I’ll be honest, when I made the first phone call to FOCUS I wasn’t enrolling our entire family. In my mind, I was simply enrolling our two kids, hoping the program might teach them better ways to cope with the stressors and emotions of a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. My husband and I would be there too, of course, but I didn’t expect that we would be the ones focused on at FOCUS. About five minutes into our first session I realized I had been mistaken.
Our FOCUS counselor met with my husband and I one-on-one before she ever met our kids. She wanted to hear about our kids and our impressions of their unique personalities and developmental stages, but she also wanted to hear about us. She asked us about our own strengths and weaknesses, our own fears and expectations for the coming deployment. That first session was fairly poignant and thought-provoking and set the foundation for future conversations that helped us see where we had some room to grow as parents.
One of the most important lessons I learned was to not be so worried about shielding my kids from my own emotions. Before FOCUS, I really felt like “keeping it together” was one of my primary responsibilities during the deployment. To an extent, it certainly was—how I shouldered the heavy burden of single parenting mattered, as my emotional stability would in many ways shape theirs. But, and this is our FOCUS counselor talking now, it was also important to let my kids see me be sad and miss Daddy. Our counselor assured me it really was okay to cry in front of them. In fact, she asked, wouldn’t the kids get the wrong idea if they never saw Mom display any of these emotions?
Well… I hadn’t really considered this before, how my kids might be a little confused or even misled by a mom who never showed her emotional cards. I wanted them to think I was strong, but was I actually coming across as stony or impervious in the process? The truth was I would miss their daddy dearly, but the idea of letting them see me miss him, be less than completely with it, vulnerable if you will, seemed risky and noxious. Despite my natural inclinations and reservations, I annoyingly couldn’t dismiss the fact that our FOCUS counselor seemed to have a compelling and reasonable point. So, I gave it a shot.
I took tentative baby steps in the beginning, like resisting the urge to wait until the kids were in bed to be outwardly sad. For the first time, I started sharing my feelings with them, even when it wasn’t all rosy posies. I struggled to be transparent when I was upset or disappointed in myself, but I was rather shocked to soon realize I was the only one who thought any of this was a big deal. Once I lightened up and surrendered to sharing, I found life was easier this way—for all of us.
If you’re not a recovering perfectionist like me, or someone who maybe has a slight tendency to take things personally, perhaps this all sounds rather commonplace—like just logical, common sense. Maybe it is, but for me, it was any number of life-changing adjectives: extraordinary, revolutionary, radical even. For me, it meant I finally gave up trying to be Super Woman and gave in to just being myself, a woman who sometimes spills her coffee, who sometimes screws up simple math, and who sometimes gets distracted by a good song on the radio and momentarily forgets where she is going. This mindset change enabled me to be more forgiving to myself and my kids, and also helped me see the humor in my own mistakes. I quickly realized when I am more likely to smack myself in the forehead then get crabby, it makes us all feel more relaxed, relatable even.
Dropping my Super Woman façade also helped me avoid putting undo pressure on myself to try to be both mom and dad while my husband was deployed. I was already well aware of the fact that my husband can do certain things better than me, but when he was gone this time, I started admitting this fact out loud. This helped me shrug off pings of inadequacy whenever I disappointed my children with my lack of daddy skills, like failing to catch lizards in the backyard or failing to fix their broken Power Wheel. In situations where I felt overmatched, I tried to make my first reaction be something like, “man, I wish Daddy was here, he’d know what to do.” This helped me not only acknowledge Daddy’s strengths, but also simply admit I couldn’t do everything. It turned out to be language we all needed to hear.
Now, these are nice examples, but you’ll notice we weren’t running late for a medical appointment, hungry, sick, or sleep-deprived in any of these cases. So, how did it work in those special moments when life felt more like a street fight than a tea party? Well, I often found self-effacing humor had already left the building. Some days I did manage to “keep it together,” drawing on deep breaths and my newfound resolve to simply acknowledge what I was feeling, but some days, I didn’t. Like the morning my youngest son pulled the Christmas tree over.
I was in the kitchen pouring my coffee when it happened. I distinctly remember wanting to run far, far away—far away from the piles of pine needles and broken glass and little bare feet trampling through the accident scene. I didn’t run, but I did cry. On my hands and knees, dressed in just a bathrobe, I gave up trying to be strong somewhere between discovering one of my favorite ornaments hadn’t survived the fall and realizing I could not right the tree without another adult. I took a couple minutes there on my knees, feeling sorry for myself. Then, at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning, I called my neighbor and asked for help. Now I wasn’t weeping anymore though—I was embarrassed, frustrated, and supremely fed up. By the time we fixed the tree and I finished cleaning up the ungodly mess, we had missed church and I felt like strangling my own children. Even armed with FOCUS and good intentions, life had truly gotten the best of me.
My old self felt inclined to raise the white flag and stay at home the rest of the day, continuing to vent my anger at myself and my kids. But I didn’t. Instead, I took a quick mommy time-out and typed a furious, ranting email to my husband, detailing our crappy morning and unloading all my feelings. I knew I should have handled things better, but I just didn’t. I felt guilty for yelling at the kids. Worst of all, I wondered if it wasn’t also partly my fault the tree had tipped over so easily because I had really struggled to tighten the stubborn, poorly designed stand arms the night before. I was trying my best, but the best sure didn’t feel good enough right then.
After writing my husband, I was able to wrangle myself out of my foul mood. I hugged my kids, punted my original plan for the day, and we all hopped in the car and went shopping. We had burgers and fries for lunch. I tried to forget about the tree and my broken ornament and the kids were just happy their meals came in cardboard cars they could “drive” around the stores while we shopped. Somehow, we salvaged the day and thankfully, the tree was still standing when we got home.
Our FOCUS counselor didn’t teach me how to “keep it together” while my husband was deployed. She simply gave me permission to be more honest about my own emotions, which, in turn, helped me stop chasing something I was never going to catch—this supremely unhelpful perception that “keeping it together” equates to living life perfectly. The fact is, I didn’t keep it together while my husband was deployed. I just learned how to fall apart with a little more grace.
FOCUS helped each member of the Kansteiner family become more comfortable and accustomed to acknowledging their emotions during a year-long deployment. Above, James Kansteiner kisses his Flat Daddy good night tenderly one day, and on another, enjoys punching him in the face with a Hulk Hand. Even though he knew it wasn’t necessarily Daddy’s fault that he was gone for so long, sometimes it just felt good to take it out on him anyway.
When I signed our family up for FOCUS, one of my main goals was figuring out how to handle the bewildering amount of time my husband was expected to be deployed. We’d done the six or seven monthers, but a whole year? Goodness, this amount of time had magnitude. I’ve done a few things that seemed overwhelming at the outset—like finishing an Ironman triathlon and having a baby while my husband was deployed—but this was just staggering. More like an expedition to Everest really, and it seemed pointless to try to struggle through on our own. Even professional climbers enlist Sherpas, right?
Ideally, I wanted to find a way to count down the days in some way that didn’t involve weaving three hundred and sixty five strips of paper into a depressingly long chain. Something that genuinely acknowledged the deployment’s substantial length (I’m not one for sugar-coating things just to make my kids feel better in the short-term), but also enabled us to see some progress along the way. Thankfully, I was in good hands.
Our FOCUS counselor introduced us to an ice cream cone countdown system, which we began as soon we told our kids about Daddy’s upcoming deployment. This was in January and he didn’t end up leaving until early February. We explained that from now on we would all have ice cream on the first day of each new month, but while we were enjoying our scoops, we would also use this time to talk about what would be happening during that month. This was part one. Part two involved an easy craft project for the kids at home: making a construction paper ice cream cone. Nothing fancy and nothing we needed Pinterest to accomplish. First, the kids cut out a big cone which we taped to the bottom of our sliding glass door in the kitchen. Then, they cut out a scoop for the month of January. I scribbled our significant events onto it as we enjoyed our ice cream, leaving a space for a check mark next to each item. When we got home, the kids taped our first scoop atop the cone and life began to revolve around this ever-present, ever-growing ice cream cone. The kids began checking things off as they happened and knew, or were reminded, what was coming up next.
When February 1st rolled around, the kids knew it was time for more ice cream. They cut out another paper scoop in a different “flavor” and we all enjoyed sugary spoonfuls of the real deal while we talked about what was coming up. I listed each coming event on our new scoop, careful to point out which things would happen before Daddy left and what would happen after. It was a somber sit-down; we all knew there would be more ice cream on March 1st, but Daddy wouldn’t be there with us.
When we got home, we taped up our new scoop and life really felt immediate. We only had about a week left before Daddy would have to leave and our February scoop reminded us every day. But, we could also look one line down and be reminded that we were planning on going to a family fun day on base, complete with cotton candy and pony rides, shortly after Daddy left. Amidst the sadness and pending reality of saying goodbye, thankfully there were still a few things to look forward to.
When D-Day came, we all got up early to drop Daddy and all his gear off on base. We hugged, we cried, and after we said goodbye, we stopped at Dunkin Donuts for doughnuts with sprinkles. Then, we came home and attended to our business: checking off “Daddy leaves” on our February scoop and making our way through the rest of that raw first day.
We were at the bottom of our door at that point. We had many, many months to go until we reached the top, or August, when we expected Daddy to come home again for his two-week R&R period. There weren’t any shortcuts to our finish line, but every time we checked something off, we edged closer and closer to the top. This was the beauty of the ice cream cone countdown—it helped set accurate expectations for all of us, effectively breaking down the deployment into more-manageable, monthly bites and offering up a sweet reward every time we made it through another thirty days on our own.
Even with this seemingly ingenious ice cream countdown in place though, I quickly realized it really only represented half the answers my kids needed. I was still asked every day, multiple times a day, “when is Daddy coming home again?” I tried to stick with my “when we reach the top of the door” line, but my youngest would often follow up with, “and when is that?” August was the month we hoped to see him again, but this answer really only held measurable meaning for our oldest son, James, who was five. Telling Cole, our three-year-old, August was every bit as useful as telling him Daddy would be coming home during National Goat Cheese Month. Uh huh, and when is that?
I felt like I owed Cole an honest answer, one that he could grasp better than August, but I was stumped for a good way to define things. How do you explain six or seven months to a kid whose world seems to revolve in sixty second revolutions of what I want now, what I want next, and what my brother has that I also want. Finally, one day it just hit me. When he asked, “when is Daddy coming home again?” I immediately responded with, “about a billion days.” It was the most mythical of answers, yes, but Cole instantly got it. He knew enough to know that a billion was a long, long time from now. It wasn’t around the corner, it wasn’t next week. It wasn’t next month, or even the next one after that. This was way out there. This was, quite honestly, about a billion days.
I stuck with this answer, repeating it time and time again, right until we closed in on a time he could wrap his head around. Next month, next week, tomorrow! After Daddy had come home for R&R and left again, I somehow had the wise idea to adjust my answer slightly. About a billion days became half a billion days, acknowledging that he had already endured half of the separation. One part was done, one more to go. This he knew, this he understood.
Looking back, this whole process of learning how to deal with the days seems to reinforce two of the most unfailing truths about life: One, there doesn’t ever seem to be one “magical” answer. And two, ice cream solves everything.
I wouldn’t willingly go back and re-live our year without Dad, but it constantly surprises me that it wasn’t the worst year of our lives. Thanks to FOCUS, we actually emerged a stronger family unit, accustomed to talking about what’s about to happen and attempting to set accurate expectations. This habit continues to serve us well, making us better able to withstand all the crazy things life has in store for us, such as learning we would be moving to California a couple months after Daddy got home.
How long does it take to drive to across the country, Mom?
About a billion days, son.
When our first FOCUS session occurred, less than two months before my husband’s yearlong deployment to Afghanistan, we were well into the process of “getting ready.” We already had a new power of attorney drafted up, wills had been updated—we thought we had a pretty firm handle on things really. It took our FOCUS trainer approximately two minutes to detect we weren’t quite so far along on the family front. “And how are your kids reacting to the news?,” she asked. My husband and I exchanged an awkward glance and then explained, “well, we haven’t told them yet."
How do you break news like this to little kids? How do you somehow communicate Dad (or Mom) is leaving for a year, and not really going to a safe place? How do you even describe how long a year is to kids whose minds seem programmed to think only in short bursts of time, from what I want this second to what I want the next. If tomorrow is forever, what does that make a year? I had quietly feared we didn’t have the right answers to these questions long before our first FOCUS session. After that first FOCUS session, I wasn’t quite so afraid.
As any military family can attest, the D word is often one that is whispered and tiptoed around when it first enters the house. Eerily like the other dreaded D word, it’s inherently emotionally charged and implies separation and change. It evokes fear, terror even and kids, even little kids, can sense the tension, if only through the concerned facial expressions they see when mom or dad shoos them to another room so they can “talk.” Nobody has told them anything, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know something’s wrong.
We left our first session with ideas and plans for starting this tricky conversation and even titles of a few children’s books to order that were supposed to be very helpful. Our FOCUS trainer didn’t give us a script to memorize or particular lines to say, she just urged us to start talking. She reassured us that the kids didn’t need perfect speeches, they just needed to start hearing about what was about to happen and how it would affect them. This sounds easy, but truly was anything but easy at first. In the beginning, it was hard to even spit the words out of my mouth without my voice trembling. In the beginning, a lot of times I talked about it in the car as I was driving so I didn’t have to literally face the kids and could distract myself by paying attention to the road. This proved to be an excellent tactic especially when the kids would, on occasion, explode or breakdown in fits of crying.
Following our trainer’s advice, I began seeking out opportunities to talk about the deployment, working it into our daily conversations, and I was soon able to talk about it without a catch in my voice. Somehow something that was anything but normal, began to feel more normal, even for me. If we were driving on Camp Lejeune, I would say something like, “okay, so in a month, this is where we will come to bring Daddy and all his bags, and right over there, that’s where we’ll say goodbye to him. And right here, you see this Dunkin Donuts? We’ll go get a donut afterwards, okay? Won’t that be yummy? We’re going to be sad, but, man, that donut will probably taste really good.”
Talking about it in this everyday kind of way helped build the right expectation, while also communicate that life wouldn’t end after we dropped off Dad. And not only would life continue, good things could still happen after Daddy was gone. It certainly wasn’t going to be a “donut every day” kind of deal, but it also wasn’t an “every day is going to suck” kind of deal either.
FOCUS isn’t some magic pill that makes problems go away. Regardless of whether we participated in FOCUS, the deployment was going to happen. I like to think about it this way: The Marine Corps had issued us the dreaded yearlong deployment ticket and on a certain random day our lives would change. Unwanted separation would occur and keep on occurring for a length of time equal to the punishment for misdemeanors in this country. What FOCUS could do, if we were open to listening to some advice, was help us upgrade our tickets from squished, standing-room only accommodations, to actual seats in coach. We were still going somewhere we didn’t intend or desire to go, but how we got there could be changed—made a little more comfortable, a little more endurable. Perhaps we could even pack a few treats for the trip.
We had a tough job, to live life without Daddy, but still with him, and we were just learning how to do this. How to thread a connection from North Carolina clear to Afghanistan, to bridge the terrible gap by adding stitches of daily details—“Cole put his shoes on the right feet all by himself today!” and even, “so I found a dead baby mole in the car today that James was planning on keeping as a pet”—and pulling them taut, effectively shrinking the seven thousand miles between us, at least in our minds. Modern technology certainly helped us do this, but having a licensed professional guiding us along, helping us to interact with our kids more successfully helped as well.
Glazed donuts, in moderation, helped too
Major Mike Kansteiner reads Lily Hates Goodbyes by Jerilyn Marler to his sons, Cole, left, age three, and James, right, age five, the night before deploying to Afghanistan for a one-year tour
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FOCUS (Families OverComing Under Stress) is a resiliency building program of the Department of Defense. The FOCUS program is designed for military families, couples and children facing ongoing stress and change. FOCUS promotes family strengths and supports families and children to help manage the challenges of military life.