Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve been deployed in Afghanistan for 13 months and am returning home next week. Being apart from my wife and children for so long has got me committed to making some major changes in my relationships with them. How easy will this be to do?
A: There’s nothing like being away from your family to get you thinking about making life better when you get home. “I’m going to spend more time with the family; not get upset over minor things like spills on the carpet, clogged toilets, or idiot politicians; and help the kids more with their homework.” All great goals. The problem is that the guy who made those resolutions (you) may not be the same as the guy who’ll be trying to make them a reality (also you): Although things may look pretty much the same as they did before you left, being deployed has changed you. Lots of other things have changed too:
- Friends. You just spent the last year with some very close friends, living through the same hardships, facing the same dangers, and providing emotional and social support to each other. Friends back home are great, but unless they were deployed too, they probably have no idea what you’ve been through, and you may not have much in common anymore.
- Roles. One of the hardest things for returning dads is to figure out how to plug themselves back into their family. It’s natural to imagine that you’ll jump right in and pick up as if you’d never left. That’s a lovely thought, but a completely unrealistic one. While you were gone, your family had to create new routines, new ways of communicating and making decisions, new approaches to discipline. Mom has been the primary decision maker, the kids have taken on some of your old chores, and no one may be interested in making any changes.
While may be proud that your family came through your deployment in good shape, you may be a little surprised—and, honestly, a little disappointed. After all, the logic goes, if they thrived so well without you, do they need you anymore? The answer is, Yes. A lot. They love you, too, and want you to be a part of the family again, to resume your duties as teacher, mentor, authority figure, fixer of all things broken, bad joke teller, and heavy lifting guy. It’s just going to take some time. Chances are, you’ll never get back 100 percent to the way things were. Instead, you, your wife, and your kids will end up creating a completely new routine that combines the best of the pre-deployment and during-deployment ones.
- Even the animals. Some pets may not like having to compete with you for attention, and may resent that you’re sleeping on “their” side of the bed. Be prepared for some unusual behavior and some unpleasant “gifts” (cats are especially fond of punishing their owners for perceived slights . . . ).
While some of these changes are good, others may be more troubling. For example, it’s going to take a while for you to stop worrying that every car that pulls up alongside you might be a potential suicide bomber or part of an ambush. And it could take years before you’re able to stop ducking for cover every time you hear a loud noise or a bang. These things won’t just affect you. It can be more than a little frustrating for your family to have you constantly worrying that you’re about to be blown up.