Sunday, July 6, 2014

Family Trip Malfunction

We had one of those 'it could have been a lot worse' moments recently.

A couple of weeks ago, we took a family trip to Arkansas to surprise Jake’s grandmother for her 90th birthday. We took the trip in Jake’s little Grumman Tiger, as we have so many times before, but this was special because it was the first trip that we’d taken together in the plane since Jake got home from Afghanistan. To say Howie was thrilled might be the biggest understatement on the planet. It’s all he talked about for over a week before it was time to go.

Jake flew from Kansas to Houston (or rather Cleveland, Texas) to pick us up, and the three of us flew together to the small airport in Saline County, Arkansas, not far from Little Rock. We usually land at Saline County Airport because it is a small airport (hence, typically no traffic jams), and it is near where Jake’s dad and stepmom live (Papa and KayKay to Howie).

On this particular trip, we were coming in to land just before sunset. It was an absolutely perfect landing, but when we turned left onto the taxi-way, the airplane started veering right for some reason. We didn’t know what was going on at first, so Jake had me hold the brakes while he jumped out to see what was going on. 

Flat tire. That’s what was going on.  In the middle of nowhere, at 8:45pm on a Friday night. Ugh. And we could see Papa parked near the entrance, about 1.5 miles away, but he didn’t have the code to get into the airport after hours.  Double ugh.  We called to let him know what was going on, but he could be of no help to us at the time.

After a few minutes, we saw a red truck driving our direction. It was a local pilot, just finished flying for the evening, coming to check on us. “The same thing happened to me two weeks ago, and someone came to help me” he said. “Lucky for you, I think I have the tools you need, and I’m looking to pay it forward.”

The man (who’s name I never caught, although I’m sure Jake did; I’ll just call him the Good Samaritan) went back to his hangar to get tools and returned a few minutes later to let us know that he needed to run and refill his air tank. He wanted it ready just in case the tire would hold air long enough to make it to the parking area. About that time, Jake suggested that Howie and I start walking to the airport so that we could let Papa into the gate to come help.

We walked along in the now-pitch dark with only my flashlight app to guide us the 1.5 miles down the taxi-way to the airport. I held my baby’s hand as he jumped at every nighttime sound he heard. I reassured him with “It’s just cicadas, sweet boy,” and “It’s only an owl” and “It’s just the frogs,” while praying that he couldn’t hear the coyotes in the distance.

When we got close to the airport I noticed what will likely forever be one of the most annoying sights I ever beheld: Papa, parked inside the security gate. He let himself in when the Good Samaritan left to go get air, but hadn’t driven down the taxi-way to find us. We hopped in the car and drove down to the plane. By that time, the Good Samaritan had returned and they were working on the plane.

Knowing he was staring down the barrel of hours of work, Jake told Papa to take us home so we could get Howie into bed, and so he could get more tools to help. We unloaded our bags from the plane into the car, and Papa took us to his house, where KayKay had some dinner waiting for Howie before bedtime.

Two hours later, Jake and Papa made it back to the house. They basically had to jack up the plane and then drag it down the runway to the parking area where it would sit for the night. The Good Samaritain told Jake and Papa if they came back to the airport in the morning, they’d find help fixing the plane.

The next morning, we had to divide and conquer. I had an interview with Fox at 7am in Downtown Little Rock, and Jake had to be back at the airport to deal with the plane. So Papa took Jake back to Saline County, while KayKay took me to my interview. She dropped me off and took Howie to the park while I tried to sound less nervous than I was. We all made it back home by lunchtime, and fortunately the rest of the weekend was much smoother sailing.

When Jake and Papa arrived back at the airport, what they found was the local pilots’ weekly breakfast club meeting. The pilots invited them to the table like they were old friends, fed them, and then fixed the tire for them in about twenty minutes flat. One of the pilots even gave Jake the tube to put in the tire free of charge! They saved us hundreds of dollars in repair charges, and hours of wasted time waiting for a mechanic to come from Little Rock and fix it. We really couldn’t be more thankful, or ask for more kind, generous people than the perfect strangers who saved our family weekend from ruin!

So this was quite the ordeal, but it is yet another instance in which, to us, providence in the situation is clear. See, apparently airplane tires are like bike tires—they have tubes. And whoever installed Jake’s tire tube did it incorrectly. The tube had been pinched. A blowout was going to happen, and it was only a matter of time.

In the time since Jake had the last set of tires installed on the plane, he has taken it on more flights than I can remember. Some of those flights were with us, but most of them were across country to see us, and they mostly involved stopping in remote places to refuel and keep flying. Just like with large aircraft, take-offs and landings in small planes happen at high speeds, and malfunctions during take-offs and landings can be extremely serious.

But Jake’s tire didn’t blow on a take-off or a landing; it blew when we were going about ten miles an hour and could easily stop the plane. And it didn’t blow at 9pm when he was refueling in [I can’t remember] Oklahoma, or 7am in [I’m not sure it’s on the map] Texas—it blew at a place with which we were familiar, with family nearby, and with me there to help.  In other words, the inevitable blowout, albeit terribly annoying at the time, could not have happened at a better place, or under better circumstances.

It’s too bad all of life’s little catastrophes can't be minimum-inconvenience ordeals. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Homecoming is...Complicated.

It's been two months to the day since Jake came home from Afghanistan, and I think I'm finally ready to write about our homecoming. Sound odd? Let me explain what I mean by that.

Ever watch those homecoming videos people post? Sometimes the news picks them up, sometimes they're just floating around out in the YouTubesphere. They're always beautiful, tearful, and joyous. I'm pretty sure I've never made it through one dry-eyed. For a split second, anyone watching those videos can catch a glimpse of what it's like to be a military family, welcoming home their loved one, safe and sound. It's really beautiful, and for a nation generally removed from military life, it's also really important.

Here's the problem with those videos, though. Watching them is like getting the Disney princess movie version of military life--a little adversity, a race to the "happily ever after," followed by "The End." But every adult watching the movie knows "The End" is not really where the story stops, and "happily ever after" is not quite what it looks like in the movies. So it goes with reintegration after deployment.

You all read about Howie and my harrowing journey to welcome Jake home. And any of you connected with me on Facebook saw the album of our homecoming, filled with beautiful pictures by fellow military spouse Rachel Spinuzzi. It was amazing, really. And there was laughter and tears of joy, lots of hugs, and all of the things you would expect from the reunion of a family long-separated. And in case you missed it, I included it here:

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Our homecoming happened around midnight on a Wednesday, so in addition to the joy there was also exhaustion, loading and unloading bags and bags of gear in the dark, and a little person so far beyond his bedtime he was going to go nuclear any minute. Still we were so thrilled to see each other we took it in stride.

Jake didn't have a place at Ft. Riley yet, so he came home to a hotel; the room was nice, and the hotel had a pool, so that was okay. It just meant that later Jake would have to find a place to truly unpack and settle. Still thrilled to be together--home is where the heart is.

Then one of my partners started calling and emailing incessantly with work that could easily have waited until I got home, but that she insisted had to be done immediately, wherever I was. Of the two days we spent in Manhattan, I spent over half of it working. But Jake hadn't seen Howie in ten months, and, again, there was a pool. So father-son time would be on the menu and that's still okay. We're still thrilled. Even if we're a little annoyed that work is taking mom away again.

On Friday, we drove to Kansas City to spend a fun weekend. It's actually a really great city for families, and we always have a good time. We took Howie to T-Rex Cafe for a late birthday celebration.

Howie was in the worst mood, though, and behaved horribly while we were there. And that's when we started to see the shine fade off of the "just thrilled to be together." Jake hadn’t dealt with a child's willfulness in ten months, and had very little patience for it. 

Lunch set the tone for the rest of the day--as often happens with a cranky little person--and by the time we were headed to dinner at Fritz's Railroad, we've all just about had it.

I mean, we're at a restaurant where you dial your food up on a vintage telephone, and it's delivered via miniature locomotive, and still it's a struggle to have fun. Fortunately, as dinner went on things relaxed. We got ice cream afterward and by that point all was right again. 

Saturday was a new day, and an exciting one for Howie. Kansas City, for him, means one thing—Legoland.  We got there early to participate in Legoland’s Easter egg hunt, and Howie was thrilled.  But it took him about five minutes to completely forget about the egg hunt—too much Lego fun to be had.  He road rides, built race cars, and even bogarted a guy’s attempts to build a Lego Eiffel Tower.  And Daddy let Howie pick out a Lego airplane from the store for his birthday.  

Howie had so much fun that he didn’t want to leave.  Which resulted in more fits and the stress that goes with it. Fortunately, by the time we got to the Crayola CafĂ© for lunch he’d calmed down.  He met the Easter Bunny and got some chocolate, then suddenly all was right with the world.  Because chocolate.

After nap time, we went to Kansas City’s Grand Central Station—a truly beautiful building—to check out the museums it houses.  We visited their miniature train exhibit (FREE to the public), and Howie loved it.  When it closed, we took the bridge over the train depot and found a great German Biergarten where we had a lovely dinner.  Howie and Jake capped the day off by building the Lego airplane.

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Sunday morning, we went back to Grand Central Station to have brunch at a great old restaurant for Easter.  And because we were there, of course we hit the miniature train exhibit again.  I have a feeling that it will be another required stop on Kansas City trips from now on.

Howie took a quick nap, then we went to see Disney’s Bears Movie, which we all really liked it. The theater we found was amazing, and every seat was a recliner.  An adjustable recliner.  Which Howie played with throughout the movie.  It drove Jake nuts, and probably would have really annoyed other people too, but fortunately there was no one else in our row.  After the movie we stumbled upon another (FREE) miniature train exhibit, which we checked out before Jake took us to the airport.

So if you’re counting, that means we were together for five days.  After ten months apart.  Yeah.

Parting ways at the airport was downright excruciating.  Howie was sad; I was heartbroken. It was not enough.  Not enough to make up for lost time.  Not enough time to process.  Not enough time to (try and) ease back into a routine, or get used to each other again.  Heck, to get to know each other again. No matter how you slice it, not nearly enough.

Homecoming isn’t “happily ever after.”  I think for most military families, homecoming is catharsis.  It’s finally being able to lay down the burden of constant fear for our soldiers, our families, our households, and our sanity.  It’s like exhaling after holding your breath for a long time. It’s ‘I’m no longer solely responsible for whether my family is okay or not.

But homecoming is catharsis only for a moment, and then it’s the beginning of a long process. “Reintegration” is what we call it. Really it’s rebuilding families, marriages, relationships between parents and children. It’s undoing the months of independence necessary to weather deployment, to put a family unit back together.

For remote families like mine, it’s reintegration-interrupted. It’s months of critical family-building work crammed into the days we can snatch here and there to be together, basically starting over again every time we reunite. It's frustrating, sometimes disheartening, and sometimes a little scary. 

And for us, it's a work in progress. Probably, that's why it took so long for me to write about it--we're all still processing. But certainly, that's why any of you who have asked about homecoming, and how thrilled we are to finally be back together, have gotten a mixed reaction from me.

Don't let that stop you from asking. Questions like that may be hard to answer because, well, it's complicated. But it shows you care, and military families really appreciate knowing that people see them, and care, and are thinking about them, and rejoice with them. Honestly, having so many of you rejoicing for us gives us room to sort out the rest.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Help #CrushtheStigma and Support Military Mental Health

If you follow me on Facebook, which many of you do, you've seen me talking about the fact that May  is Military Appreciation Month.  Throughout the month there are different days, events, and activities geared toward showing respect and gratitude to our men and women who serve (and have served) and their families, culminating with Memorial Day next Monday.

This week is Military Mental Health Advocacy Week.  The Military Spouses of Strength (MSOS) and Military Mental Health Project (MMHP), in collaboration with some amazing people like my friend, psychologist, and National Guard Spouse of the Year Dr. Ingrid Herrera-Yee, are working hard this week to spread the message about the mental health issues facing our military and veterans, and to garner support for efforts to address those issues while crushing the stigma that prevents so many people from seeking the help that they need.

The importance of this work cannot be overstated. Every day, 22 veterans in this country take their own lives. The Department of Defense does not currently have statistics on military spouses or children, but research by CNN on the issue is simply staggering. And that is saying nothing of the huge need among our men and women currently serving.

We understand the importance of addressing the wounds of our combat injured--and they are many.  It is easy to forget, though, that sometimes the piece of themselves our service members leave behind is not a limb, but a piece of their psyche, their personhood. Like all other wounds of war, healing can happen, but it takes time and professional help. The kind of help many do not have access to, and more are afraid to use because of the stigma associated with mental illness.

That's where we can help. Crushing the stigma starts with us. We need to educate ourselves on what invisible wounds are, and how they actually affect people. We need to send a clear message that we want to see our war wounded cared for, whether we can see their wounds or not. And we need to say to our warriors with invisible wounds: "these are battle scars, like all other injuries you sustained while protecting me and everything I hold dear. They do not diminish who you are, they merely require treatment." 

All this week the MSOS and MMHP are on the Hill talking to our elected officials about the importance of addressing military mental health issues. You can follow the MSOS and MMHP Facebook pages for updates.

Please join me in supporting them, by:

  • Take the MSOS pledge to urge the Department of Defense to increase its mental health initiatives HERE.
  • Signing MMPH's petition HERE, by sharing it with your friends, and 

Friday, May 16, 2014

I Hate that Truck

Have you ever hated an inanimate object? I don’t know what it is about my husband’s vehicles, but they seem to war against me in unexpected and ever more maddening ways.

When Jake deployed to Afghanistan, he decided to sell his Jetta rather than let it sit for ten months. Jake’s brother Daniel was moving to Houston and in need of a car, so it actually worked out really well.

I knew that meant one of the first orders of business when Jake got back home was going to be finding a vehicle. He’d been saying for years that he wanted a truck, and now he was going to get one.  I figured that Jake would come home and then we’d go test drive some options in Kansas City, where we typically spend our time together when Jake is stateside.

But Jake had other plans. One morning, I woke up to a text message that Jake had purchased a truck on eBay while I was sleeping.  Oh geez. And I worry about buying clothes online!

Since he was gone, Jake needed me to reach out to the dealer, take a look at the truck, and complete the transaction.  He chose a truck in Houston because he was trying to make things easy on me. Which, as you will see, is incredibly ironic.

I made an appointment to meet with the dealer two days later to inspect the truck. I have to admit, it is a nice-looking vehicle.  But when the dealer went to start the truck, he had a little difficulty.  He was surprised and told me that the truck had been fine so far. He agreed to have the local Chevy dealer look into the issue and see what caused the problem.  Three days later, the fuel filter, casing, and sensor had been changed. I went to see the truck again, started it several times, and it seemed to be fine.

So I finalized the paperwork for the truck on a Friday, and then drove it to pick Howie up from school.  When Howie and I got back to the truck, the valet told me that it wouldn’t start.  Seriously.

I eventually got the truck started and drove it to Autozone to have the batteries tested.  The technician said that the batteries were fine, though, so we drove home while I made an appointment with the Chevy dealer near my home for Monday.

I drove the truck to breakfast and to the grocery store on Saturday with no issue, so I decided to drive it to church on Sunday. I usually drive a tiny car, and so I was trying to get used to the giant truck before I had to take it to Jake in Kansas.

The truck started fine Sunday morning for church, but after church it wouldn’t start at all.  Several of the men tried to help me figure out how to get it started, but with no luck.  I wound up having to send Howie home with friends and have the truck towed.  And since the dealer is closed on Sunday, I had to have it towed home, then towed again on Monday morning when it still wouldn’t start.

The Chevy dealer near my home looked at the truck and found several issues. A hose needed replacing, and a valve was leaking. The dealer replaced both, and then I picked it up.  That same evening, I drove it to a Leadership Houston meeting in South Houston. I parked horribly at the meeting—I can’t drive a giant truck—and when I went to start it and repark, it wouldn’t start. You’ve got to be kidding me!!

What I usually drive. "Small Car Only" parking was made for this car.
I went to my meeting and, thank God, three hours later I was able to start it to get home.  And then again the following morning to take it right back to the Chevy dealer.

Meanwhile, I contacted the seller to tell him what’s going on, and how extremely displeased I am with the vehicle. Not surprisingly, he didn’t care. When you buy a vehicle as-is, there’s not a lot you can make a seller do to fix problems you find later. I have sent a strongly worded letter to eBay about the seller, however, and I hope that future buyers are protected from these problems.

Eventually the Chevy dealer got back to me with a further diagnosis: the batteries are no good. WHAT?!? Thanks for nothing Autozone!

Fortunately, because it was an issue that they should have caught in the previous visit, they didn’t charge me for the labor, and gave me a deep discount on the batteries.

The Chevy dealer told me that eventually the fuel injectors and/or fuel pump would need replacing on the truck, but since it wasn’t an immediate issue and we’d already sunk over $3,000 into the thing, I passed for now.  Or rather Jake did. By that point, he started saying things like: 
"I bet it was just the batteries all along, and these guys are jerking you around because you don’t know any better.” 
Nice, hon.

By this point, I’m extremely nervous about the prospect of driving this stinking truck across country.  I tell Jake I think maybe I should fly instead (even bought refundable tickets), but he was adamant that the truck—which he’d never seen but in true guy fashion had decided was only suffering from user error—would get me to Kansas. He said:
“Worst case scenario, if you get stranded, just leave the truck and drive the rest of the way in a rental.” 
You can imagine how well I took that.

But I was not going to argue with my husband in a warzone about this anymore. I loaded up the truck and started driving across country with Howie and all of our stuff.

It’s a long drive from Houston to Kansas. I planned to stop in Dallas for gas in the early afternoon, then continue to Oklahoma City to stay the night and drive the rest of the way the following morning.

Howie, slap-happy at the end of our trip.
We drove to Dallas through pouring rain (how I learned the truck also needed new windshield wipers; sigh), and got to a gas station around 2pm.  We filled up, grabbed some snacks, Howie had a potty break, and we got back in the truck. And it wouldn’t start. I tried half a dozen times with no luck.  I took Howie back inside the gas station, which fortunately had a McDonald’s in it. We had happy meals and watched a movie on the iPad, hoping that cooling off the engine would help.

Ninety minutes later, the truck finally started and we drove to Oklahoma City.  But we missed our “early afternoon” window and wound up stuck in Metroplex rush hour traffic.  Ugh. Fortunately, Howie was a trooper about it, and we made it to OKC. Eventually.

The next morning, the truck started and we got on the road, but we needed gas. I stopped at a Love’s along the highway for gas, but I parked on the wrong side of the pump (because my gas tank and Jake’s are on opposite sides of the vehicle).  When I got in the truck to move it, it wouldn’t start.

Dozens of attempts, three mechanics, an adjuster, and a well-meaning elderly man later, no one can get the truck started. Howie and I go inside and find a table where we can kill some time, hoping that the truck will work later.  

The only bright spot in an otherwise horrendous ordeal was how awesome the people at Love’s were. They were very kind and helpful, they gave Howie fresh baked cookies to eat while we waited, and regularly checked on us to make sure we had everything we needed.  I could not have been luckier in the place that I was stuck. Or in the fact that my iPad is chock full of Pixar movies.

Three hours, several good Samaritans, and countless attempts later, I gave up and called a tow truck. The adjuster helped me locate the nearest dealer, and a rental car company.

I was working on getting Howie’s carseat installed in the cab of the tow truck when, wonder of wonders, the tow truck driver got Jake’s truck started.  I just threw my hands up in the air.

I knew I lacked the gas to make it to Manhattan, Kansas, so I found myself asking:
“so if I fill up with the truck running, what’s the likelihood it will actually blow up?”
“Ma’am, you’re driving a diesel; it’s not going to blow up,” 
said the tow truck guy, more than a little incredulously.  I confess, in Wichita I tested this advice.  I'm pleased to report we did not explode.

I made it to Manhattan and drove straight to the airport, abandoning the truck for a rental car.  Hours later we were finally united with Jake (more to come on that), and I recounted the whole story to him.  The next morning, he wanted to go to the airport and check out the truck.  When we got there, the truck started for him right away.

And it has started for him every time since. Every. Single. Time.

Of course it has. 

I hate that truck.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

My Little Trooper

When I look at this picture, my heart warms and breaks all at the same time. It was taken during my Army Spouse of the Year photo shoot several weeks ago. We had just come from a park, where Howie was super happy (see yesterday's photo), to the U.S. Army Reserve Airfield in Conroe, where he certainly was not. 

It really took me off guard. Howie loves helicopters, and always loves visiting Jake at work. I thought for sure that he would be happy to be at an airfield again for the first time in months. I was wrong. 

Airfields mean "Daddy," and Daddy wasn't there. I had prepared Howie for this fact, but when the truth truly set in, I could actually see the heartbreak wash across his face. He didn't want to be there without his Dad. He hugged his Daddy Doll tight, leaned into me, and let the tears roll. Such is the life of my Little Trooper. 

You heard from me yesterday about Howie's resilience (in spite of my own shortcomings). But since April is the Month of the Military Child, let me tell you just how strong this Little Trooper really is.

For all of his four years on this earth, Howie has been a geobach kid: Jake has always been stationed away from us. Howie has never known a time when he could consistently come home from school and find his Dad waiting there. Normal is not having Daddy there to help him get ready for school or church, or to tuck him in at the end of the day. Ordinary is Daddy not being able to make school functions, or take Howie to friends' birthday parties. Typical is telling Daddy after the fact when Howie gets to do something cool.

This year with a deployment has been especially hard. But long before Howie could tell you what "deployment" means--and boy can he! Just ask him!--he understood what sacrifice meant. It meant that Daddy was working to protect everybody, and that means having to be away from us. It meant we can be sad when we have to say good-bye, yet again, or upset about driving for hours just to be together, yet again, but that it would happen. Daddy loves us, but right now he doesn't belong to us. Howie has known this his entire life.

Until Howie was two, Jake was stationed at Ft. Polk in Louisiana. It's about three hours from Houston, and so every Friday we would make the drive there, or he would make the drive here, so that we could spend the weekend together. If you do the math, that means that in each of those two years Howie spent less than a third of his time--about 120 days--with his Dad. Howie hated Sunday good-byes, but honestly it shocked me just how young he was when he picked up on "Daddy Math"--he learned to count to five so that he could count down the "in between" days. 
"Only four days, Mommy!" 
"Only three days, Mommy!" 
I would smile and count with him, even as my heart ached at the percentage of time that was "only" in the way of being together. He was wishing away his littleness. So was I sometimes, and I hated it. I still hate it.

At the end of 2012, Jake was transferred to Ft. Riley, Kansas. Now, Daddy is a three hour flight, plus a two hour drive away. We changed from an every weekend family, to a twice-a-month family. About five days out of every thirty between Christmas of 2012 and July of 2013 belonged to us. Except in May, when pre-deployment training meant we didn't see each other at all. 

Howie can't count a month's worth of days, and had a very hard time at first. He was frustrated, and didn't understand why Daddy Math was failing him. Why "Friday" no longer meant our family would be together. Howie started asking me which were "Daddy Fridays" and which were "not Daddy Fridays." In a week with a "Daddy Friday," he would do Daddy Math. But he decided that he didn't like "not Daddy Fridays," so he started asking me about Mommy Dates instead. 
"Mommy, is it a Daddy Friday this week? Or a Mommy Date this week?"
A shift in thinking. I could not believe my little boy's wisdom, and willingness to take Monty Python's advice about the bright side. He could be sad Daddy wasn't there, but he'd rather be happy that Mommy is. I never thought I would learn so much about perspective from my little person.

In July 2013, Jake deployed to Afghanistan, and yet again Howie had to adapt. No Daddy Fridays--no Daddy at all. For 260 days, through Thanksgiving and Christmas, New Years, and birthdays, Daddy had to be "far away in Gas Can, helping people." And Daddy "can't come home until he finishes helping people."  So Howie would explain his life to people who asked.

There were times filled with lots of talking through questions, and lots of tearful hugs. It was hard to watch Howie miss his Dad so much, even as I too was missing him. But Howie amazed me again with his ability to adapt. "Daddy is a hero,"  he asserted, "and heroes have to go far away sometimes, even when they don't want to, because it's important to take care of people."  He loves Superheroes, and he decided that Afghanistan must be, like Superman's home planet or Green Lantern's planet, very far away. One time he told me:
"we're okay, Mommy, that's why Daddy can help other people. Because we're okay." 
Floored. Sometimes, the kid has ten times my emotional maturity. Or more likely, he has his Dad's servant heart and desire to help other people.

For months he relished the Skype dates and occasional cards from Jake, and loved making boxes to send Daddy; he would have conversations with his Dad on his play telephone, and occasionally I'd catch him kissing Jake's picture with a quiet "I miss you!"  He told me stories about what Daddy must be doing in 'Gas Can,' and made plans for what they would do together when Daddy came home.

What I never said, and what he never would have understood, is that homecomings, joyous as they are, are fleeting for a geobach family. It's days together after months apart, and then it's right back to being apart.

I haven't even tried explaining that to him. I don't want him thinking about the next good-bye, or the many that will follow after that.

I wish I could make it so that my sweet baby boy never had to say good-bye ever again. I wish I could make that huge empty space that so frequently finds its way into our family go away forever. But I can't. No military family can; "mission first" is the life we live. Military kids are resilient because they have to be; they have no choice.

What's incredible is just how resilient they are. Over 99.5% of American adults choose not to serve and make the sacrifices that these kids are called to make, that Howie makes. Yet they just do it, and often better than the adults do! Awe-inspiring is what that is.

By the time Howie turns five next year, our journey with the military will be over, and we will finally be together. No more Daddy Math, or Daddy Fridays; they'll be replaced with Daddy Everydays, and I can't wait! And Howie is so young that Daddy Everydays will quickly become his new normal--when he's older he may not even remember what it was like to always be apart; how much he had to give up; how often we had to say good-byes or how much his Daddy had to miss.

He'll never know just how tiny he was when he learned to be brave, and put this whole country's needs in front of his own.

But I will remember. My Little Trooper is one of the strongest people I know.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

A Tale of Two Teachers

I constantly worry about whether I am making the right decisions as a mom. Sound familiar? I think it's a pretty common state for parents in general. I think I might have been worrying overtime lately because I've been making parenting decisions without the benefit of talking to Jake. Then again, I'm not alone in that either. 

I think somewhere between "I grew up crazy and turned out okay" and "look at me, I'm a helicopter," is exactly the "right" mix of freedom and structure for any given kid. Sometimes I think I've found it with Howie, only to have a string of bad days and then panic that I've slid too far one way or the other. 

So basically, parenting is a constant balancing act is what I've decided. That might be the most frightening thing about adding another kid to the mix--a new little person means a new puzzle to solve.

Recently, amid all the fretting about "getting it right," being involved but not *too* involved, I learned a really important lesson: maybe it's okay to second-guess your methods, but don't second-guess your instincts.

Howie has been going to the same school since he was four months old (and now he's four years old). He loves it, and our overall experience--from the teachers, helpers, and leadership to the curriculum, programs, and activities--has been exceedingly positive. We even love the security guards!

The Motley Crew at Howie's Birthday
Since Howie was about a eighteen months old--and younger in some cases--he has been with the same nucleus of a dozen-ish kids that have about a seven-month range in age (November babies to May babies). They moved together from the baby wing, to the toddler class, to the pre-pre-K class. The kids were not always in the same small groups, but were always in the same room.

Last summer, when the kids were in the pre-pre-K room, we had an issue where another child was regularly biting Howie. Hard. The child is usually sweet and was obviously going through something at the time, but that didn't make the behavior acceptable, and frankly it was really hard to stop. When it finally did stop, I was so relieved, it took me several days to notice that my poor baby was happier when he was being bitten than he was now that the incidents had stopped. 

I started noticing that I wasn't running into the parents I was used to seeing at pick-up and drop-off, so I asked the teacher about it and learned that "the group" had been moved up to the next classroom. Without Howie. I was upset, but my logic brain kicked in and told me "there must have been a reason; maybe there's an age policy as the kids get older; he's not always going to get to be with the same kids, he should probably learn that now; don't be that mom, just go with it."

So I did. For about two weeks, Howie and I had the same conversation in the car on the way to school about making new friends, and how you don't lose your old ones just because you don't see them all the time. And every day, our conversation in the car on the way home involved Howie asking me why he didn't get to be with his friends. And of course, this coincided with Jake leaving, and with him my primary confidante. Sigh.

Fro-Yo: Textbook Mommy Date
One Friday, after we'd both had a long week, I decided to pick Howie up early and have a Mommy Date (what he calls the time we spend, just the two of us). When I got to the school, Howie was not in the classroom where he was supposed to be. The teacher's aid took me back to a different classroom, where my sweet baby was in a giant puddle of tears. His friends were in that class, and he didn't want to leave. 

The aid admitted to me that Howie had been having days like this all week, and my heart just broke. How did I not know that my baby was this unhappy? I scooped him up with big hugs and kisses. He promised he would be good if he could be with his friends, and I started crying too. Howie isn't learning a resilience lesson, I thought, he thinks he's being punished! And I resolved to fix it.

I went to the coordinator for his age group and asked the pointed question: why was Howie left behind? It was an age issue, the coordinator said. There was not space for all of the kids and Howie was the youngest. I threw off that explanation, pointing out that three of the kids who did move, including "the biter," were younger than Howie. So that couldn't have been it.

"Well, I thought you would be pleased that we separated them," she noted. Ah ha! Now we've found the truth. They solved the biting problem by promoting one child and leaving the other behind. "But," I asked, "how is it fair to make Howie stay behind when he was doing nothing wrong?" Apparently, she hadn't considered it that way. She was very apologetic and told me that if I wanted to move Howie up, they would find a way to accommodate me. Naturally, I took her up on the offer.

True to their word, Monday morning Howie was moved into the pre-K class with his friends, and he was thrilled! I was not. I met his new teacher that morning, and she made it clear from the very beginning that she was was not happy that another child was being added to her class. "He's too young," she said, even though others in her class were younger. "I have concerns that he will be disruptive," she said, even though she'd met him just minutes before. 

From that very first encounter I was unhappy with this teacher, but then the old logic kicked in again: she's probably just feeling overwhelmed; or maybe she's having a bad day, it is Monday after all; don't be that mom, who complains about every little thing; he's a good kid, and she'll figure that out; she may be unhappy today, but she'll end up loving him; hey, not every teacher is going to love Howie, and we might as well learn that lesson now.

After Howie moved to the new class, he was definitely happier at first, but things changed. Gradually, he started coming home with more and more "bad notes" on his progress charts. I was concerned, at first, but other parents were saying the same thing at birthday parties: everyone was experiencing an uptick in "bad notes." I decided that the Pre-K class must just have stricter rules he would have to get used to. They are getting the kids ready for kindergarten, after all

But then, more than just Howie's chart changed. He started acting like he was going to get in trouble for things when he wasn't doing anything wrong. He started not wanting to talk about his day. Then, he started acting out--talking back, not listening, actively disobeying. Some of it I chalked up to being three, and some of it I chalked up to Jake being gone. I tried to weigh those things in determining what was willful and what wasn't. I gotta say, at three, that's a hard distinction to make. But it got to where if there was a day he didn't have a bad note on his chart, Howie would actually cheer. Something was definitely wrong.

Then one morning, the age group coordinator called me and asked me to come visit with her. When I got to her office, she began by telling me that all of the (seven) boys in the class were having trouble; they were taking turns being disruptive, and they weren't sure the group was going to be able to stay together. I told her that didn't surprise me. The boys had been together for years, and they interacted like siblings (for better or worse). I was just asking her what I could do to help when the teacher walked in.

She laid into me right away about the fact that I travel too much, and must lack structure in the home for Howie to behave this way at school. I have to make him feel like he's a priority, she said, and clearly I was doing a poor job of that or he would act better. She noted that, by this point in a deployment, he should be used to having his Daddy gone, so that's hardly an excuse for being disruptive. And that if Howie would just behave, she was sure the others would follow.

There was more, but honestly I stopped listening after that. I looked at the coordinator, visibly uncomfortable but unwilling to step in, and I just smiled. I thanked the teacher for thinking Howie was a leader, and assured them I would talk to him. And I told them I was very interested to hear their plan for better engaging all of the boys in that class, and that I would be happy to help however suggested.

I was furious, but I'm not one to snap in the moment. I resolved to ask for Howie to be moved that afternoon. But when I got to the school to pick him up, he had already been moved to a different group. The coordinator saw me and gave me an affirming nod. She wasn't willing to say something in the moment, but she got my message; at least I had to give her that. And actually, all seven of the boys were eventually split into different groups. Moral of the story? It's not always good to have seven kids who act like siblings in the same classroom!

For the past two months, Howie has been with a new teacher. And it's truly been like night and day. Last Friday he celebrated three straight weeks of good notes at school, from all of the teachers of the new class. I hear comments about how helpful he is, how he takes care of his friends, and is attentive in his classes. He does come home with the occasional 'bad' note (he's a pre-K boy, right?), but now they are the exception and not the rule. And he loves school again. We are finally back to situation normal.

At one point I saw the old teacher in the hallway, and she mumbled something about how she heard he was doing better. In what I can only describe as a moment of grit, I told her "Yes, he's doing great. He finally has a teacher that doesn't treat him like 'the bad kid.'"

It's possible I overstepped with that remark; her face told me that I did. But she needed to understand her impact. My experience this year has taught me that there is truth to the old adage about kids living up to the expectations put in front of them. When Howie was treated like the bad kid every day, he started acting like one. He started believing it. How awful is that?

Now that he's just being treated like "Howie," he has started being plain 'ole, expected-to-be-good, punished-fairly-when-he's-not, Howie again.

And I guess that's the other lesson: kids are resilient. I can't tell you how much I've beaten myself up over this whole situation, wishing I'd intervened sooner, wishing he hadn't spent months in such a toxic environment. I messed this one up, but he's okay now. In fact now, he's thriving again.

The final and maybe most important lesson this situation taught me was to trust my instincts. Part of me knew that this wasn't just growing-up-type adjustments we would have to go through, but I doubted myself. I hesitated because I was afraid to make the wrong choice, and as a result I made the wrong choice. I'm so grateful that I had the opportunity to fix it!

And I'll tell you one thing, I'm sure it's a mistake I will repeat. I could say that I'll never doubt my instincts again, but that's not reality for moms. But I hope that what I learned is to err on the side of trust, not doubt. I will remind myself that no one knows my son better than me, and that if I sense there is a reason to act then there probably is.