My husband and I have always managed to arrange our lives in such a way that one of us is always home with our kids. When Aden was born Ian was in school working on an engineering degree, and I stayed home with an occasional escape to play a wedding gig or concert. Eventually I was able to go back to work in the mornings and Ian would stay home with the baby. When Mona came along we were sometimes both home, because our expenses were low enough that we could survive on Ian’s weekend Army Reserve pay and my freelance work and part time violin repair job. We don’t have cable, we like ramen, and taking the kids to the park is more entertaining than any activity we would have had to pay for anyway. That period of time when we just had two kids was the most equal in terms of time and responsibility for us as parents. We do things differently, but I truly feel like a co-parent in this child raising adventure of ours. Ian is every bit as involved as you could ask a parent to be and I appreciate it greatly. We feel very fortunate to have the kind of time with our kids that we do.
But with Ian’s first deployment the balance of time with our children didn’t just tip the scales one way or another, it left the scales mangled in an unrecognizable heap on the floor.
I had all the children (including the newborn who arrived halfway through that deployment) all the time. There was always at least one with me in the bed or in the bathroom or on the stairs or in my lap or in the kitchen or in the car…. There is a particular kind of parenting overload that comes with deployment that I suspect is different from other kinds of single parenting situations. There is an underlying fear and desperation at work that accompanies the average level of stress of trying to parent alone that affects your choices. As much as I needed a break, simple options like hiring a sitter didn’t feel viable. It’s not just that the kids didn’t want to be apart from their one remaining parent, I didn’t want to be away from them either, even as they were driving me insane. Fear makes you clingy. You know how sometimes when you hear an upsetting news story it makes you want to just hug your kids? Deployment means you are living in the news story.
The second deployment was slightly easier than the first, partially because it was shorter, and primarily because I didn’t spend any of it pregnant or nursing a baby. But it included the new complication of my trying to run my own business with the kids in tow. I love having my own violin store, but it takes a lot of time to repair and maintain instruments. I’m amazed we ended the year in the black considering just how often I had to keep the store closed because it was too hard to work with all the kids along.
In any case, all sense of balancing time between parents has been distorted in our home. I have had so much time completely alone with the children that there is no demand I can make about using time for myself when Ian is here that sounds in any way unreasonable or undeserved. I could announce I want to flee to a cabin for a month to write a novel or just do my nails over and over and no one would object. Except my children. And I don’t want to flee my children.
But after each deployment the shift in time spent with the kids was huge. I love my work, I do it better when I’m alone, and with Ian available as the full time stay at home parent I shouldn’t have any qualms about going off to do it. But I do. It’s hard to go from being there every minute to having long work days apart from my children. When Ian was in Iraq the Army provided us with steady income. Now that he’s home, I’m the one who heads out to earn us money. There is a weird lopsided sense to this, where the balance comes in large unwieldy chunks. Instead of two parents trading off time by the hour or the day it’s like we’re doing it by the year. As if Ian headed out the door in his Army uniform saying, “You watch them until next autumn, and then I’ve got them after that.”
I am not complaining about having a job, and I’m aware that we have more flexibility in our schedule than many could ever hope to have, but the transition is still hard. Especially during a period like the last couple of weeks. After returning from Detroit there was a lot of work piled on my bench so I had to put in a lot of extra hours. Plus I had rehearsals three evenings a week. On Wednesday I literally saw Aden for a total of forty minutes. I’ve been home long enough to eat with my family and hug everyone before running out the door again. That’s just not right, but I don’t know what else to do. After my concert on Sunday my evenings should free up again and it won’t be so bad, but right now it’s hard.
Ian does all the pick ups and drop offs, arranges play dates, cooks, does laundry, takes the kids sledding, makes them cocoa…. He’s remarkably patient, especially with Quinn who is still having trouble adapting to his dad being home. Most of the time things are fine, but there are moments it’s clear that Quinn is attached to me as the real parent in his mind and he doesn’t understand why I’m not around as much. There are days Ian picks him up at school that Quinn gets morose and whines, “You do EVerything!” And Ian responds, “I know!” Talk about feeling unappreciated. But you can’t make someone love you. It’s hard to explain to people sometimes how Ian’s return home was all downsides from Quinn’s perspective. Ian left when Quinn was two, so Quinn accepts him as he would any other well-meaning relative, but I don’t think he remembered what a ‘dad’ really was. So this man comes to live in our house and now the food is different and mom is gone all day and he sleeps in the bed Quinn prefers and all of that is difficult to accept, especially if you are only four. You can’t just tell a little boy, “This is your dad and you’re supposed to love him now.” We took as much time as we could afford to have Quinn get accustomed to Ian with me around, too, but now it will just be up to them. They are starting to forge a closer relationship out of shared experience and habit, but at the moment Quinn’s cuddly kind of love is still reserved for me. But it’s getting better. Mostly because Ian is patient and kind and letting his son dictate the pace. Quinn won’t be able to resist him forever. One day, I hope sooner than later, Quinn will come around and realize what a remarkable dad he has and love will be easy. He just needs time, and right now that’s something Ian has to offer, even if mine is in short supply.