Crabbiness strikes our house about a month before every major deployment. The inconsistent work hours, due to the predeployment sea trials and work-ups, take their toll on our hearts. It’s tough to say good-bye so many times before the big day, and that day looms over us like a cartoon Acme anvil hanging by a shredded rope.
That predeployment cycle of tension also comes from the silent concerns each family member has about the deployment. Before my husband’s Med cruise, he mentioned that his biggest fear was our daughter not remembering him when he returned (she was 23 months old at the time). I imagine that many deployed parents share that fear.
My husband and I decided to refocus our crabby energy into finding ways for him to be present with our daughter while he was absent. As we started making plans, we realized it was going to take a team effort to stay connected during deployment. Here are the deployment hacks that worked for us:
(These hacks are mostly for the deploying parent.)
Take time with your kids to create special gifts for each other before the deployment. You’ll build fond memories into each creation that will help your child feel closer to you when they use that item.
You can tailor any of these ideas to fit your child’s age.
- Voice vault: Record the deploying parent’s voice saying I love you and place it in a stuffed animal (the child can do the same for the parent). Many malls have stores that will do this.
- Puffy-hand pillowcase: Trace your hands on a pillowcase with puffy paint so your child can place their hands in your hands when they go to sleep. Write goodnight messages on the pillow too.
- Family film: Make a video of the deploying parent reading the child’s favorite books, singing songs, directing the goodnight routine or doing whatever has meaning to your family.
- Moon messages: Think of a special message you and your child want to share (I love you). Speak it to the moon together. Every time you both see the moon, it will remind you of your message.
- Deployment diary: Create a deployment diary with your child. Place pictures of the two of you on the first page and then your child can add in everything you mail them (letters and drawings).
- Later letters: Write letters for each other before the deployment to read while deployed. Place instructions on the envelope: “Open this letter when you need…” (a pep talk, a hug, etc.)
- Traveling tale: Create a story together over the miles. The parent can start the story by writing the first paragraph. Mail or email the story to the child for them to continue the tale. Repeat.
(These hacks are mostly for the parent or caretaker at home.)
Even with the real-time video apps available, technology can crash. With kids, you always want to have a backup plan to stay in touch and soften the disappointment of dropped calls, frozen video screens or crashed email service.
The first week of deployment is all about getting the kids back into a routine. Try to work the following into your everyday schedule.
- Set up a count down. Place one chocolate kiss per person for every day of the deployment in a large jar. Eat the daily kiss and talk about what the deployed parent might be doing right then.
- Walk to the moon. When the kids are really missing their deployed parent, take a night walk to see the moon and help them remember the special message the moon holds for them.
- Share random favorites. Find ways to mention the deployed parent in everyday conversation. Mention it when you see something they would think is funny, or their favorite meal or color.
- Create a memory box. Wrap or decorate an empty box. Have the kids place art projects, report cards or anything they are proud of or want to remember to show or tell their deployed parent.
- Exchange pictures. The deployed parent and kids will treasure all the pictures they can get. Take and send each other pictures of everyday life moments, not posed, for an authentic connection.
- Track the deployment. Place a map on a foam-core board. Use pushpins to track where your service member travels. Discuss the locations so the kids can ask the deployed parent about it.
- Send mail and email. Care packages are nice, but sending frequent mail and email is even more important. The everyday conversations strengthen the family bond in spite of the distance.
Merging back into the family after deployment takes time. Talk about the deployment and catch up on what went on for all family members, but also start to make new memories as a family.
- Create a family-only zone. Go into lockdown mode where only your immediate family is together for a few days so you have time to reconnect. There will be time for welcome-home parties after the family has time to begin to settle in and get used to one another again.
- Reconnect through the memory box. While in self-imposed lockdown, snuggle up on the couch with each child (separately) and use the items in the memory box as conversation starters. Ask open-ended questions to help your kids open up and make sure to share your adventures too.
- Complete the deployment diary. Your family deployment story is in each child’s deployment diary. Tell your kids what you did while deployed around the time of each letter in the book. Help them record the events of homecoming from their perspective and yours.
The most important homecoming hack: remember to be present while you’re present (put away the smart phones). Be patient with one another as you catch up and settle back into life together.