I am a veterinarian by training, but I was in the military at the time my son was born. At that point, work was my life. I didn’t love it but I always thought of it as a means to an end. I didn’t want to have to depend on someone else. My self-identity was very tied up with it, because that’s what I did and that’s all I did.
I don’t think I ever thought [how kids would fit into my life]. Both my husband and I knew they would change our lives. I did not realize to the degree. Or the degree they would change our marriage and change me. I never thought that the job I had—the military—was not the best thing for kids. People in the military just do it. Their kids are used to deployment; they’re used to just being in daycare and moving constantly.
Initially what surprised me was the sheer labor involved. Not the labor and delivery, but the care-giving. It very quickly consumed your life. You can’t figure it out. It’s just a baby. It’s just sleeping and pooping and eating, but somehow suddenly there’s time for nothing else in your day. I think the second thing was how that impacted our marriage. Things that you didn’t know were an issue before suddenly became an issue.
Rog was working for a start-up at that time and I remember him coming in one night at 10 o clock. My son didn’t nurse well –so I had to use the breast pump a lot. Rog wanted to go to the gym. I was sitting there like a milk cow and I remember thinking, “Wait, your life hasn’t changed at all. It’s just going marching on. Mine has totally, by the way, changed 180 degrees. While I am sitting here like the milkcow, still have a fulltime job and still have a long commute, you’re just going on with your life.”
Right before we had Kees, I took this new assignment, and my plan was to stay there for awhile. It became immediately clear that that wasn’t going to work. I had to be at work at 7:30 every morning and I was an hour and a half away–and sometimes, with traffic–much longer, and with an infant, that’s ludicrous. I basically put him in the car asleep and picked him up asleep. I started that assignment in June. I put in my request to be inactive duty by September. I felt we were at a crisis point and this wasn’t going to work. I did not want to get out at that point. But I had to do it, because Rog made a lot more money than me. I went from fulltime to nothing. My first day on “leave” (using the days I had accrued during active duty) was September 11, 2001.
If you’re familiar with the military at all, it’s a very suck-it-up mentality, no whining kind of thing. All of a sudden I was out of the military world. I didn’t fit into the veterinary world. I had no female circle of friends. I think I was a little lost.
I went back on active duty and was mobilized in December of 2002. I was gone from then until the end of September 2003. It was totally different (going back as a mother). You’re sleep-deprived and so overwhelmed with work. I was in a couple of places before I ended up attached to a unit that was deploying to Kuwait and Iraq. I had no idea how hard it would be. Not just that you miss him, but how horrible the guilt is. My parents helped a lot. I had a very, very good neighbor. I also felt guilty that my son would be back in the same daycare situation he was in before. I suddenly felt very ambivalent about the whole army thing. It wasn’t just that I didn’t agree with Iraq. It had much more of a maternal viewpoint- people were dying needlessly, children of other people.
There was just a homesickness where you can’t almost function. You’re so miserable to be away from your child. I was very lucky because I had quite a lot of contact, but it was like rubbing the scab off everytime. Rog had sent me a bunch of CDs of Kees singing and talking. I remember thinking what a great thing for Rog to do for me—and it was—but I could not listen to them. You have to really take your life from before and stick it in a little box. Take it out maybe a couple of times a day and think about it—if you’re feeling strong. If you’re having a bad day, you don’t take it out.
It did cross my mind (what if I get killed?) a couple of times. We were in Kuwait City, right around when they opened the Kuwait border with Iraq. I remember thinking two contractors had been shot in that spot by an extremist. Any of these people could do that. They could just shoot me.
Having a child did change my view of mortality. When I had Kees, I was just approaching midlife. It’s the time when you start to feel your age and that you could die. I’m very worried that I won’t be there for him to the degree that my parents have been. And he’s an only child. If Rog and I should become ill at a fairly young age, he doesn’t have any real family, won’t have a sibling to share that with. I wonder if we shortchanged him by not having a second child.
I definitely know myself a lot better now. Before he was born, I thought we would continue working 60 hours a week and life would go on. I realize now that I have to have down time. When he was an infant he ate up that downtime and I did crash and burn. Now I’m much more pushy about making sure I get my time. I think I’m a better person. I think I’m more forgiving of people. That’s part of aging, but it’s also part of becoming a parent.
Advice? Get your life in order—before you have a child. We had no support network, no family. You’re going to have to put someone down on your daycare form as your backup. We didn’t have a backup. Also, don’t have expectations. Don’t have this big plan that you’re going to do this and this and this. Some women can have all these kids and work full time and have it all and that’s great, but some woman can’t. You just need to figure out who you are and adjust your life accordingly.