By Bethany Sheets
As we drove home from our first pre-deployment brief, I clung to my husband’s hand in silence. My heart was heavy and mind was spinning: special Power of Attorney, Family Care Plan, military ID… Being at the brief and listening to the speakers made everything sink in and get real really fast.
When I get overwhelmed, I turn to list-making because it makes me feel like I have more control over chaos. I have become skilled at checklists, and I love marking them off. I felt confident in my pre-deployment checklist; I felt emotionally and mentally prepared.
But then it hit me: How do I explain deployment to my little ones? How I do prepare them for the hard goodbye and long separation ahead? Where do they turn when they are overwhelmed with their emotions and are struggling to articulate they are missing their daddy? They were one and three at the time, and I had no idea how to support their emotions and understanding.
I’m happy to say that we survived that first deployment and another! And while I’m not an expert, I have loved using various ideas to help my children feel connected to their military parent during deployments. Younger children especially, who may not have strong verbal skills to express and understand deployments, can really benefit from these practical, tangible, and budget-friendly ideas.
Daddy Dolls or Mommy Dolls can be found at www.hugahero.com starting at $26 for the smaller doll. You upload a picture of Mom or Dad and they created a cloth, huggable doll for your child. Be sure to “like” their facebook page for special promotions. These have been a must-have in our home; my children take them on trips and sleep with them every night.
Similar to Daddy Dolls, if you’re on a tighter budget, is The Sweet Dreams Pillow Project. They offer a pillow with a photo of your choice for free! They just ask you to pay for shipping after you receive your pillow.
2. Videos of every day moments
This might sound silly and may even feel awkward while recording, but trust me– this was one of my young children’s favorite ways to feel closer to their daddy while he was gone. It doesn’t cost a cent. I took short clips of my husband doing mundane things around the house like mowing the lawn, dancing, wrestling, playing, and reading with the kids. My son loved the mowing the lawn clip and watched it over and over. It helps memories stay alive and fresh in their young minds while Mommy or Daddy is far from home for many months.
3. Read books to a camera
My husband recorded himself reading five books. There was more than one occasion while I cooked dinner, that the kids sat around the computer at the dinner table (even the baby was strapped in his booster seat) and they read along, turning the pages, totally entertained, mesmerized, and connected with the video of their dad reading.
There is also a wonderful program called United Through Reading that connects military families all across the world through reading. The deployed parent is recorded reading books and a DVD is mailed to the children back at home. It’s pure joy when that package arrives in the mail!
4. Recordable books
Not to overemphasize reading, but recordable story books are one of my favorite ways to help children cope. They don’t need an adult to set up a computer or share their phone to access videos or make a call on Skype. The child can simply walk to their bookshelf anytime they need to hear their parent’s voice. Recordable story books can be found at most bookstores and Hallmark for around $20.
If you head into Build-A-Bear Workshop, you can choose a stuffed animal and add a military uniform. Then have your service member record a short message to put in the paw of the animal before it is stuffed and sewn up. We have a Marine daddy bear, dog and monkey that have their daddy saying each child’s name and “I love you!” You can believe those paws have been squeezed more times than we could ever count. The trip to Build-A-Bear can be a sweet memory together before the parent leaves, as well as provide an opportunity to talk about the deployment ahead and the emotions that the child may have.
6. Countdown kiss jar
Fill the biggest jar you can find with chocolate kisses and tell your children when the jar is empty, Mommy or Daddy will be home. In the meantime, each night they get one kiss from Mom or Dad before bed. As homecoming day approaches, you can count out the exact number of kisses left before you’re all reunited.
7. Tangible timeline
This idea comes from a creative Navy spouse friend, Chrissy. While her husband was on a MEU, she bought a long ocean border and put it across the top of her daughter’s walls. They cut out a picture of the ship their Marine was on and moved it each month. It was a tactile way to see how far they had come without their Marine and how much longer they had to go.
We modified this idea a little bit since our Marine was working with airplanes. I bought a long border with clouds on it and a sticker of a C-130 airplane. We hung it up in our dining room and talked about it at almost every meal. On one end of our timeline was a picture of him leaving and walking towards the plane. On the other end was a picture of him holding the kids. During the deployment, he sent funny selfies and photos of himself and we hung those up along the cloud timeline too.
8. Celebrate milestones with ice cream
We got this idea from several strong mamas at VMGR 352 at MCAS Miramar. Every month without Mommy or Daddy is one month closer and one month stronger. It’s something to be celebrated. We marked it on our calendar and planned froyo trips with friends to celebrate each completed month! We dressed up, went out, and took a picture holding up our fingers with the number of months we were celebrating that day! Even if it was a rough day or week, we pushed it aside and smiled and laughed with each other, knowing we were getting closer to seeing our Marine again!
9. Care packages
Let your kids be involved in preparing care packages for their mom or dad. My kids loved choosing one item per grocery trip for Daddy. They could tell, even without being able to read, which bag of chips, nuts, or beef jerky was the spicy kind…and they knew Daddy likes spicy stuff! They delighted in choosing a package of cookies or candy to put in his box too. And they were overjoyed to do the decorating of the care package itself. What made it even more fun was when he would open the package over skype and they could see the items they chose for him being pulled out of the box!
Staying busy through the deployment, with activities, trips, and various fun outings is an awesome way to make time go faster, but make sure you carve out regular time to connect through conversations via skype. This is a perfect opportunity for the deployed parent to be silly, interact, ask questions, be available, show the depth of their love, and stay connected.
Obviously you don’t need to do all of these ideas to help your children cope. Maybe one or two of these will fit your family’s needs and help your next deployment go a little smoother.
Bethany has survived military life thus far with ample coffee, awesome community, and God’s amazing grace. She is currently in San Diego with her Marine husband and three children, but moving to Indiana soon, as her husband is transitioning out of the military. She hopes to continue her love of working with military families, volunteering, photography, and frequent trips to coffee shops.