My husband left not too long ago on another military deployment, and we are in the season of separation. I wish I could say that parenting a toddler during deployment gets easier.
When my husband left this time around it was tough. Saying goodbye pregnant with a toddler in tow has a way of pulling at the heartstrings. Our apartment felt a bit lonely. Maybe just empty. Clearly, an integral part of our lives was missing. Surprisingly though, much of our day to day routine stayed consistent and familiar. From days at the park to mealtimes with mom, things were running smoothly in our home. My son was taking this military deployment like a champ.
He took it like a champ right until bedtime each night.
And then he struggled.
I would go through his regular bedtime routine. He got the same bath with lots of bubbles that he always does. He loved splashing the water everywhere but the bathtub. He laughed watching me clean it up with a towel, telling him to keep the water in the bathtub. He thought it was hilarious, and I’m pretty sure it was the highlight of his day most evenings. He got the same jammies and song that he always does, followed by a few stories and a drink of milk.
Parenting a toddler during a military deployment
Life was good. Then I’d take him to his room and do this ridiculously awesome deep breathing thing to help him calm down and fall asleep fast. And just like always, I would tell him to lay down while I covered him up and quietly closed the door behind me.
Normally he would fall asleep and I wouldn’t hear a peep. Things were different now.
Instead every night from the start of the deployment I would hear, “Mama, mama.” I honestly wasn’t surprised. Having his dad leave without understanding why or what exactly was happening is a tough situation for a toddler. I can only imagine it feels ambivalent, unfamiliar and confusing. It’s hard to really know, especially when he only speaks about ten words from the English language.
His voice was saying “Mama,” but his tone was communicating “I need you.” Again, none of this was surprising, but something surprised me.
The life lesson that followed
In the following days, I started changing things up a bit with the bedtime routine. Instead of simply laying him down alone in his crib, I decided we should lay down together. His room contained both a twin bed and a crib, and each night after his bedtime routine, I would flop him into the twin bed, lying down right along with him.
He would lay on his right side sucking his thumb, and I would lay snuggled up right behind him. Each night ever-so-gently, he would take his hand and stroke my cheek, as if to say “Mommy I’m so glad you’re here.” Sometimes he would turn over, look me in the eye, and rub my hair. It was honestly the sweetest thing in the whole world. It was beyond innocent—a 2-year-old boy opening his heart during a time of need to show love. Just pure wholesome unconditional love.
After 5 – 10 minutes of lying together each night, I told him it was time for bed and I would lay him down again in his crib. He was quiet, peaceful and happy. There were no cries for “Mama” or anything else conveying a legitimate need.
And each night after adopting our new routine, I felt an overwhelming peace in my heart. I learned the most important deployment lesson of all.
I am not always the teacher to my child
Sometimes I am the student. Sometimes he teaches me to adapt and change. Sometimes he teaches me to open my heart. Sometimes he teaches me that I need a snuggle and someone to rub my hair and stroke my cheek.
And sometimes he teaches me that I need him as much as he needs me.
Those before bedtime cuddles brought us together. It gave us a special moment each day to really reconnect. To remember that when life feels tough, you have each other to carry you through. To remember that when you are struggling through deployment, you can rely on those you love the most.
No matter how unconventional it may seem.
No matter how bizarre it sounds.
Sometimes it’s the youngest people who are capable of teaching us the greatest life lessons.