It was December 2012 and not a happy time. My Marine husband was preparing to deploy to Afghanistan again, for the third time in six years, and this time for a year. As I envisioned my part in this—twelve months running a household with two small boys and a chocolate lab who suffers from a personality disorder (he thinks he’s a beaver)—it really felt like we were both preparing for our own wars.
So, when I read an email my husband forwarded me about an upcoming predeployment brief, I can distinctly remember feeling disgruntled, weary, and more than a little wrung out. As I skimmed the email I immediately dismissed the brief in my “been-there-done-that” way, already deciding I was not going to go, right until I read the line about free childcare.
About a week later I was seated next to my spouse, arms crossed, assuming I would learn nothing new or useful, but nevertheless enjoying some kid-free time complete with lemon-filled crème cookies. Looking back, my attitude wasn’t particularly commendable, but understandable given that I am a former Marine Public Affairs Officer who once helped give briefs like these and who has deployed once myself, in addition to managing the home front for three others.
My perceptions seemed to be panning out nicely when one presenter had the audacity to tell the audience to be sure we counted down the days. You know, he helpfully explained, make your countdown rings and so forth. About this time, the caustic side of my personality took over, and I began dissecting the ways in which I felt this comment was patently offensive. Sure, on the surface, countdown chains or rings are great—fun ways to tick off the time until Santa Claus comes down the chimney or the Easter Bunny hops through the yard depositing candy-filled eggs—but we’re talking about short lengths of time. Days not weeks, and certainly not fifty-two stinking weeks. Can you imagine how long a three-hundred-sixty-five day countdown chain would be? And then if you have more than one kid and each kid wants his own… yikes.
It seemed like the worst idea of all time, but on the other hand, I knew he had a point. Certainly, there needed to be some way for our kids (not to mention me) to count down the days and celebrate the fact that each day was one day closer to Daddy coming home again. I remember feeling a little panicky and disappointed that I couldn’t think of any good way to tackle what felt like a fairly straightforward problem when a member of the FOCUS team was introduced.
I didn’t recognize the acronym, so I perked up, wondering what this FOCUS deal was all about. The woman politely explained FOCUS stood for Families OverComing Under Stress and that it was a new program designed to help families build up their resiliency in preparation for highly stressful events such as a deployment. As much as I tried, I could find no cause to criticize or belittle anything the woman said, and I was a little bewildered to find my “too-cool-for-school” self surreptitiously taking notes, scribbling her number on my otherwise dispensable issued deployment booklet a few moments later.
Despite my own deep-seeded reluctance to ask for help, and despite the fact that I inherently knew family counseling would be about the last thing my Alpha Male Marine would want to do in the all-important dwindling time before he began his next tour in the sandbox, the next day I found myself making an appointment for an initial interview without even consulting him. It was a rare, unilateral decision, but I just knew in some unexplainable way that it was the right thing to do, and I was willing to weather the ensuing flak-storm that did ensue once I broke the news.
Looking back now, on the other side of a yearlong deployment, I am truly shocked to be able to say it wasn’t the worst year of our lives. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to do it again—rest assured, the deployment was still full of the fairly predictable hardships, such as unexpected car breakdowns and the threat of major appliance failure—but the counseling we received through FOCUS prior to and during the deployment, really helped make our family stronger and better able to deal with the ups and downs and in-betweens of carrying on life at home with Dad seemingly millions of miles and days away.
Before FOCUS, I survived deployments. After FOCUS, I realized I could thrive during a deployment, and that’s a mindset I hope to be able to sustain throughout the rest of my husband’s career.
This is the first in a series of blogs where I will explain the lessons I learned through FOCUS sessions and how they panned out in real life. I hope other military spouses will find them useful and perhaps inspire them to consider giving the folks at FOCUS a call. Out of all the demands for our time these days, this is one investment that stands to have a great return.
December 21, 2012: Less than two months before my husband deployed, we had our first FOCUS appointment. I had to sandwich it in between doctor’s appointments and holiday baking while the boys were at preschool, four days before Christmas, but it turned out to be time well spent.
Healthy sleep is an important part of keeping your family functioning at their best. Poor sleep can have a large impact on children and often interferes with muscle repair, cell regeneration, and brain hormone level regulation – which effects mood, appetite, and ability to focus. Losing sleep can also increase obesity, reduce ability to learn, and decrease school performance. School performance often improves when a child develops healthy sleep habits.
The people in your family (big and small) require different amounts of sleep:
Toddlers (1-3 years) need about 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period.
Preschoolers (3-5 years) need about 11-13 hours of sleep each night.
School-age children (5-11 years) need about 10-11 hours of sleep each night.
Adolescents (12-18 years) need about 9 ¼ hours of sleep each night.
Adults need about 8 ¼ hours of sleep.
Tips for promoting health sleep habits:
Maintain a regular sleep schedule. Wake-up and go-to-sleep at approximately the same time each day, including weekends and holidays.
Create consistent, relaxing bedtime routines that help children “wind down” and prepare for a good night’s sleep. Some ideas include:
A warm bath before bed
Turning down the lights in child’s bedroom
Singing songs or lullabies
Reading a calming story
Listening to quiet music or stories on tape
Talking about the day
Make child’s bedroom conducive to sleep – dark, cool and quiet.
Keep TV and computers out of the bedroom.
Napping should be developmentally appropriate.
Naps should not occur too close to bedtime, avoid naps after 3 pm.
Children generally do not require naps after the age of five or six.
For older children, teens and adults, napping during the day should be avoided.
It’s okay to let teens sleep in on the weekend, but no more than 2 or 3 hours later than their usual weekday wake-up time.
Spend time outside each day to help strengthen the body’s internal clock.
Regular exercise during the day can help children, teens and parents sleep better.
Keep children away from caffeine. Keep in mind hidden sources of caffeine: chocolate, candy, soda, energy drinks, energy bars, coffee drinks and desserts.
Avoid arguments just before bedtime.
For families with parental military deployment, consider audio recording favorite stories or songs that can be played as part of the bedtime ritual while parent is away.
- Making homemade playdough. This is a great activity that can be enjoyed by children of all ages and used over and over again. It is a great rainy day distraction. Psssst! Parents—don’t tell your kids, but here is a little secret: not only is making playdough loads of fun, but it is also a great way to practice following directions and basic math/measurement skills.What you need:
- 3 cups flour
- 5 cups salt
- 6 tsp cream of tartar
- 3 tbsp oil
- 3 cups water
Store finished product in a plastic container; it should last for around 3 months. To add color or scent to the playdough, you can add a few drops of food coloring, vanilla, an extract like peppermint or almond, or a packet of unsweetened Kool-Aid. Note: Keep an eye on young toddlers to make sure they don’t eat the playdough. The recipe provided is non-toxic in small amounts, but could result in an upset stomach if too much is eaten.What to do:
- Dissolve salt in the water.
- Pour all ingredients into a large pot.
- Stir constantly over medium heat until a ball forms by pulling away from the sides.
- Knead the dough mixture until the texture matches playdough (1-2 minutes).
- Baking. This classic rainy day activity can be customized to suit the taste and dietary preferences of your family. Like making playdough, baking is a fun way to practice following instructions and develop basic measurement skills. It is also a great way to practice taking turns and teach basic sequencing (i.e. first we add all the ingredients, then we put the dough on the cookie tray, etc).
- Puzzles. If your kids have mastered all the puzzles in your house, help them create their own! All it takes are scissors and construction paper. Have your kids draw or paste a picture on a sheet of construction paper or poster board. Use a puzzle you already have as a template, or draw the pieces freehand before cutting them out into puzzle pieces. Once the puzzle is created, they can have fun putting it back together. This is a great activity to use during get-togethers with other kids. They can also trade puzzles and try to piece together their friends’ creations.
- Board games. Create a new version of your favorite board game that is unique to your family. For example you could change the pictures in Candyland to match the places you stopped on your trip to Grandma’s last summer. You can also create your own version of Memory using pictures of your family’s favorite things. You might also create a brand new card game and name it after your family pet or favorite food. Be sure to write down the rules to any new games so there is no confusion about how to play.
- Scrapbook. This is a great project because scrapbooks can be created in all shapes and sizes and can include images specific to the interests and ages of your children. Scrapbooks are an excellent way to encourage creativity and can be done with any art supplies you have on hand. The following supplies may help your kids to create your family scrap book: small journal or album, scissors, construction paper, crayons or markers, photos, magazine images, and stickers.
- Plant a spring garden. If you have an empty corner in the yard or even just an empty reusable grocery bag you can create your own garden. Take some time this winter to do some research on what types of plants will grow best in your climate and in the space you have. After you have decided what you want to grow, you can draw a diagram of your future garden and make a list of any supplies you need. Once you are prepared and the weather is right for planting, head to your local hardware store or garden center and pick up a few packets of seeds, a shovel, and start planting. In a few months, you will be able to enjoy your garden together as a family. It will also be fun for your kids to see what they have planted grow and bloom.
- Story creation. If your children love stories and have active imaginations, this is the perfect activity for them! There are endless variations that will keep them busy for quite some time. Your child can create a story from scratch and add his or her own illustrations. Together you could write a new ending for your child’s favorite book, or just draw new pictures to go with the original story. Your child might come up with a new comic book character and write a comic strip about them, or create a fill-in-the-blank story that other family members can take turns filling out.
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.