mad at her. The mom who just got back was not prepared to hear “I don’t think you love me” at a rest stop in New Jersey.
What kind of mom doesn’t know what her kid’s favorite food is or what to do when they’re acting out? The guilt I feel for leaving my kids is coloring my decisions on how to interact with them and I know there will be consequences down the road.
When most dad’s come home, mom has been there holding things down. There’s a transition period but life has only been missing a single piece, instead of being uprooted entirely. In my kids’ case, we not only left them with my mom, we took away their home and their pets, their daycare and all the reminders of what their daily life was with us. Our animals, too, had to move in with relatives for the duration of the year, so they even lost their pets.
Coming home this time around is not as simple as picking Daddy up on the First Cavalry Division’s parade field. Coming home this time involves figuring out what it means to be a parent again. A mom who has uprooted their children’s lives once more and left them with an aching insecurity that mommy and daddy are going to leave again.
I’m not saying that dad’s who deploy don’t have transitions to make when they come home. But when both Mommy and Daddy are gone, the impact is different. It’s harder on me emotionally in some ways because I’ve been the stability in our children’s lives for the last two deployments. I always know what to do with them.
But now, I’ve stood in the hallway, surrounded by seventy five year olds and cried, because I didn’t know what to do.
For thousands of moms who are coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they will feel the pain of their infant children calling someone else mommy because they were babies when their mom’s left. They will feel the helplessness of not knowing how to handle a tantrum and the awkwardness of not knowing what their child likes to eat. And, if they choose to remain in the army, they will feel the fear of the next deployment, knowing that as soon as they figure out what normal is, their families will be uprooted once more.
I know what it feels like now to become a mom again. And I know the fear of deploying again. Of taking my children from their home and uprooting their lives once more. It’s the life I lead, the life I chose. The life of a mom, who is also a soldier.
My choice, however, does not make today’s pain any easier to bear.