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.
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.