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How Did I Get to Be the Must-Have Parent?

Military parenting

Editor's Note: The Must-Have Parent is a new column on Military.com for all of us married to a Must-Do Parent -- a partner who is frequently absent due to deployment, travel and/or non-negotiable work hours. We intend to explore how this family pattern plays out and what kind of strategies can bring everyone together under one roof.

In my dreams, I wore khaki. Lots of khaki. And I was dusty, sort of sweaty, and my hair was a mess as I was frantically filing stories from a cafe in Beirut or an unair-conditioned hotel room in Southeast Asia.

In my dreams, I was busy winning awards for my reporting on all the troubled places in the world.

In my dreams, I was Christiane Amanpour --  and Christiane Amanpour did not have to worry about whether her hair was messy. Christiane Amanpour didn’t have to worry about peanut allergies because it was her week to be Snack Mom. Again.

Why can’t these people just feed their own kids??

What I’m saying is, I never meant to be a stay-at-home mom and I certainly never meant to be the Must-Have Parent.

The Must-Have Parent, as Jacey Eckhart explains, is the parent who holds the family together when the other parent holds a life-devouring job, the sort of job that makes unicorns more common than compromise. My husband has that kind of job, therefore I have everything else.

I was raised to believe that my husband (should I choose to marry) would share chores and parenting duties (should we choose to have children) with me.

Then I exchanged vows with a man who had already exchanged vows with the U.S. Army. The Army had bigger things to worry about than my dreams.

To complicate matters, three weeks before my husband deployed in 2004, I pushed a living miracle out of my body. Suddenly, that little boy needed more time and attention than even two people could provide, let alone just little ol’ me -- a young woman who had never bothered to learn to change a diaper and knew not one lullaby.

All of the sudden, being dusty in Beirut didn’t seem as important as being spit up on in North Carolina. So I quit my newspaper reporter job and put those dreams on hold.

Ten years and nine deployments later, there are two more living miracles in my life and they look at me with their six giant eyes. (Six eyes when you add them all together, people! Not six eyes each. They aren’t mutants!)

These kids don’t give a whit about what’s going on in Africa or Asia. They just want some apple juice. Or for me to check out their worlds on Minecraft. Or to have someone praise them for having a “green day” at school (which, to my continuing dismay, has nothing to do with the band).

I have become the Must-Have Parent.

Now, let me say, I believe that all parents are “must haves.” Every child needs every ounce of love they can get and they are hard-wired to want it from their parents.

My children must have my husband. None of us considers him optional. But he’s our Must-Do parent, the primary breadwinner, the one with the demanding job that pays our bills AND prevents him from going to most of the teacher conferences, soccer practices and dance recitals.

That means that I’m the daily driver in this family. For those of you not married to an old car buff, a “daily driver” is the reliable vehicle you have because the fun vehicle might not always run. That’s me. I used to be a sporty, adventurous Jeep. Now, I’m a minivan.

And that’s fine. I know that I’m lucky to wipe noses, sign the ridiculously long field trip permission forms, play Legos and paint fingernails.

There are least five moments every day when the beauty of my situation literally takes my breath away. But that doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes crave a routine in which “getting dressed” means more than “yoga pants”.

If you’ve read this far, I suspect you’re a Must-Have Parent, too. The military community is full of Must-Haves and Must-Dos, but there are plenty of civilian parents who find themselves dividing duties this way, too.

It’s a lovely, strange, messy world we inhabit, one that requires balancing our expectations with the needs of our families. That wasn't part of my dream when I started out. It is now. And that’s what makes me a Must-Have Parent.

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Family and Spouse Military Parenting Rebekah Sanderlin

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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