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How to Ease Separation When Both Parents Travel

Must-Have Parent

Sometimes even the "must-have" parent must leave. For work, for family emergencies, for a weekend break. Even Must-Have parents can't be home all the time.

So what to do when the Must-Have must go? Especially when the other parent is already away?

The name and idea for this column came during a conversation I had with Jacey Eckhart, Director of Spouse and Family programs for Military.com, earlier this year. We were talking about how in many families one parent does much more of the hands-on work because the other has an incredibly demanding, time-devouring job.

Jacey said that her son had once referred to her as the "must-have parent." As in, it was OK for the Jacey's Navy husband to deploy, but Jacey had to be there. Always.

Kids who are used to saying goodbye to one parent, especially for long periods of time, aren't usually happy to say goodbye to the other one, even if it's only for a night or two.

Separation anxiety kicks in and, whether they express it or not (and they probably will), children wonder if their Must-Have will return.

I had to leave town for a few days this week. My husband is in the middle of a deployment, a particularly difficult one for our children for a variety of reasons. Hearing that I was leaving caused a minor panic in my household.

My normally hilarious, everything-rolls-off kids got clingy and emotional, much more so than I expected.

According to this article, children going through a deployment experience many of same effects as children going through a divorce.

Let that sink in for a minute.

We take this for granted in the military community. We chirp about resiliency and brag about our strong, confident children. But we forget that they are going through experiences -- multiple times -- equivalent to the very worst thing that happens in many "normal" children's lives.

Knowing that our children are already experiencing something akin to divorce, inflicting another trauma -- even a very brief, absolutely necessary one -- can seem cruel.

But there are some things we can do to make the situation a bit easier.

  1. Bring in a known and trusted babysitter. Not to say that you'd just drop your kids off with anyone, but leaving your children with someone they know and like (and that you trust!) will go a very long way toward calming their fears.
  2. Be open. Tell them at least a few days in advance that you have to leave so they have time to get used to the idea. DO NOT leave without telling them, such as while they're at school or napping. While it might be easier for you in the short term, the consequences will not be worth it.
  3. Educate them. Knowledge is power. Tell them where you're going, why and show them your destination on a map. Tell them how you will get there, where you will sleep and what you'll be doing. If they're too young to understand what a day means, tell them how many "sleeps" you'll be gone. "You'll go to sleep tonight, and then you'll go to sleep tomorrow night and then I'll be home to tuck you in the next night."
  4. Let them help you pack. Ask them to put your socks or your toothbrush or other items into your bag for you, and then tell them how much you appreciate their help. It will be easier for them to say goodbye if they feel like they were a part of the process.
  5. Help them count the days. Consider reusing one of your deployment countdown tricks. Make a paper chain, or count out pieces of candy and tell the sitter that your children can have one each day that you're gone.
  6. Communicate. Video calls on Skype and Facetime make it easier than ever to connect with your children. Before you go, set up a time to talk and stick to it. 
  7. Take them on dates. If time permits, take each child out for an individual date before your leave. Or make plans to have a date with each after you get back. Ask your child to think up fun things for the two of you to do while you're gone, and you can talk about these ideas when you call.

Even a Must-Have Parent can't be home all the time but, with a little preparation, leaving can be less painful for everyone.

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Rebekah Sanderlin Military Parenting

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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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