The Struggle of a Parent in the Military.

I have been serving in the military for seven years as of June. During these arduous years, I have experienced many new things including: deployments, marriage, disasters, parenthood, and unpaid overtime. To me however, nothing has been greater or more challenging than being a father. My son is two years old now, and I have been through hell and back for him. I was there when a mountain caught fire, and we had to evacuate the house because of the smoke cloud encompassing the base. I was there, when we ran out of breast milk, and I had to learn how to feed him formula without having it regurgitated back at me. When he missed his mother (who was out on a drill weekend with her unit), and wouldn’t stop crying for hours (despite comforting him in my arms the entire time). When I fell asleep standing up (we learn to do this in boot camp) because he didn’t want me to sit down while falling asleep. I don’t need to specify how much I adore this sweet child of mine. He is my biggest joy in life, and I would do anything in my power to protect him (which includes working in a job I hate).

The biggest challenge comes from discerning when it is appropriate to discipline my child, or if I truly want to do it. You see as a military father, deployment is too much of a constant weight in your mind. If you’re constantly disciplining your child, and acting as an authoritative figure, then you face alienating their feelings. If you consider the fact that you’re gone for a great part of his life, and the only memories they carry are negative; why would the child want you at home?This is something that I fear terribly. I don’t want my son to think of me as the absentee father who was off fighting wars, while his child was at home dreading his return. I want my child to know that I’m his father, friend, and a confidante. But, often time the lines are blurred because if we don’t teach our children discipline then they risk becoming military (spoiled) brats. These are the children around base who cause mayhem. In my base we’ve had breaking and entering, larceny, burglary, one kid even entered a car to smoke weed in there (I have no idea what the goal was, it was in a police report).

This is what I imagine he was doing (image belongs to the original owner)
This is what I imagine he was doing (image belongs to the original owner)

But, military (spoiled) brats are the source of a bigger problem which has not been fully addressed yet. Military families need to discipline their children because if the parents don’t do it, then the law will. If the law has to get involved with military dependents, the service member will lose base housing privileges, and even career wise repercussions such as loss of rank. They say kids will be kids, but at what point does that stop being a justification? We can’t continue avoiding the issue, believing our children are good kids all the time because we were children at one point ourselves (we know what we did!). It’s unfair to expect our children to be any different, but we are held to a higher standard (which is sometimes unachievable), and this causes even more rifts in families.  Its one (of the many) reasons why divorce rate is so high among military couples despite being 1% of the population.

All of these factors also take a huge toll in the mind of a developing human being. Children are very vulnerable to the struggles faced in the military, and a such many of them rebel in the small ways they can. Could it be a cry for attention? It appears like this is a struggle shared by many members, and does not look as if it will change any time soon. The problems I listed earlier are so common that they’ve appeared in every base I’ve been to during my career. You also learn a couple of stories from members who were military brats, and are now in the service (if anyone has any curiosity feel free to ask me). But there are some good news; the military has a lot of programs to help out new parents, my branch in particular has a family support center that holds training for new parents such as boot camp for dads (in which I have been the veteran father for the last two years). Mothers have a support group, which even teaches them about breastfeeding.  This is only a step in the right direction because it seems like despite the military hosting programs for new parents, they forget that parenting is constantly evolving. They must implement other programs to help not just stop troubled children, but actively  teach parents different ways to educate children in order to prevent these kind of situations. We are often quick to point fingers at parents, call them names, and even insult their parenting style, but we often forget that parenting has many different structures.

As Military members we live in a very specific type of structured environment, and while rules aren’t often as clear as we would hope. We often carry that structure into our home lives. We hope that the structure, and discipline will be good for children, but instead we teach them to conform. To follow the needs of the many, when in reality this is very damaging to their (children) psychological health. We are sub-consciously taught to follow the crowd, but then to say no, when it’s bad? Can anyone else see the contradiction here? How does a child discern what is good or bad when they are taught that the majority is right (and the complainer is always wrong)? What works for us as adults will not always work for children. It is our job to educate ourselves in raising children. But, we’re too tired/busy/per-occupied (pick one) to do this, and with good reason. The life of a military member (and spouse) is never easy. We face challenges that many others will never see in their lives, and that takes an enormous toll on our health (and mental) well-being. How can anyone expect us, to handle every minute detail with perfection? We are as human as everybody else, which is why we don’t expect to be treated differently when we go out in uniform.  So why are our kids expected to be better behaved than any other child?

In Africa they say it takes a village to raise a child. I think they have the right idea, we should help shape children even if they aren’t ours. How many times have you seen a child throw a tantrum at the store (or an airplane)  and looked at the parents with despect? Being a father has taught me, that even if my child doesn’t do those behaviors, I shouldn’t judge others. I simply don’t know enough of their situation. Perhaps that person doesn’t have the privileges that I do. I refuse to dehumanize people for the actions of their children. This isn’t perfect thought and even though I try not to judge, it does happen. Parenting is simply not easy, it doesn’t come with a manual, and it’s very easy to lose your temper when a child’s cry is designed to trigger emotional responses. I’m afraid that sometimes I lose my temper, and hurt my son’s feelings, and this crushes my spirit. This is the reason why I wrote this article.

Yesterday, while my wife and I were packing for our transfer, Leo was playing around. At this point it was almost 11pm and we had a truly long day (trying to pack important items, sell our vehicle, what we would eat, checking out of my command) and it was emotionally/physically draining. He should have been in bed already, but instead he was running around, and in one moment of weakness, while my wife and I were speaking he started trying to get our attention. While it was fairly easy to explain to him the first time that we were talking, he progressively got louder and more demanding. This is when I lost my temper and grabbed him by the wrist, and said (in a harsh tone) “Leo! We are talking!”. The look of anger/sadness on his face just tore me apart. I couldn’t stand what I did (as simple as it was). This might seem silly to other, but I hate raising my voice at him, yet its unavoidable at times. My wife soothed him, while he went through the emotions of the moment. She also recognized that it distressed me, and said “it’s all right, he needs to receive discipline at times”, but that’s not how I want my child to see me.  I often wonder if this is what goes through the mind of every parent, when they discipline their child… and it is heart-wrenching. Especially considering the agreement that my wife and I made when he was in her womb.

You see, my wife and I decided from a start that she would be the authoritative figure because she would spend the largest amount of time with him. Thanks to this agreement, I get to enjoy spoiling my son every so often.  I want to make the time he spends with me very qualitative in order to ensure that my returns are positively anticipated. I want to be his best friend because unlike most children in the U.S. long-term bonds aren’t very possible. So I want his constant to be that dad will be there for him no matter what happens. But, that’s not possible… No matter what will happen, I am his father, and just like my wife have to be there to guide him in making correct decisions. If this means punishment, and discipline then that will have to do. Parents have possibly the hardest job in the world. To ensure that the next generation of human beings is better than the previous one. But, without clear-cut instructions we are often left aimlessly stumbling upon every pitfall we encounter. This is why I apologize to children everywhere for all our shortcomings as parents and I have this to say.

Leo you are my biggest source of pride and joy. You are the sunshine that brightens my every morning while I go to work. You make my life sweeter by simply existing, and I couldn’t possibly adore you any more than I do already. I’m sorry for my mistakes, my temper, the times I couldn’t play with you, the times I had to be strict, those moments where I had to discipline you, and those months I couldn’t see you because of deployment. They are events that I won’t be able to ever take back. But, know that I did them all because of you. Because I was willing to sacrifice every bit of happiness in my life in order to ensure your safety. But, mostly because I wanted to ensure that one day you would grow up to be a respectable adult, worthy of every positive aspect in your life. It tears me apart to see you upset, and I’m sure one day you’ll understand the reasons for my behavior. I want you to remember that father loves you with all his heart, and that will never change for any reason in the world.

I love you!