Early in my pregnancy, I made the mistake of referring to our twins as “military brats.” Their dad told me that he would not accept that term. Our children, M and J, would never be allowed to use our family’s military connections as an excuse for brattiness or other poor behaviour. His point has stayed with me. It extends to our divorce too. Divorce has been hard on the children, but does not furnish them with a free pass to be badly behaved.
Military life is hard on kids. The moving, the extended absences of a parent and the fear associated with having a parent in combat are no small things. We’ve honestly had it pretty easy. Instead of having to move to a different part of the country or world every few years, we were able to stay in the Austin area for 8 of the 9 years that I was engaged or married. That gave us the time to build a solid steel support network. Although I got to stay put, during the time I was a military fiancée/wife, my husband went to Iraq twice, Afghanistan once, Korea once and was activated for hurricane relief. He missed every one of our daughters’ odd birthdays.
My ex is currently stationed in North Carolina. We live in Texas. This absence is much harder for my girls than the ones in the past have been. Perhaps it’s that now, at age 7, their memories are long enough to know what they’re missing. Perhaps this absence, where Daddy is stateside and in garrison, not overseas or in training, feels different to the girls.
I don’t have much patience for excuses. Instead, I believe in acknowledging our mistakes and identifying their sources to prevent similar mistakes in the future. When my daughters try to pull the army or divorce cards to explain away poor decisions, I acknowledge that it is difficult to be military children and have gone through our divorce. I then remind them that those things are no excuse for bad behaviour.
On Monday, my daughter M couldn’t find the shoes she wanted to wear to summer camp. I was less than sympathetic. I reminded her that she was responsible for her things. If she couldn’t be bothered to store her favourite shoes somewhere she could find them, that was too bad. She could wear another pair. I was not going to help her look for her shoes beyond double checking the shoe rack where they should have been.
There were a lot of tears, but when I ushered the children into the car, M was not barefoot. She had, however, left a pair of shoes in the middle of the hallways. These shoes were neither the pair she was wearing nor the pair she wanted to be wearing. I made her get out of the car and put them away.
She was not happy about that. She cried and cried and cried. Finally…
M: It’s because you and Daddy got divorced!
Me: What is?
M: That’s my sadness. That’s why I have tears.
Me: Uh, no. Your sadness is that you’re dealing with the consequences of not putting your shoes away.
M: But I miss my Daddy.
Me: And so you should. Would you like to call him? You can talk to him. You cannot blame him or me for you not putting your shoes where they go.
J: There is a big hole in my heart. Around the center of my heart is a empty part. The center of my heart is M. The empty part is of missing Daddy.
Me: Sweetheart, I know. I think I understand. Remember, my parents are also divorced. I know that there’s a pain that feels like it would go away if Daddy and I hadn’t split up. But if we hadn’t gotten divorced, you wouldn’t have such a great step-mom and step-sisters. And this is one of those really really difficult things that is part of our lives that we accept.
M: My sadness is because I’m not used to Daddy being so far.
Me: I don’t understand that part. I totally understand that you miss him. What I don’t understand is why you think he’s away more now than he was before. He was gone a lot even when we were married.
J: It feels more away. Because he doesn’t get to visit so often.
Me: He didn’t get to visit much from Iraq or Korea or Afghanistan.
J: This is different.
Me: You’re right. It is different. And your feelings are normal. I wish you didn’t have this sadness. Do you want to call him on my phone?
J: No! I want to see him.
Me: Let’s figure out a way to see him, then! He’s going to pick you up for Christmas. Maybe we can find a way for you to fly to North Carolina for a few days.
M: So you’ll take us and fly home and come back to get us.
Me: No, you’d probably fly by yourselves. It’s called “unaccompanied minor”. You’d be with Sissy, of course, but the airplane people would be responsible for your safety until Daddy picked you up, or I picked you up.
M: That’s a good idea.
Me: He’s going to expect you to put your shoes away, you know.