Whether you’re in the military or married to it, there are special logistics required in raising a family. But thankfully, the support is there to do it.
Even though I married the military – a handsome full-time member of the Canadian Forces – I was (and still am) completely unprepared for military life. Thankfully my sense of humour took over and I wrote a one-woman comedy show about my follies called “I’m an Army Wife…Now what?” Now that I have a slight grip on this military world, we’re thinking of adding a baby to the mix. But what would it be like to raise a child in a military family?
Along with society, a typical military family has changed, too. “What used to be the norm was Dad in the military and Mom staying home with the children. And they had the ability to set up support in the community,” says Colleen Cahoon, coordinator of the Esquimalt Military Family Resource Centres’ Navigator Program in British Columbia, which helps military families with special needs. “We’re now seeing blended families, where the step parent is left at home to deal with the children while the other partner deploys. We are seeing single moms who are deploying and are trying to figure out how to set up child care for their child. And we’re also seeing a lot of single dads taking care of the children where mom is completely out of the picture.”
Another change in military lifestyle: only 10.26 percent of military families now live on the base. My husband and I live off base surrounded by civilians. “You don’t have that same sense of community I guess,” says Roxanne, a 20-year CF member and a single mother of three who lives on Canadian Forces Base Borden near Barrie, Ont. “Your community is civilian and a lot of civilians don’t know a lot about the military and our challenges. My daughter did a presentation in high school about the training and the mindsets of the military, and the students were saying, ‘Really, your mother’s military?’” To find out how military families deal with the stresses of deployment and reunion, I turned to a few of the families of the approximately 67,000 full time Canadian Forces members.
Tom and Susie, parents of two, are living through the challenges of prepping for Tom’s deployment to Afghanistan. While Tom trains in Ontario, Susie cares for their two young daughters while keeping in contact with his oldest daughter from his first marriage. Rather than stay on her own in New Brunswick (their current posting of just nine months) Susie chose to move to her parents’ home, but worries about her toddlers remembering daddy. “Emily is two and she knows he’s away but she doesn’t really understand why, so often she says ‘I miss daddy.’ At least she does remember him. I think it’s harder for him. At least I’m here with the girls, seeing them every day. He hasn’t seen them and they change so much.” For Tom, like many military members, the separation is bittersweet. “Emily had her first taste of strawberry ice cream today, so I’m trying to imagine what her experience was like based on Susie’s description. I will miss half of my youngest daughter’s life by the time I return from theatre. However, this is the reason that I joined up, hoping that by doing these things the world will be a better place for our children.”
While experts have identified seven distinct stages that families experience during the deployment and reunion cycle, Colleen says the start is particularly tough. “It’s that first couple of weeks for kids that are really challenging. They feel sad and angry and not too sure how to express those emotions. So they express them in a variety of forms like acting out, tantrums, maybe withdrawal. Just that change of their schedule throws them off.” Roxanne faced this hardship as a new single mother. When her daughter was just a baby, she was deployed for training in California. “My first thought was, ‘What did I sign up for?’ But then, it was quickly replaced with, ‘Okay, I can do this. It’s only for four months. I’m prepared. She’s not going to remember.’ And she didn’t.”
Coming home can be the most stressful part for military families. The partner or caregiver at home gives up their role as the ‘one man-band’ and the returning military member sees that life
went on without him or her. I dreaded to ask about the ‘what if something happens?’ conversation before a deployment. Having had that talk with my husband before his three separate deployments to Afghanistan, I wondered how Tom and Susie handled it. “I had the conversation with Susie,” says Tom, “but it’s not a fair conversation for kids their age, they don’t have the emotional grounding to deal with that possibility. My older daughter Liberty is eight, she has a concept that Afghanistan is a dangerous place. It’s not a benefit to her to think that there is any possibility that I could die over there.”
On the Move
The dynamics of the military family can prove even more challenging because the family often moves every two to three years. When Rob Meier’s eight month training course in Ontario became a two-year posting in Quebec, he and his wife Angie had to switch gears quickly and decide what was best for the kids. “We’d have only been here two years if we had moved to Quebec with him,” says Angie. But a recent relocation from Alberta had already proved to be hard on their son Lucas. “We noticed a huge difference in the education system. When we moved back here we thought it was going to be really easy for him. But he was really far behind. This past year, Grade 4, I’ve seen how much better he’s done and I think that’s because we did stay. Especially this year, I think that’s given him the security and something that’s constant and not sneaking up and saying we’re leaving now. We may have jeopardized that sense of security by moving to another area for one year.”
In British Columbia, Lorie and Mike Hall were able to establish roots for their 11-year old son Robbie, thanks to Mike remaining in the same posting. Unfortunately it doesn’t mean Robbie escapes the downside of relocations. “He’s experienced the other side of that, most of his best friends, close buddies have been posted out of here, so for him, he’s the kid left behind. He’ll say, ‘Why can’t we go live in Ottawa?’ Within two years he had lost three of his closest friends.”
The Plus Side
Before I tell my husband we’re better off getting a dog than having a
baby, there are compelling benefits to consider. First is the amazing
support systems that spouses and children build when they are not living
close to immediate family or friends. The Military Family Resource
Centres also provide excellent support to families living on or off the
base. Second, military life can have positive influences on children. “I
think kids in the military tend to grow up a lot quicker, they’re more
worldly, they have more experiences moving place to place, being able to
adapt quicker,” says Angie. “They learn coping skills I think better
than kids who are in an area where there’s never any change.” Lorie
adds: “Kids who grow up in a military environment are pretty resilient
and self sufficient. They know mom and/or dad can come and go sometimes
with little notice, friends come in and out of your lives, the
neighbours change.” There are also travel opportunities. “One of my son
Robbie’s buddies got posted to San Diego so we went to San Diego last
summer to visit him,” says Lorie. “When I was in Ottawa for a meeting,
Robbie came with me. He got to hang out with their friends and see their
Susie feels her girls are growing up with a broader range of
experiences than she had. “I hope it will also give them the
opportunity to meet different people. Sometimes if you grow up in the
same small place, there’s not a lot of diversity. I hope that they’ll
have the opportunity to have lots of different friends from different
types of backgrounds.” I am most amazed by the sense of achievement that
these families gain from their lifestyle. “I’m so proud to wear the
uniform and my kids are proud when they see me wear my uniform,” says
Roxanne. “They go to Remembrance Day parades with me, they lay wreathes
on behalf of veterans and they write letters to the troops.”
I have some insight about military family lifestyle, I think I’m ready
to start a family. From Tom, I gain the best advice: “Don’t wait until
you think you’re prepared because you never will be, and don’t stress.
Don’t think about the effect of military life on children. They have
adapted, will adapt, and grow up as well balanced adults all the time.
There are challenges and disadvantages but that’s the case in anybody’s
5 Misconceptions of Military Life debunked
families do not receive free housing if they live on a Canadian Forces
Base. They pay rent that is adjusted to match the rent in the community
in which they live.
- Military families do not see military
doctors/dentists. Like regular Canadians, military families are
dependent on the medical system of the province in which they live.
families don’t know where they’re going next. While the military member
can give a ‘top three’ list of locations, they go where they’re needed.
- Military children don’t attend military schools on a base.
- Military families have access to the same community services as non-military families. There are no special funds available.
Laura Earl-Middleton is a performer and journalist living near Ottawa.
Published in October 2010.