Lizann’s husband and their children sitting on a bench

What I Learned When I Left My Service Member Home With the Kids

For the past two decades, while my husband was serving in the Marine Corps infantry, I spent a lot of time taking care of our five children by myself. We were never stationed near family, and we couldn’t afford child care. From giving birth alone to handling ER visits or juggling the schedules of five different schools, I faced unusual challenges whenever my husband deployed, went to a school or spent time training in the field.

When I started working, there were suddenly times when he was responsible for all the kids by himself. For the most part, he has done a great job. He takes care of everyone, makes sure they are all fed and manages to create unique memories with the kids along the way.

Temporarily swapping roles, even for a brief weekend trip, gave each of us insight into the challenges of each other’s parenting responsibilities over the years. When I traveled for business trips, here is what I realized:

  • The deployment curse is real, and it isn’t only for deployments. The first time I went away for a three-day work conference, it was both a role reversal and a comedy of errors. Someone got sick and threw up, a school event threw off the schedule, and dinner was burned because the toddler had an accident. Listening to my husband’s frustrated voice while I was across the country in a hotel made me feel sympathetic and helpless. I couldn’t help noticing the irony of the situation. Military spouses joke that “whatever can go wrong will go wrong — usually as soon as the service member leaves!” This is true even when roles are swapped!
  • The primary caregiver carries an invisible weight of knowledge. “Default parents” have complained about this for years, and military spouses are no exception. When our service members leave, we manage everything from doctors’ appointments to home maintenance and restocking groceries. It’s a part-time job that requires a lot of time, effort and organization, no matter which gender is doing it. The downside of this responsibility is that during a temporary role reversal, such as a business trip, the secondary parent can’t fully step into the primary parent role. There will be phone calls and text questions. While this can be frustrating when I’m immersed in a work environment, I have learned to use it for productive conversations afterward so we can appreciate each other’s chores and discuss ways to share the load. It’s an opportunity to shine a light on the invisible responsibilities of a primary caregiver.
  • Our parenting styles are different because we parent in different circumstances. When I’m alone with the kids, I rely on structure and routines. It’s the only way to keep things moving smoothly, and it helps the kids know what is expected of them. It also helps me maintain personal standards and avoid slipping into depression. When my husband is in charge, things are more relaxed. They may stay up later, play more video games or get pizza delivered for dinner. Sometimes, this bothered me. It felt like he was “cheating” or taking shortcuts after I had worked so hard to maintain the home during deployments. Then I realized that he was able to enjoy the luxury of a more relaxed environment because he only had to hold down the fort for a few days at a time. I had to maintain my survival routine for 6 to 9 months on my own, so of course it would look different from his weekend responsibility.

Lizann’s family smiling

  • Everyone needs time to recharge. Whether you are a working parent, a stay-at-home parent or a military spouse without children, it’s always important to get time to yourself for self-care. It is not selfish to take a break from your other responsibilities if your self-care time renews you and gives you fresh energy to manage those tasks. After spending years as a stay-at-home parent, I find conferences and hotel visits to be refreshing. I’m also aware that after several days alone with the kids, my husband will want time and space to recharge. We need to know and respect each other’s self-care needs, so we can each be our best for each other.

If you and your spouse will be swapping roles soon, either for a short trip or a long-term career decision, I hope you will reflect on these lessons learned and find meaningful ways to apply them to your relationship.

Lizann Lightfoot
Written By Lizann Lightfoot
Marine Corps Spouse

Lizann is the Seasoned Spouse – a Marine Corps wife, mom of four and published author. She loves writing, exploring new duty stations and chocolate!

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