It’s the most wonderful time of the year . . . or is it? As a mom, I always considered myself the keeper of the holiday. I was the one who shopped, wrapped, cooked, decorated, and did all the things to keep family traditions alive. Now, as a military mom of four service members, I grapple with the change that comes from an empty nest combined with the challenges of separation and deployments. It can make it harder to find the wonder in the season.
Why is it so hard for military moms? When our children left home to serve, we had to let go. At the time, I thought the letting go process was completed in one fell swoop, like cutting down the Christmas tree. Now, after 16 years and 12 deployments, I realize it is a constant process as I learn to adjust to a new paradigm.
Home is not necessarily my home, and that can make moms yearn for days gone by when they were all underfoot. I remember the lady in the grocery store telling me as my young children were packed in the cart with little room for groceries, “You are going to miss this.” I would miss the chaos, the potty accidents, and the carpooling to a million different practices and games?
Yes, I do, now. But mostly, I miss knowing they are all safe. That’s a gift not to be taken for granted when you love someone in the military.
Those empty chairs at the table are also hard to take. Why? Because we love our kids. We miss our time together. Now that they are grown and are establishing families of their own, it’s good they can build their new family traditions. Military families usually don’t live near Mom and Dad, and it can be tough to take the entire family on the road. Holidays at home are even more precious when deployment schedules interfere. I totally understand why they cannot be with me. . . but that does not take the sting away as my neighbors’ families gather together.
If our children are deployed during a holiday, it is also more stressful. The idea that they are going without and are in harm’s way can amplify our anxiety because, even though they are grown men and women who are well-trained and capable, we will never stop thinking of them as our babies. It’s why we will spend days collecting care package items and researching Pinterest for the best way to pack their cookies: We want to make the holidays special the same way we did when we searched for the perfect toy years ago.
We certainly are not alone in our feelings. Anyone who loves someone in the military has their down times and challenges. Deployments affect entire families from the littlest member to the spouse holding down the fort to the older generation worrying from afar. As a child, I remember my Army dad being gone and my mom telling me that Christmas is just a date on the calendar and we could make our own holiday.
As I work with other military moms, I try to share that wisdom. It’s tough but we can overcome. Part of it is adjusting your mind set. There are some practical steps you can take:
- Create some new holiday traditions. I don’t have kids helping me decorate the tree, so I make it fun in a new way. I put on music, make some hot cocoa, and give myself permission to let it take a few days if I don’t feel like getting it all done in one marathon.
- I look for joy every day. I walk outside in the snow and look for pictures. I buy some chocolate to have as a treat in case of emergencies–when those melancholy feelings erupt.
- I let go of the things that feel like burdens. With the constant fight against my weight, I realized that it is better to just buy a tray of cookies instead of baking them and eating way too many. . . unless I am sending them in a care package.
- I use my determination to focus on the good: How proud I am of my children’s service and their dedication to their families and our country.
The best gift we can give our children is our support of them and their families. If the stars align and they can spend time with us, that is a gift above all others. If not, I will do my best to find the wonder in the season and the pride in standing strong on the homefront. I’m still the keeper of my holiday.
By Elaine Brye