Editors Note: This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter.
There were things that I expected to miss when my husband deployed. His laugh, his smell, sleeping next to him in bed. His him. And then there were things that snuck up on me. I missed being a parent with him. Not all the crappy parts—the disciplining, the nose wiping, the puke cleaning, and the lunch packing. Although I missed those too. But I missed the funny parts. The moments when you look at someone watching your child and they are just as amazed, amused, baffled, and delighted with them as you are.
I missed laughing with my husband as our daughters grew into their personalities. I missed him being a part of those stories, and so I’ve written down some of them.
Living With Wolves
She stands there, hip cocked to the side, right foot slightly forward and tilted out, unblinking as she stares me in the eye and slowly, deliberately, one corner at a time, opens the candy bar.
And I am sad, because now, my 5-year-old will have to fend for herself, living with the wolves.
We are caught in a weird state of in-between. My husband is gone but not yet deployed. He spends his days training at Fort Stewart, Georgia, and his nights eating meals, real meals, talking to real people who long ago graduated kindergarten.
My days are spent with school drop-offs, sock pickups, and trying to exhaust the endless energy of a three-year-old. My nights are spent scheduling the exact minute I need to put water on to boil. In my new job, I make phone calls to college students throughout the evening. Spaghetti noodles with Ragu mean a level of project planning no military mission could compare with.
This is my first job after finishing my degree. Accepting the offer made me feel like a professional, grown-up woman, career-minded and worldly. As I sit, balancing my laptop on my lap, noodles and red sauce drying on my Walmart tank top, watching my child eat her last meal, one chocolate square at a time, licking each finger, I reconsider all my life choices.
I cannot scream, cannot yell, cannot send her to her room forever, or take away everything she has ever loved. Because, above the sound of rage rushing with the blood into my ears, I hear the small voice of a hesitant mom asking for help as she tries to change her life.
“We are in this together. As long as you are trying, I will try right along with you,” I assure, speaking to her, to myself, and even to the small, chocolate-covered monster standing in front of me. “We are in this together,” I say again, regaining a sense of purpose.
And in that moment, that wonderful moment of knowing that things will get better, and we will be OK, and my daughter will be able to stay with me and live a wonderful childhood, she catches my eye. I see the baby she had been and the woman she will become. She sees me love her.
She stands there, smiling, proud of herself, then she crumples the candy bar wrapper into a small, tidy ball, takes this ball, backs up, and without breaking eye contact, tosses it behind the TV stand. She dusts off her hands and walks away.
As she leaves, I feel sorry for the wolves.
My youngest insists on dressing herself.
And why not? She is three, after all, and doesn’t know her colors, can’t properly zip or button, and takes four hours to pick out a pair of socks that don’t match. But, this is what we are doing now.
I remember the first day of the school year. It arrived with lunches packed and ready, shoes lined up by the door, healthy breakfasts served around the table after singing my daughters awake. Little mice rushing in after me to dress them.
But we are now three weeks in. Lunches are mashed into ziplock bags with one hand while I chug coffee with the other. Shoes are under the bed, out in the yard, and hidden in the cereal cabinet. Breakfast is a crumbling Poptart and my singing has become louder. Actually, it sounds a lot like yelling. The mice have run away in fear, and this one is dressing herself.
On top of this morning madness, this is also the time my husband FaceTimes the girls. He is four months into a deployment, and they look forward to hearing his voice and seeing his face.
My youngest hears my phone ringing from her room and rushes out, wearing nothing but underwear and one of my socks. “Daddy, guess what? I am dressing myself!”
She yells about her day, her new friend, the spaghetti we had for dinner, and her daddy nods along, pretending to keep up. He breaks in long enough to tell her to go get dressed. I take the phone and thank his two-inch face.
As I hang up, I check the clock and see that time is running out. I stand in the hall, knock and offer my help, pleading to just let me pick a shirt, push a leg into her pants, anything to move this process along. She emerges as my pleas edge closer to demands. She has dressed herself.
We arrive at school and enter a classroom filled with the alphabet; the numbers one to 10; animals, real and make believe, roaming the magic story rug; and the kind Ms. Judy. Ms. Judy who sees the best in all the kids and, maybe more importantly, in all the parents.
Ms. Judy smiles as we walk in and discreetly waves me over. “I love having her in my class; she is just so sweet and cute. But did you notice her pants are on backward? I think her shirt is on inside out?”
My gaze falls on the beautiful mess that is my youngest child. “Yes, I know. She dressed herself.”
Before I was a mom, I didn’t know an invitation to a 5-year-old’s birthday party could cause so much stress.
The sparkly little piece of paper sat there taunting us. “Come and Celebrate,” exclaimed the mermaid, riding a unicorn, holding a rainbow, and promising a magical day of fun.
It was not so much a whine but a plea I heard spill out: “But I won’t know anyone. They won’t be nice to me. I don’t want to go, and my hair looks stupid.”
Reassurances were given automatically. This is a great way to meet people and make friends, it’s a party, it will be fun, and everyone will be nice. Your hair is so pretty!
We were going. It was settled.
The big day arrives. Outfits are picked out, replaced, mixed together, cried over, and finally settled on. A gift is purchased, something soft and colorful with glitter and stickers. My daughters, 5 and 3, hope for vanilla cake while I root for chocolate cupcakes with sprinkles. My husband, the girls’ daddy, deployed to Kuwait, thinks it will be Mississippi Mud Pie with real worms, which makes us all laugh over FaceTime.
As we drive up to the birthday girl’s house—obvious by the five pink balloons on the mailbox—the pleas start back up. “My stomach really hurts. These shoes are pinching my toes. We could go home and eat candy bars instead. What if they don’t like me?” exclaims an anxious voice.
But it is too late. We have been spotted. A tumbling mass of tutus, princess dresses, and fairy wings race toward the car to usher us in. The party is a hit: games, three sprinklers, gift bags, a bowl of pretzels covered in white chocolate and labeled “Fairy Wands” in bright letters.
My girls disappear only to pop back up soaking wet, laughing, and covered in frosting.
I stand with my hip propped against a tree, running my hands through my hair. Another mom makes her way toward me and I drop my hands as she asks to share my shade. We smile and nod at each other as kids run by. My voice is hesitant as we start to talk. “Belle is my favorite princess. She likes to read books. Want to go with me to get a cupcake?” And finally, “Do you want to be my friend?”
Hours later, cake eaten, presents opened, best friend bracelets made and exchanged, exhausted but happy words fill the car as we head home. “That was so fun. I’m glad we came. Everyone was nice, and I made a new friend!”
“See, Mommy, I told you there was nothing to worry about. Parties are always fun. I knew you would make friends, and you have the prettiest hair,” my daughter replies with a huge smile on her face.
Andrea Renee Sandoval Rathbun is a disabled combat veteran and an active-duty military spouse. She resides outside of Fort Polk, Louisiana, by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico. She has two daughters who are full of stories and a husband with a gift for listening. She sometimes gets it wrong but always finds a way to write.