Like most military families, we’ve had our fair share of difficult moves. There was the time morning sickness began on day two of our long journey; the time our inconsolable daughter was assured by the movers that her favorite doll, baby Melody, was safe in their truck … only to never be seen again; the time we found out after the packers left that our Outside the Continental United States (OCONUS) command sponsorship wouldn’t go through as quickly as we had believed; and the list goes on and on. It’s something we all come to expect: any Permanent Change of Station (PCS) is bound to be rocky and unpredictable. Emotions run high, tears are inevitable, and expectations are often crushed.
Needless to say, we were more than happy to watch this PCS season pass by with nary a cardboard box in sight. Our kids, comfortable with their daily routines, wouldn’t have their lives turned upside-down. They wouldn’t have to leave their friends behind. There would, mercifully, be no repeat of the baby Melody drama. Life would proceed as usual.
Except it didn’t. And I was totally unprepared.
As summer approached, a variety of moving trucks began crowding the streets and a steady stream of “see you laters” began. A mass exodus of sorts seemed to be underway and, indeed, within six weeks almost everybody I knew was gone. Our friends spread out across the globe, moving on to new adventures and new beginnings. Living on a small Army post, our loss was quite palpable. Familiar faces no longer greeted me at every turn. A stillness seemed to settle over heat-scorched streets, and it seemed, truly, as if our tiny community had been shattered.
I missed my friends and the camaraderie. I missed the coffee dates; the easy chit-chat.
And in my funk, I nearly missed the warning signs that my 5-year-old daughter was in a funk of her own.
Realizing my Daughter was on an Emotional Roller Coaster
Although none of her close friends were moving, she became increasingly agitated at leaving anywhere — school, the park, an acquaintance’s home — constantly questioning whether the playmate of the day would be moving soon. Upon finding out that someone she knew — even vaguely — was leaving, she would become forlorn, quickly establishing a routine for her despondency which involved sitting on our front stoop for several minutes, just thinking.
As the school year crawled to an end, she developed a very sudden friendship with a little boy on her school bus whose family was due to PCS. They begged to take a picture together on the last day, hugging out a sad goodbye as if they had known each other their whole lives. Though she can never remember his name, she still talks about him, recalling that “the boy who was my really good friend had to move away.”
There were nights where she cried at bedtime, lamenting the fact that her teacher was moving overseas and wouldn’t be seen in the halls next year. There were mornings that began with tears over friends she missed, despite having only played together once or twice.
It was so confusing at first. Why was she so upset? What was with all the emotional distress?
And then it hit me.
Her life was changing, cardboard boxes or not. And for military kids who are so often asked to deal with monumental life changes, maybe it’s the little things that can throw them off balance. Maybe it’s seemingly imperceptible changes, the ones we adults barely register, that have the biggest impact. After all, we have so little control over our military lives. Imagine the powerlessness our little ones must feel.
So instead of sitting back and sipping wine while listening to my friends bemoan the logistical nightmares into which their PCSes devolved, I rolled up my sleeves and tried to figure out how best to help my little girl. Momming is always hard, but military life throws a whole new twist into it, doesn’t it?
After some careful reflection, I came to the following realizations:
What I Realized About Children…
All changes feel final and permanent.
While my friends and I hugged one another goodbye, we simultaneously looked forward to the ways in which the Army might realistically bring us together again. We discussed time frames and duty stations during which such a meet up might happen and left one another sad but hopeful. Our little ones, on the other hand, have no way to look forward with such clarity. They don’t have a comprehensive understanding of their parent’s career or understand the ways in which it is likely to proceed. Because of this, even small changes can feel devastating in their perceived finality.
They don’t have as many resources with which to cope.
Watching so many friends pack up and leave this year was difficult, but you know what made it easier? Knowing we could easily stay in touch. At any moment, I could pick up the phone, send a text message, or check social media, and instantly feel connected. It can be easy to forget that our younger children aren’t necessarily afforded such luxuries. They can’t check in on their friends at a whim or see pictures of their new life. This kind of access can’t be overstated when coping with loss. It’s something we owe it to our kids to keep in mind.
Kids are more honest about their feelings.
While I attempted to go about life as usual following the departure of so many dear friends, my daughter was unwilling to be so phony. She was sincerely upset, even if she couldn’t remember the name of the boy at the bus stop. Who was I to chuckle at such a thing when I pushed aside my own feelings in order to keep moving forward? Perhaps we all mourn the little changes, we just don’t acknowledge it with the same honesty as our children.
Resiliency and sensitivity are not mutually exclusive concepts.
This experience made me realize that we do a disservice to our military kids by imposing unrealistic expectations about toughness. Because we ask them to face so many difficult situations from such a young age, it can be easy to forget how little they really are and how overwhelming the world can be. Kids have big feelings, and that’s a good thing. I realize now our kids can be both tough and sensitive; and, in fact, both are great assets.
With these ideas in mind, I set forth to make some major changes in our household. Stick around for part two of this series to find out what worked for us and tips on how to cultivate resiliency in your own military kids!