Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are expecting our first child. The problem is that I’m in the US Marine Corps on tour in Iraq. I have been here since the beginning of the pregnancy and I might not be there for the birth of our child. My wife is having a hard time doing this on her own and I feel that there’s nothing I can do to support her. I’m reading your book, The Expectant Father, which I find very helpful. But do you know of any resources that are specifically aimed at military dads and/or their families?
A: There are over 700,000 children under five in military families who are separated from their father or mother. As a former U.S. Marine myself, my heart goes out to all of them. Here are some great resources you and your wife can use to get the support you need. And because I know many military dads will be reading this column, I’m also including some tips on staying in touch with the kids and maintaining relationships while away.
- Military OneSource and Military Homefront. Two sites run by the Department of Defense, that offer valuable resources for deployed dads (and moms), and their families. www.militaryonesource.com and www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil
- Marine Parents. Great resources for Marines and their families. www.marinedads.org
- Operation Homefront. A national nonprofit providing emergency assistance and support to our troops and their families and to wounded warriors when they return home. www.operationhomefront.net and/or www.cinchouse.com.
- Go high-tech. Before you deploy, buy an inexpensive webcam and a good DVD burner. That way, your family can keep you in the loop by sending audio or video recordings of life at home. Or they can create a Web site and post movies, songs, report cards, etc. Depending on where you’re stationed, you may be able take advantage of programs like the U.S. Army’s Knowledge Online, which allows soldiers to create video messages and email a link back home.
- Go low-tech. Before you leave, write a whole bunch of messages for your kids and hide them around the house so they’ll find them in unexpected places. If your child can’t read yet, put all the messages in a special basket. Your partner can read a new one to your child every day, or your child can take one out herself anytime she wants a little virtual hug.
- Sit down and talk with your kids before you leave. Explain to them exactly what’s happening and why.
- Use the mail. Technology is great, as far as it goes, but it’s no substitute for a good, old-fashioned package from Dad. Little things—a dried leaf from a tree near your barracks, a film canister full of sand—are great ways to let your child know that you’re thinking of her no matter where you are. They also give her a tangible sense that you’re somewhere, in a real place. This is particularly important for younger children.
- Take a good book on child development with you and read it. That way, you’ll be able to keep up with how they’re changing and you’ll have a better chance of hitting the ground running when you get back.
- Ease your partner’s burden before you go. Before you leave, make sure your partner is up to speed and knows how to handle any household tasks that you usually handle (where bank statements are, when bills are due, and so on). Have your paychecks automatically deposited to your joint account. And if you can set up your rent and other bills to be paid automatically, so much the better. Lastly, write a will.
- Get some support. It’s important to have a strong network of family, friends, and/or community. On one level, these people can help your family cope with your absence. On another, knowing they’re there and keeping an eye on your family will put your mind at ease.