The unspoken reality about bringing the MIA parent back into the funky groove of the family dynamic
For military families who have endured deployment after deployment, active parenting often takes a backseat to simply surviving. My own eldest child is now a senior and somehow time has punched me in the gut. I took time with him for granted. I hoped we could make up for the years his dad missed and the years I procrastinated mothering because I was an overwhelmed Solo Mom. I didn’t live in the moment; instead I looked ahead to a time of stability. Stability is finally here, but our son is a breath away from being an adult.
I don’t have any one-size-fits-all answers for how to deal with Parent 2’s revolving-door presence. Therein lies the crux of my frustration. I am P1. He is P2. We pretend there is no hierarchy, but there is. The simple lack of acknowledging that hierarchy breeds resentment and frustration on P1’s part and the mission is possibly doomed before it’s begun. After a deployment there’s an awful lot of ass-kissing and ego-stroking to make P2 feel relevant and vital in the family. It becomes all about him.
Here’s the thing. Any military spouse can google tips and techniques for easing P2 back into the family dynamic. Some of those hits will give useful advice and others are straight up bullshit. Here’s the real answer: There is no answer because none of us parent the same. Those advice pieces gave me a sick feeling that I was doing it wrong. Yes, much of that is due to my own Solo Mom neurosis and the fact that I overlook the things I’ve done right instead of what I may have neglected. Bringing P2 back into the home will suck. You’ll inevitably feel undermined and pushed aside when the Glory Parent rides back in on his white horse to save the family from becoming an episode of Dateline.
Military spouses have a mantra that pretty much sums it all up neatly. “If the kids are alive and breathing when you get home, then I’ve done my job. You best keep your pie-hole shut and tread lightly. This is my domain.” Most of my army sisters are the disciplinarians in their family. When P2 comes home, he showers the kids with contraband snacks and indulgence. P1 ends up looking like the mean ol’ Trunchbull.
My parenting style is liberal but structured. Discipline is not my strong suit nor is engaging my children in adult and meaningful conversations. I have a friend who is amazing at this with her own kids, and I marvel when I hear their easy conversations. I have no idea what to talk about with kids, but I do have a strong understanding of who my kids are as individuals. They feel relaxed around me. I keep a cozy home, give lots of affection and praise, and cook up a storm of food. I don’t micromanage homework unless they ask. I don’t force extracurricular activities or sports. I allow my kids to be themselves and I’m here if they need me. My husband would call my parenting style lazy.
I would call his Nazi.
My P2 micromanages and has exhausting schedules for every minute detail of living. He is the disciplinarian and does not pick his battles. When I try to be a stern disciplinarian, I’m met with giggles and eye rolls. He doles out consequences; I simply ask them not to do anything stupid and hope they make good choices. He has a clear picture of the adult he’s trying to mold, and I want them to discover that for themselves. My psychology background tells me that my husband’s style is a frantic attempt to make up for what he’s missed and prove how needed he is. This fact isn’t obvious to him. To him, I’ve let the kids backslide into oblivion in his absence.
If there’s a weakness or shortcoming in one of our children, the perception is that it’s my fault. If they excel in an area, then it’s because he is a wonderful success. I call bullshit. But I allow him to operate under this delusion because he needs that delusion. Had I missed years of our kids lives, not just because I procrastinated engaging conversations, but because I was on the other side of the planet for years at a time, well, I might be a little warped in my perspective too. So I let it slide and allow for P2 to feel like the Great White Hope. The one who swoops in and saves us all from becoming a Dateline episode.
So google with wild abandon and search for the answers. If you find them, let me know. I’ve learned one simple truth: Embrace your strengths and don’t beat yourself up over your weaknesses. Time is fleeting, and if you’re too busy searching for answers, you may look up and see that your children are grown.
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Angela Ricketts is ESME’s Veterans’ Assistance/Military Families Resource Guide and the author of the memoir No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife. Daughter and wife of career infantrymen, she has a master’s degree in social psychology. You can follow her on Twitter at @angricketts and Facebook at Angie Ricketts.
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