The Military Dad: Dealing With Deployment

National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome

dad and flag

When a service member receives notice for deployment, there is an overwhelming feeling of squeezing everything in before he is gone. Deployment preparation times vary for each service member. Sometimes there is minimal time for preparation. Understanding that deployment is a possibility, it is best to put a family plan in place early to help manage these essential, yet often stressful times. This section will help dads put in place a structure to prepare their family for this transition and ultimately to help their family unite together again upon his return.

Preparing the Family
Deployment is your call of duty to serve your country; it is also a call of duty to prepare your family. Just as a service member is ready to serve, your family needs to be ready for the deployment transition. Taking advantage of this time is essential for you, your spouse and your children. The first, and most essential step in this process, is to prepare yourself and your spouse.

Preparing the Couple
As dads prepare for deployment, they may have many unanswered questions. “How will my spouse manage the family while I am away? How will my children deal with this? Will my baby recognize or remember me when I return?” All these questions are valid and may seem overwhelming; however, men can complete both missions – that of a father and a service member.

Every father wants to remain a part of his family even when he’s gone. Most importantly, he wants to be remembered by his children and welcomed back into the family structure when he returns. This requires a lot of work on mom and dad’s part. All too often in the deployment phase, couples take care of everyone else except themselves. Soon there is no more time for each of them to communicate, spend time together, share intimate moments with each other, and emotionally prepare for their separation. A couple’s relationship is the most important thing during this phase and provides the supporting structure for a successful family transition.

During this time it is best for couples to spend some alone time together. During this planned alone time, couples should enjoy fun activities, talk about their relationship, share their feelings, and most of all provide emotional support and understanding to one another. All of this is important in strengthening the bond in the relationship. A strong, trusting relationship between spouses will help secure a foundation for the rest of the family to lean on during deployment.

dad on stairs

Preparing your Children
Once the parents have had alone time, it’s time to prepare the children. The children will be greatly influenced by how the parents handle preparations for deployment. Families should spend time together as doing fun things. The children will need to remember moments together with dad and as a family. If the children are old enough, dads should talk about the responsibilities and reasons for deployment. Discuss how the children can help out and support mom while dad is away.

The more changes a child experiences in their environment once dad is deployed, the more difficult it makes it for them to adapt. With fewer changes in their environment, there is less likelihood for a child to expect a whole life change (loss of friends, home, school, church, etc.) when dad gets deployed. Your children need to know that the family is still together even though dad may be gone. Most importantly, focus on dad’s safe return after deployment.

It is important for fathers to understand that their expectations must be as realistic as possible given the information they have in the planning process. It is equally important to understand that situations change and there is a need to be flexible during the pre-deployment, deployment and post deployment phases.

Staying Connected: Putting a Family Plan Together
Once a mom and dad know what is needed to prepare for deployment, it is time to put a family plan together. Parents should adapt their plan to fit their family’s needs. Even though dad may be gone for a short or long time, the purpose is to keep the family unit together by keeping dad in the family.

Staying Connected With Your Baby
Deployment is especially difficult if a baby is involved. A common concern with dads who have a baby or are expecting one is “How will my baby know me when I return?” The time dad needs to physically attach to the baby is unavailable; however, there is a way to help facilitate forms of attachment even during deployment.

The transition from deployment back into family life will be a whole new challenge for dad when he returns. It is through this reuniting process where the caring of an infant can become a frustrating experience when dad is trying to bond with his baby. A comforting thought to all dads is that there can be a form of recognition or sense of familiarity between dad and baby when he comes home.

The following lists are suggestions from military families that have helped them stay connected to their spouse, their children and their baby during deployment. These ideas can help couples start to develop their own family plan to stay connected.

dad with daughter

Things Mom and Dad can do Prior to Deployment:

Mom should include mention of dad in the regular conversations at home.
Coming home from deployment and reuniting the family at the end of deployment is a wonderful and joyous occasion. However, parents should keep in mind the transition may take time. If there are injuries or emotional stress from the deployment, the reunification can be especially difficult because getting life back to “normal” may require a whole new idea of what “normal” means for the family. In addition, it may take some time for everyone to adjust to their new roles with dad back at home. Parental roles and responsibilities may need to be reassigned. In some cases, it can even be disruptive for dad to return, even though the family is thrilled at the idea of having him home again. He may feel like he is no longer needed, as his tasks and responsibilities were taken over by others when he was away. Mom may also have mixed feelings, as she carried a bulk of the responsibility while dad was away, and still managed to take care of the household on her own. This transition can cause a new set of feelings to arise in family members as roles are redefined and adjustments are made.

Moms may also feel like they need a break after a long period as the primary caregiver, but it is important for the whole family to remember that dad hasn’t been around the children in a long time and they may all need some time before being left alone together. If a child was born during the deployment, dad may need time to learn to care for the infant before mom takes a break and leaves them alone. Dad may also feel like the new baby is a stranger to him, so special care should be spent in getting to know the infant.

No matter what challenges the family faces upon being reunited and no matter how difficult it might be to make the transition, this is what everyone wants and waited for, so it is worth putting in some extra effort to be together as a family again.