Family Figure? More Like a Stranger: Building Relationships After Deployment
Most military families are no strangers to deployments, and the sad truth is that these long spans of separation can greatly disrupt a family dynamic.
I was born six months after my dad enlisted in the Army with just my mom and grandma in the delivery room. He didn’t meet me until eleven days later in the airport after coming home from Basic Training, and unfortunately this absence from my life became a trend.
Don’t get me wrong, I definitely appreciate the sacrifice service members make when forced to leave their families for deployments or move to duty stations where their loved ones can’t join them. Our military parents often don’t have a choice in the matter, and I don’t hold a grudge against my dad for having to fight overseas to protect our country. I know that he didn’t want to leave us as much as we hated to see him go.
But that doesn’t make it any easier.
A twelve-month deployment to Iraq quickly became three years in the Middle East, with only one year in between each departure for my entire family to be together. My earliest memories of my dad aren’t of him grilling in the backyard or watching movies with me on the couch, but are instead of small packages addressed to us in his handwriting and his voice over the phone a few times a week. Memories of crafting glitzy “Welcome Home” signs and eagerly scanning the lines of people coming out of airport terminals dominate my early childhood, and “Daddy” always seemed like a far away concept in a far away land. I knew he loved me and I loved him, but my dad was never really a tangible person, a steady figure in my life.
Then he was assigned to a duty station in Korea where we couldn’t follow. A year passed as I steadily moved through elementary school without a dad there to support me, my mom picking up the slack to take me to all of my sports games, friends’ birthday parties, and outings to the park. We called my dad often, and even spent a week in Korea with him seeing the sights, but he still wasn’t there. Instead of the rock-solid figure that a lot of children know and love as their father, mine was more of a summer breeze, flitting in and out of my life year after year.
In between moves and a steadily corroding relationship, my parents eventually made the decision that my dad would follow his orders to Germany while my mom, sister and I lived in Washington for two years. At this point it was the norm, and as much as it sucked, none of us could really say that it was anything new. As I graduated from elementary school with just my mom at the ceremony and completed my first two years of middle school without my dad, I began to grow into my own person. No longer was I just some happy-go-lucky kid that got super excited when my dad was home and felt sad when he went away again for reasons I couldn’t understand. Instead I was growing up. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t feel some resentment towards the military for sending my dad away time and time again, as well as some misplaced anger towards my dad himself. And with the only major influential figure in my life being my mom, when my dad did come home there were bound to be some problems.
There’s always this period of time after a family member comes home from a deployment or duty station that I like to call “The Golden Hour.” It’s when everything is shiny and new, and everyone feels on top of the world, happy that you’re all together as a family again. This can last for weeks, months, maybe even a year, but eventually the time comes when there are some real issues that you need to address: the disconnect.
Life goes on, and my family prepared for our next move, one of the rare cases where we would all live together. I had just turned thirteen, the glorious time of “it’s not a phase, mom” and emotional outbursts. My dad hadn’t lived with my family for seven of those thirteen years, half of my life. I wasn’t the little fifth grader he remembered anymore. Now in eighth grade, I had my own thoughts, my own opinions, and my own voice. That’s where the problems started.
It’s difficult readjusting to life with a family member that has been gone for so long, and the family dynamic was thrown off, resulting in a lot of confusion. Instead of going to mom for everything, there was now this whole new, physical person that shared the same level of authority as her, and trust me, it’s pretty wacky. On both ends.
I’m sure it spooked my dad having his oldest daughter be able to hold an intelligent conversation with him that was about something other than Pokemon and Frozen, someone who was able to argue her way out of doing the dishes instead of rushing to clean something after the phrase, “because I said so.” There was a lot to get used to, and it’s hard trying to build a relationship with a person who is traditionally supposed to be someone you already share one of the strongest bonds with.
With the dramatic increase in time spent with each other, I came to a sad conclusion: after all those years apart, my dad and I were practically complete strangers. We didn’t know anything about each other and were as different as two people could get.
Even now, as my family is about to hit the three year anniversary of moving to this duty station and celebrating the longest time that we’ve all lived together consecutively, it still feels like my dad and I are sending radio signals on different frequencies. Some days it can feel like the conflict is never-ending, and that our differences will never fully be talked out or that the fights won’t stop. But the better days are when I realize that as hard as it is learning to exist in the same house as someone you don’t understand, I’m truly grateful that I get to spend time with my dad. I don’t want him to leave again and become a voice through a cell-phone speaker or a face on a screen. I cherish the time we spend together nerding out over music, binge-watching our favorite TV shows, and screaming at dumb drivers on the road. Despite our differences, I wouldn’t trade my dad for the world, and I believe that more effort on both sides will eventually blossom in a fantastic bond.
Relationships are built with time, and though it may be rough, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Being willing to work with each other is key to any healthy connection, and this doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t feel guilty for being closer to one parent than the other, or for not having a strong connection towards someone who’s supposed to be a central pillar in your life. It’s only natural to have to work towards a relationship after so much time apart. Patience and communication from both parties will turn into a strong bond if you’re only willing to listen.
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