Thursday, January 21, 2010

What IS the secret?

My husband and I awoke last Weds to a text message on my cell from my father-in-law saying "Hope this doesn't mean you are single-parenting again." We had no idea what he meant--had we been attacked? were things escalating in Afghanistan suddenly? Over the next few hours, we learned of the earthquake in Haiti and came to appreciate the seriousness of it, which was so remarkably underestimated by the first reports. We have both done international medical work. It is part of who we are. We hope to return to it as a couple when our kids are through with us. So, I told my husband (a military physician) that if he wanted to or had to go, I was behind him and the mission 100%. I said the V word with my blessing: Volunteer. Eight hours later, I got another text, this time from my husband, telling me he was leaving on Saturday evening and would be gone for 1-2 months. We began to scramble. The next day, yet another text from him: he was now leaving on Friday morning and would be gone for 5 months. Within this time, our nanny of more than 3 yrs gave us notice that she planned to leave ("just ready for a change"?!?!?!) in the middle of his deployment. I was having my own little tiny earthquake with little warning at home. At times, the only thing that kept my problems in perspective was the catastrophic enormity of the real earthquake, of which the people of Haiti had no warning at all.

My husband's last two deployments were planned, which gave us months to make all sorts of arrangements, time to ready our kids and ourselves emotionally, time to get the house and cars in good repair, etc. We had a nanny who gave no signs she might leave us. We got things in such order before his departures that I could keep up our usual family routines and standards for the most part. My husband just returned from his second deployment in two years 5 months ago. We thought we were going to be living normal united family life with solid childcare for at least another year. Who could have predicted all of this?

Ok, here's the weird part. Things are easier than usual. Way easier, strangely. Colleagues at work, neighbors, friends, people at my gym, checkout people at Costco who know us are all gawking and expressing condolences as they see me traipsing everywhere with our three small kids in tow with a fairly relaxed smile. "You are making this look EASY! What is the secret?" a lot of fellow moms have asked conspiratorily. Finally, after not answering the question enough times, I realized: I DON'T KNOW. But they are right. And it's not just an appearance. It is kind of easy.

The last two days, I have been preoccupied with this. Why IS life easier during this unplanned deployment of uncertain duration with childcare that now feels tenuous? It certainly shouldn't be. But it is. I finally made kind of a log of my day for the last few days and had a EUREKA!! moment. It's just a few things:

1) I am doing everything with my kids instead of for them. There is too much work in the household to be done now to do it all alone. I would never sleep. Or finish. Usually, I would be making dinner while the kids watch a TV show or unloading the dishwasher while the kids play after dinner or folding the laundry when they go to sleep. Now, we are pulling chairs up to the counter and they peel or mash while I chop--we are making dinner together. We are unloading the dishwasher together. Each kid even has a post-dryer laundry job (the 2 yr old finds all the socks and collects them in a pile, the 4 yr old sorts the clothes by owner and does some folding, and the 6 yr old does most of the folding with me). They love the independence and the chance to be involved. Suddenly the work doesn't feel as much like work to me or to them. I'm less resentful that I am a 24/7 servant because I'm not, and they are less resentful that Mommy is preoccupied 24/7 with chores and can't play with them because it's no longer the case. The work of our family has become a family activity. And because it's divided more ways, there is more time left over for real play. The results aren't all perfect, and it's not all being done the way I would do it, but it's good enough. And, at the moment, good enough is perfect. The new perfect. Which brings me to...

2) I have let go of perfection. Completely. Now, let me be clear, I let go of perfection to a large degree with the birth of my first child 6 yrs ago. But I mean REALLY REALLY REALLY let go. So the floor has dried Cheerios and who know what else stuck on it from breakfast. Yesterday. Who cares? The reality is that if I stay up late at night and clean my floor, the kids will just get more Cheerios on it again at breakfast. Of course, we can't leave it there forever, but we can leave it there for a day or seven. There is a pile of mail mounting on the dining room table like a volcano. Who cares? Maybe it will prompt me to write to that place in Farmingdale NY again and get off all those junk mail lists. Friends are coming over and the house is a mess. Who cares? Either they will be bothered, in which case they will feel sorry for us and we can have the playdate at their house next time (sounds good to me), they won't notice because their houses look like that too, or they will be secretly relieved because their houses look like that too. Everybody wins. And having let go of perfection brings me to...

3) I have more free time. Given the emotional impact on the kids of this deployment(my 4 yr old is taking this the hardest, but my 6 yr old has also struggled since his Daddy left the day before his birthday), I feel an urgency to sit down and play with them, read to them and not just for bedtime, be more engaged than I might otherwise be. Though I am not a fan of filth or clutter, I have to tell you that it's frankly kind of a relief to sit down amidst the dried Cheerios and piles of mail and read a book to my kids on the giant beanbag in front of the fire instead of cleaning up the house. It feels like I'm finally living the way I should have been living all along, focusing on what really matters. And, I would be remiss not to mention...

4) I am saying yes. Kids want to go see Princess and the Frog, on a school night--why not? The kids stare with wide eyes and big smiles when I say yes. They're in kindergarten and preschool. They'll probably still get into college. Friends invite us for dinner, I ask what time with one hand on my cell phone and my other hand shooing the kids out the door and into the car. If anyone offers help, I am accepting it. And not feeling bad about it. If they offer, I am assuming they genuinely want to help. And if they don't, well, that will teach them for offering! I find that we are spending a lot more time with friends, not just for the token Saturday playdate, but dinner on a random Tuesday evening, an impromptu s'mores party right after school for no reason whatsoever. And our extended family is offering to come for weekends that they otherwise would feel too busy to pull off. It occurs to me: I miss our friends. I miss our family. I don't see them enough. My kids don't see them enough. It shouldn't take an earthquake to make us spend more time with people who are important to us.

So, there you have it. I love my husband to pieces. I can't wait to have him home. And when he does come home, I think home is going to be an even better place. But since he left, I have been forced to change the way we do business. I am happier, the kids are happier, and bonus: since I am no longer a perfectionist, I don't edit or proofread, I just post. Which means I am finally posting again, too.


  1. Fantastic post! It's too easy to get ourselves tied up with non-essential 'priorities'

  2. Good for you. When my son was little and his Dad travelled at the drop of a hat, we "let things go" when he was gone.

    Our typical meal was "scrounging" which meant "whatever was quickest". Our favorite Friday night activity was Disney Channel and Popcorn curled up on the couch...if we got some vegetables in there OK, if not OK (now granted these trips didn't last for 5 months, but it kept things "special" so he didn't miss his Dad so much).

    I have a theory about why it may be easier for you this time in addition to the points that you have mentioned. My son calls it "overthinking" (I don't believe that is possible, but MAYBE he has a point). When you have time to plan there is always one more thing that just has to be done before you are "ready". You wake up in the night thinking, "I need to get the oil changed and the tires rotated before Saturday". If you just have to work with what is happening right now, you just deal with it and do what is absolutely needed in the present and don't sweat the details. It can make things infinately less stressful.
    That, and not washing the kitchen floor.

    Best of luck while your husband is deployed and bless all of you for the good he is doing in a terrible situation.

  3. Best of luck the next few months!

  4. I LOVE involving the kids in housework. Both my kids were helping cook eggs in the a.m. at three. My son, now four, throws a fit if he doesn't get himself dressed in time to cook breakfast. Cooking breakfast an incentive to get dressed? It's awesome.

    Sometimes I am guilty of having a rough day and cranking on the TV so I can just think in peace in the evening. But it's never as fun as when we all work together.

    What a fun post to read. Looking forward to hearing updates from your house and your husband's mission.

  5. Amazing post. We've let things go, just because it's the only way to have a little sanity. If people have to fish their clothes out of pile on laundry in my room for one day, it won't kill them.

    I need to incorporate more of these things. Thanks.

  6. I totally agree! My husband is gone every Thursday night and it's either dinner with the grandparents, eggs or grilled cheese. No baths! I put on some music and we dance while packing lunches and setting up for breakfast. Perfection is overrated.

  7. Loved your post. I could definitley learn a thing or two from your post. Wishing you and your family only the best.

  8. Adding more kudos to this list for your post. Definitely inspirational. I grew up with a single mom raising me and some of the best memories I have are when she and I would play hookey from school and work. We would go to the local mountains, buy some apple pie, and eat it after a short hike. See? Missing one day of second grade is no big deal - I still became a doctor, have great memories, and a great relationship with my mom.

  9. You make it sound like it's almost BETTER to have your husband away! I know it isn't but you do really seem to have adopted the right perspective.

  10. I have 3 kids with an almost stay at home dad. Thanks for putting things into perspective for me.

  11. I'm sorry you're having to make do without your husband for such a long time, BUT, at the same time, congratulations on figuring out how to make the best of it.

    Growing up my father's work took him to other countries for years at a time, and my parents decided it would be best for all of us to move with him. My siblings and I missed 18 months of school (we were in middle and elementary school) once, and I have so many great memories from that time. While we didn't learn whatever our peers were studying in school, we learned things like local customs and history and the local language. When we went back to school (yet again in a different country) none of us had any problems in school.

  12. TEMPEH, I Love your post. THANK YOU for being so transparent in sharing your experience with this deployment. As you know I have written about the struggles of balancing everything while my husband has been deployed. (we have dealt with deployments for the last 8 yrs, yet, for me they have not become easier.) After having a mini pity party for myself tonight in which I bawled my eyes out over the fact that it was snowing yet again, and my hubby is still gone and dang it he gets to miss this horrendous midwest winter, etc, etc, etc. I got online and low and behold, I read your post. THANK YOU. I am going to try to let go of the perfection. I have been trying to do EVERYTHING after my kids go to bed, so that I am spending adequate time with them, but it is resulting in massive sleep deprivation. (which is probably why I was crying) Sometimes it just takes someone saying what you need to hear, at the right time. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. And I am going to let go of perfection, my first step will be to go to bed with mail on the dining room table and laundry in the living room that needs to be folded!

  13. Thanks to all for the supportive comments. @MomRN2Doc1day, I feel for you too. You have been dealing with deployments for much longer than we have. This is our third, but prior to summer 2007, he was not yet deployable. You are absolutely right about the sleep deprivation. Everything looks better on a good night's sleep, so whenever I am tempted to stay up late during deployment to do anything that feels even remotely like work, I ask myself, "Is it essential to do this tonight?" If the answer is no, I put it down and go to bed. Remind me how old your kids are again and in what city you live. I am sorry we are not nearer by (we are East Coast, and I know you mentioned Midwest), but feel free to rely on me for e-support. :)

  14. This is probably one of the best posts I have read in along time, thank you for the honesty!

  15. Tempeh,
    I should look at this blog more often :0). I hope things are continuing to go well for you with this deployment. In answer to your question, my kids are 8 and 2. Both boys, and we live in Nebraska. Far, from the east coast. I hope you will continue to update us on the events of your life with the kiddos over these next few months. Thanks for all of your kind words. E-support is too, very appreciated. Are you guys assigned to a base? It is helpful to at least have others in a smilar boat around, even if it is sometimes difficult to find spouses to relate to. No one quite understands the juggling act when you throw in the addition of a busy career to the mix of kids and deployments, until your feet are actually on the fire! There are usually a few out there though, and for that I am so grateful. I'll send you good thoughts over the next few months, and hope everything runs smoothly.


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