My 5-year-old got on the school bus for the first time ever recently for his three-quarter mile ride to our local elementary school. He had his Lightening McQueen backpack filled with school supplies, his clothes laid out for when he woke-up, his lunchbox waiting and my camera charged. His little brother and I put him on the bus, and then followed it to the school like a crazy helicopter parent because, well, you know.
The only thing missing from that first-day-ever equation was his Dad.
That's because his Dad is off TDY for a few months.
When we learned of this trip earlier this year we knew it would be just like every other military trip -- riddled missed moments. I'm used to that. After all these years as a military family I know that's how deployments and TDYs work. My husband leaves and life continues to move forward without him.
The start of school, however, has also ushered in the start of something new for our son: the realization that absence means more than just mommy doing everything. Leaving suddenly means missing.
Before this trip his dad being gone was just a blip on his daily little boy radar. Sure, it influenced his behavior in ways he didn't recognize, but it didn't impact his communicated emotions.
"When is my dad coming back?" he asks. His eyes fill with tears. "I want my dad."
Most of the things our spouses miss when they leave with the military are little things, really. Birthdays, Christmas and anniversaries seem very important in the moment, but you can always celebrate later (a fact on which I'm counting since my spouse just missed a major one for me).
But milestones, especially ones a child remembers, don't have do-overs. You could shrug off missing birth and the first steps as "well he didn't know you weren't here." You could say that, as a military spouse, I knew he would be missing stuff and it's part of the package I just have to accept.
But what about for my child? He knows his dad wasn't there for his first day. And he didn't choose this life -- I chose it for him.
My son and I sat down and skyped with his Dad later, telling him all about his first day of school. We showed him pictures. We included him as much as we knew how. But, of course, it wasn't the same.
So, parents, how do you help your child navigate the painful missed moments? Tell me, please, because I need your wisdom.