These days when I look in the mirror, it's hard to believe the tired, slightly bedraggled woman staring back at me was ever a trained fighting machine who survived ten weeks of Army Boot Camp. Certainly, I've undergone plenty of subsequent rigorous training over the course of my military career. But of all the tools in my wheelhouse, I had always assumed that my initial entry training when I first joined the Army would be the most effective in preparing me for becoming a mother.
While there are some pretty obvious differences (like the fact that boot camp lasts a couple months and motherhood is a lifetime commitment ... and the only grenades I've handled as a new mother are the diaper kind), I wasn't far off in this assumption. Both experiences push you past your physical, mental, and emotional limits. You're required to function under the most demanding circumstances with minimal preparation and even less sleep. Drill Sergeants and babies alike delight in wreaking havoc on the best-laid plans.
At the same time, few things have ever filled me with as much pride and gratification as becoming a U.S. Army Soldier, or in becoming a mother.
Here are six ways that these two life-changing phenomenon are essentially the same:
You don't sleep
When you have a newborn, you don't expect to catch many z's. Unsurprisingly, boot camp isn't much better. Not only are you rudely awakened every morning at an ungodly hour, but sleep pretty much eludes you anyways, since all 30-plus females in your company bunk together in the same room, and chances are good that at least one of them snores, talks in her sleep, or deeply regrets her decision to join the military and spends all night crying.
Not to mention, you have to stand fireguard on rotation for an hour in the middle of the night where you get fully dressed in the appropriate uniform (no cheating and pulling your blouse over your PT shirt), ensure accountability of all personnel and weapons, and keep track of any changes in a log book.
Two weeks postpartum or two weeks into Red Phase, the Sandman is nowhere to be found.
You don't look your best
Makeup? Forget it. Contact lenses? Yeah right. While the days of BCGs (Birth Control Glasses) are gone, vanity is still not an amenity. Just consider yourself lucky if you swab on some deodorant to start the day. You're smelly, dirty, and covered in bodily fluids, sometimes not even your own. Am I talking about motherhood or boot camp? Take your pick.
Forget doing anything by yourself ever again
I often wonder what it's like to go to the bathroom without a tiny human shadow who delights in emptying cabinet drawers and unfurling the entire roll of toilet paper while I'm trying to do my business.
In Army basic training, it's pretty much the same, since you aren't allowed to go anywhere or do anything without a Battle Buddy. One upside is that your buddy isn't usually in the same stall with you--just guarding it. But it's a huge pain in the rear to persuade someone else to leave her warm sleeping bag to stand in front of a freezing Porta Potty in the woods when you're hit with the urge to go during an overnight field exercise. Trust me on this one.
You eat fast, or you don't eat
After I gave birth to my first child, the pregnancy weight fell off. I can't take too much credit, though, since it was due to my son's near-incessant breastfeeding and, well, starvation. When you're pinned to a couch all day with a newborn attached literally at the hip, it's a big adjustment learning how to prepare meals and actually feed yourself. Of course, Darwinism eventually prevails when you figure out how to eat one-handed, standing up, hunched over the kitchen sink.
Similarly, in boot camp, you have approximately five minutes to shovel food into your face before it's time to get up and move on. The only exception is when your platoon arrives to the chow hall first, which usually allows for a little extra time. God help you if you're late to formation, which consequently means your platoon gets there last--you will never be so hated by so many people ever again.
It feels like it lasts forever ...
... but suddenly you blink, and that phase is over.
Army boot camp consists of three phases: Red, White, and Blue. At the beginning of Red Phase, you're treated like a mindless idiot since you have absolutely no idea what you're doing. By Blue Phase, your drill sergeants trust you enough not to embarrass the heck out of yourself when you move on with your Army career, and you're ready to graduate. Every single day up until this point is an interminable slog, but suddenly it feels like just yesterday you were getting smoked for the very first time after stepping off the bus from Reception.
Motherhood follows a similar trajectory. The days and nights are never-ending, but one day you wake up and--what the heck--your newborn has become a baby who is now a toddler. Where does the time go?
You can't make it through alone
Above all else, the Army emphasizes teamwork and the importance of taking care of each other. You succeed--or fail--as one. This is why, if an individual soldier in your platoon messes up, you all get dropped. Boot camp is designed so that you physically cannot complete it by muscling through on your own; you must rely on your teammates and on your ability to communicate, collaborate, and accomplish the mission together.
I firmly believe that motherhood requires the same type of collaborative effort, whether between parents, family, or the village of well-meaning people you corral together. No mother is an island, and as humbling as it may be to admit it, we all could use a little help sometimes.
Ultimately, both military service and motherhood are arduous tests of any woman's mettle. Each is a call to service, a journey rife with obstacles that demands constant sacrifice and unwavering commitment. But the rewards--the deep sense of personal fulfillment, the lifelong camaraderie, the pride in being part of something bigger and greater than yourself--these things make it all worth it.
Now drop and give me 50.
Originally published in the Spring 2018 issue of AUSA Family Connections.