My husband is a public affairs officer in the Canadian Forces. This means his work hours can be long and erratic, moves are frequent and periods of deployment lasting weeks (and sometimes months) are expected. When we first started dating, he was a tank commander. He did a six-month tour in Afghanistan, came back, and then spent another couple months on a training exercise in the California desert. He’s moved six times in his 12 years of service, and has been given his first choice of location exactly one time. I’ve been along for the ride for 10 of those years, from Edmonton to Toronto to Wainwright, Alberta, and soon back to Edmonton.
Add two kids—a four-month-old and a two-year-old—into the mix, and life can get hectic. “I don’t know how you do it,” civilian moms often say to me. Some days, I don’t know how I do it either. Here’s the best intelligence I’ve gathered.
1. Make friends and do it fast
This is especially important for new moms. When your kids are older and in school, you get to know the other parents at pickup and through school events. But before Kindergarten, it’s all on you. I was 36 weeks pregnant with my first child when my husband was posted to a rural Alberta town where I didn’t know anyone. Up until then, I’d spent my entire pregnancy with a different OB, living in a bustling, trendy neighbourhood of Toronto and working full-time. While the birth at a small-town hospital went just fine, the change in day-to-day life was huge. I started feeling lonely and isolated after my daughter was born and realized something had to change to avoid postpartum depression.
In Toronto, I already had a solid group of friends, many of whom were also becoming parents for the first time. My mat leave there would have been filled with brunch dates, walks to the local coffee shop and mom-and-baby yoga classes at the studio down the street. But I was in a new town, staring down a long, cold Alberta winter with only a fussy newborn for company. So I registered for every mom and baby program, even when it seemed silly. (I can’t imagine my three-month-old was taking much away from baby sign language class, but at least I got out of the house and interacted with adults.) My husband asked a coworker’s wife to invite me for coffee, which turned into a weekly date with a group of moms. I made myself chat with parents I saw frequently. After a few playground conversations, I started dropping the, “Hey, I see you here often. If you want to give me your number, I’ll invite you over for a play date.” Awkward? Yes. But totally worth it.
2. Call on your village
The adage “it takes a village” becomes essential when one parent is guaranteed to be away and we don’t have extended family nearby. Asking for help doesn’t make you a bad parent. In fact, asking for help when it’s needed is a sign you’re doing things right. Last summer, my husband was deployed to Hawaii for five weeks soon after I found out I was pregnant with baby No. 2. While he took in views of Pearl Harbor from his office, I battled first trimester extreme fatigue and strange food aversions, while dealing with a toddler who had just learned to climb out of her crib. The “village” took action. My husband’s military coworkers employed their “bro-code” (his term, not mine) and took turns with our yard work and lawn mowing. When I was puking, another mom took care of my toddler all day so I could sleep. A group of military families generously planned a potluck for my birthday, since my husband wouldn’t be there to help organize or celebrate with me. I didn’t feel bad accepting help, and I still don’t, because my husband and I support the village when it’s our turn.
3. Stick to your timings
Take advantage of those military precision skills. For the last three years, my husband helped plan the largest annual Canadian Army exercise. His planning skills also come in handy when we need to get out the door on time with two kids. Captain Dad does a time appreciation, figuring out when we need to be where we need to be. Then he works backward, accounting for all factors—meals, clean up, vehicle fueling, and loading time for all troops and their kit. He adds in extra time for the inevitable diaper blowouts and/or toddler meltdowns. The process results in a “wheels rolling NLT timing”—that’s military speak for “not later than.” I used to think this was silly, until I realized how well it works with two little kids. We haven’t missed a flight yet and we’re seldom late for a dinner invite.
4. Take a break when you can … without guilt
This one comes from one of my military friends whose husband was deployed for seven months, leaving her to solo parent three kids. She made a point of getting a babysitter, or waiting for her parents to come visit, so she could go to a monthly trivia night, or have dinner with a friend. I know I’m a better mom when I foster friendships and take time to do things for myself. This meant putting my daughter in childcare part-time so I could continue with my writing and editing business, even when we didn’t truly need the extra income. And ever since my son was born, the “me time” has become solo walks with my favourite podcast a couple times a week, or sneaking into my office to work on a writing project every now and then.
5. Bloom where you are planted
This is the hardest lesson for me, and a mantra I’m trying to embrace as we stare down another move—our first as a family of four. Over the last three years, blooming has meant making our own fun, and keeping an open mind, in a small town. While we can’t make trips to our favourite city espresso roaster, we seldom miss an Elk’s Hall pancake breakfast and we’ve both volunteered with running clubs in the community—something we never really did when we lived in big cities. Our definition of fun has also changed. I planted a garden for the first time, and my toddler helps me by pulling up radishes and digging for worms. Sometimes, in the dead of winter, we’d go to the local hockey arena simply to let our daughter run around. We would inevitably see other friends there, doing the same thing.
Whether you’re a military family or not, parenting requires flexibility, and being able to make the best of circumstances makes life a lot more enjoyable. “Bloom where you are planted” is a good philosophy for our kids, too. They’re young now, but if my husband remains in the military for the foreseeable future, they will have to switch schools, make new friends and adapt to change. Being resilient is a great life skill for any kid to develop, and my husband and I hope to lead by example.
This article was originally published online in June 2017.