Well. It’s over. My first deployment experience. Several LONNNNNNNNG months away from my best friend and partner. He was away underwater on his steel tube with no windows, with like 120 other guys and lots of hot sauce. (Seriously, I sent him underway with a HUGE bottle of Frank’s Red Hot, a can of wasabi powder, and two bottles of his favorite dry seasoning from Buffalo Wild Wings.) I spent my days with our daughter, who has been described lovingly as an “angel dragon whirlwind.” She was such a tiny kid when he left and was an entirely different person when he returned.
He’s been home for several weeks now. Homecoming was a beautiful day, full of tears. There is nothing like a Navy submarine homecoming in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. I’ve been a part of two of them now, and I can tell you that it is just sublime. They’ve brought back a tradition, I understand, where families can ride a boat out into the channel and escort the submarine back to the pier. My memories are slightly blurry of this moment, not because I have poor recall, but because I viewed them through tears. I’m a crier (happy, sad, angry, tired, you name it, I cry!) and I was so excited that I couldn’t stop myself from crying from the minute our white boat set off. Our first moment back together was glorious and I won’t ever forget it. Just me and him, all dressed up, happy and together, just like it should be.
Wait, I hear you asking. Just you and him? Where was the angel whirlwind dragon kid?
One thing I made sure to do, which raised some eyebrows amongst friends, was to leave our daughter at home while I went to the pier to pick up my Sir. Now. Why would I do this when she has just as much reason to be at the super special homecoming event? It’s specifically geared to the families, even families who fly in JUST for this moment. So why leave an almost two-year-old at home? Because as the deployment wore on, I learned more and more about her. She gained a personality during the time her daddy was away. She started showing me that she had opinions and desires. She is most assuredly NOT the kid who can sit still EVER. She is NOT the kid you can confine in a stroller when she is obviously capable of climbing EVERYTHING SHE SEES. Have you ever been to a Navy submarine pier? They are working piers, so there is electrical equipment and all kinds of stuff I don’t even know the names of all over the place. They clear a bit of space for the homecoming families and put some tables and awnings up for food and shade, but just a few feet away are cables and ropes and Big Industrial Things. My little girl, so curious and full of energy, would be into everything and when I would stop her, she would get more and more angry. An almost-two-year-old has no sense of self-preservation or understanding that when Mommy is saying “no, don’t touch that,” Mommy really means, “that thing you’re about to climb onto could hurt you.” And also, my little girl loves the water, so she’d do everything she could to try to go swim next to those big steel tubes floating so nicely in the water. She’d climb the fence. She’d climb the big crane thingy they use to land the brow, while they’re installing it, if we let her (which, duh, we wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean she wouldn’t try). Suffice it to say, I know my daughter best.
I also knew that she was starting to forget her daddy. He was gone most of her first two years doing Big Important Navy Work Things. We did everything we could to keep him fresh in her memory for this deployment though. He recorded videos of himself reading stories. We made a Daddy Doll. We signed up for a Daddy Quilt, a quilt with pictures printed in fabric, handmade by the lovely volunteers of the local Armed Forces YMCA. I had a photo of him in her bedroom and I worked it into her bedtime routine. And when he was in a port where he had enough free time and enough internet, we used video chats to the best of our abilities. Of course, though, that young, our little girl didn’t quite understand the video chat. She could see his face but didn’t understand that she could interact with him. So by the time homecoming came around, I knew that I made the right decision in having them meet privately, in our backyard–a place she is very comfortable with (and bonus, it is fenced in!) I knew there was a STRONG possibility that she would reject him. I knew it could crush him and I didn’t want him to be crushed like that in public. This deployment was tough on him. He didn’t like missing so much of her life and was truly properly terrified that she would forget him. In some ways, it was harder on him than it was for her, because she has no sense of time passing and had no real idea that much had changed. So if I had brought her to the pier and reintroduced them, and she screamed when he hugged her and ran away from him, that would have made both me and my husband feel terrible.
So how did we handle the reintroduction? I planned the whole day and set them up for success. I talked it out with my best friends and we made sure there were lots of things going in his favor. Balloons. Check. Spend the day with people she knows, loves, and trusts. Check. Ice cream cake. Check. (OK, that one was for me because she didn’t stay up long enough to eat dessert.) I had the whole day planned out, starting with me getting my hair done up pretty in the morning. I knew I’d be a nervous wreck getting myself ready, so I sat in a chair at DryBar in Kaka’ako and had the ladies there take care of me while I cried with nervous excitement. Our daughter spent the morning and afternoon with her BFF, after an unexpected change of plans forced us to rearrange. One of my besties who doesn’t have kids and I had planned FOR AAAAAGES that she would watch my daughter for the day at our house, sticking to all her usual routines as much as possible to keep her in good spirits for the reunion. But life happens and even best friends catch colds and so plans change and thankfully, one of my other besties was willing and able to watch our girl at her house. As I said, our kids are BFFs (or at least as close as kids can be who don’t truly understand playing together yet) and luckily, she is an Army wife and understood the gravity of a deployment homecoming situation herself. So in my daughter’s eyes, she spent the day with her best friend, playing with his toys and his dog and winning at life’s lottery! And then my fabulous high school babysitter, who coincidentally babysits for both of our families, agreed to pick up my daughter from their house and bring her to my house and basically be on the lookout for frantic texts from me about when we would pull into the garage and when she should dress my daughter in her special homecoming day dress and when to head into the backyard and hang my custom homecoming day banner, (because she couldn’t hang it earlier because it blocked the door because I’m brilliant…) and yeah, just basically was an amazing asset to our family on this ridiculously specifically planned-out-yet-fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-day. (Because I knew what time to expect the boat at the pier but I had no idea how long it would take us to actually leave to go home and rush hour westbound in Honolulu is no laughing matter, so plans were made but everything was tentative.)
Anyways. Back to preparing my daughter and my husband for their private reunion. Ahem, sorry for the long tangent.
My daughter LOVES balloons. I discovered this on Valentine’s Day by accident. A friend had a huge foil heart balloon at her house. Man, when my little girl saw the balloon, she couldn’t get enough of it. She sat on it (which was OK because she doesn’t weigh much and those foil balloons are very durable. It’s like they make them to be toddler-proof!) and hugged it and squeezed it and her eyes lit up when she saw it. It was like she had never seen a balloon before, and you know what? Now that I’ve typed that up, yeah, I don’t think she had ever seen a shaped balloon like that before. Haha! So I eventually came up with the idea for my Sir to walk through the door carrying balloons. And she especially loves dragons and unicorns, so I got the biggest dragon and unicorn balloons I could. This involved the help of my besties, to get them into my garage without her seeing them. I was trying my best for this to be a surprise and the secret ninja spy skills of my friends knows no bounds.
Another thing was that our daughter seemed to have an issue with being scared of men. She didn’t like my dad so much when he visited earlier in the year, didn’t like the other chiropractors in the office I visited except for my specific doctor, and was not thrilled with her BFF’s dad either when we visited their house. That was, however, UNTIL, we noticed that if you played peek-a-boo with her, she’ll be your best friend. We discovered that if my friend’s husband was inside by a window, and played peek-a-boo with her while shew as outside (with the help of some super fun plantation shutters) our little girl would go from being scared of him, to being a giggling excited crazy kid. It was wonderful. Over the course of a few weeks, she came out of her shell around him and started demanding to play peek-a-boo every time she saw him. I made a mental note to share this with my Sir. Peek-a-boo was, and still is, the “in” with our daughter.
So how did the private reunion go? Well, you can’t always predict what a young toddler will do, and even though you tried to set them up for success, sometimes things just go wrong. Not too terribly wrong, in our case. He walked through the door, all white and shining in his fancy summer uniform, balloons in hand. He got down on her level and tried to be gentle and not force anything. She still didn’t want him to hug her though, and the minute I stepped through the doorway, she wanted to be with me, not him. It was hard. But I knew ahead of time that it might not go perfectly. She hadn’t napped, which may have made a big difference. (Sometimes she wakes up, even now, from her naps and is MORE cranky than she was before she went down, but some days she wakes up blissfully delightful. It’s a crapshoot.) She spent the whole day away from me, which was a big deal because for that whole deployment, I was her person. I was there 24/7 for her, with very little variation. Oh sure, I got the occasional sitter and my friends came to visit me A TON. But on the whole, it was just me and her.
Even now, after weeks of near constant daddy presence at home, she is in her “mommy phase.” If I’m awake, she doesn’t want her daddy to hug her too much. If we try a group hug, she pushes him away. She cries “mommy” when she is upset. She had a nightmare once and cried “mommy” out in her sleep. Little by little, though, she is coming to realize that Daddy isn’t going anywhere. For example, she knows that Daddy is the one to go to for playground playing. My knees and back don’t work as well as my husband’s do, so he is the one who can climb and stuff with her, whereas, I am happy to be the support she needs from the ground. So she demands his presence at her side when we take her to playgrounds now, and I’m so happy to see them bonding. He’s taught her so much since coming home and I know that they’ve got some lost time to make up for. It’s beautiful to see.
So, even though I know, in my heart of hearts, that this was the way to go for our little family, why did I get so much flack for not bringing our little girl to homecoming? Of course, not everyone was unkind. The women I grew close to on our boat understood. Partially, they trusted me to know what was best for my family, but for the other part, rather hilariously, they all met my daughter. They understood after interacting with her that it would have taken all of us, constantly on our guard, to keep her contained.
I once brought our little girl to the pier watch her daddy get pinned for his new promotion. That ended up being a hilarious attempt at keeping her contained. First of all, it was hot as Hell in the Hawaii sun but she would not sit in her stroller without screaming bloody murder, and since the event took place during quarters on the pier, where everyone stands to listen to the command leaders give announcements and directions and occasionally, someone gets their new rank pinned on them by their wife, (haha!) it was more important to keep my daughter quiet right? Well. She refused to stand with the XO’s wife, a woman she knows and loves, and came up to demand that I pick her up and hold her while I was pinning the new rank insignia on Sir’s uniform. Then the XO tried to help the situation by picking her up and bringing her to his wife. That did not go over well, and she burst into loud tears and flailed around in his arms. I understood that it would take a short time or I never would have brought her at all, but it just wasn’t a short enough time for a kid who can’t sit still and won’t be separated from her Mommy. At that point, obviously the boat hadn’t deployed yet. But it was a memory that helped me to decide that bringing her to homecoming events, which last much longer, would never work for our kid.
I’m a big believer that parents know THEIR kid best. Some kids, at the same age as my daughter, could have been just fine at a homecoming event. Some kids are not climbers. Some kids would have been happy with a Disney movie on a tablet to keep them entertained and still. Some kids would have loved to sit in their strollers. And there were tons of kids there that day, of all ages, babies and upwards. I just know, deep down, that it was not right to bring my daughter to that event at her age and with her tendency to flip out the most strenuously when she is contained. Seriously, when she gets shots nowadays, she is more upset at being forced down than she is by the piercing of the needles. She is going to rule the world one day, but for now, she doesn’t understand boundaries, and in my efforts to teach them to her, it makes for some stressful days. I know kids are kids, they sometimes cry, scream, and throw tantrums, but no parent actually knowingly wants to cause them. You have to do what is best for YOUR family. If that means making a private homecoming reunion, so be it. Don’t let people tell you how you should feel. If you know that your kid can’t handle the event, don’t bring them and don’t feel guilty. Go out of your way to make it special in other ways and you’re still doing justice to the magnitude of the event. If you know your kid will be fine at such an event, bring them, but don’t Mom Shame the mom whose kid isn’t as calm as yours. I hate that.