Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forgotten Sacrifice

Sitting in the pews of the Post Chapel on Easter morning, I was surprised and saddened by the number of people who had no one there to share the day with. Easter Sunday, a day to spend with family and friends, yet so many were spending it alone.

I found myself staring at the young, smiling woman sitting two rows ahead of us, singing the hymnals in a pretty, soft voice. She smiled at everyone, yet her eyes looked very sad. As the Chaplain prayed for our troops, she glanced at her wedding ring. I wondered if her husband was deployed, and assumed that he was.

I looked at the older man sitting on the other side of the sanctuary, tightly grasping his Bible in two wrinkled, and obviously over-worked, hands. He also glanced at his wedding ring, which looked tarnished and well loved. A veteran, I assumed. And likely someone who outlived his wife. I wondered if she sat at home waiting for him while he served in Korea or Vietnam. I wondered if she, too, had sat in Church alone on many a Sunday morning, waiting for her husband to return home. And I thought about how very much he must miss her.

I glanced toward the young mother in the very back of the Church, struggling to quiet the cries of her two young children. I looked for her spouse, partner, family member—any adult who might be there to help her. But, she and her children were also alone. I wondered if she was a single mother—a single soldier—struggling to care for her children alone, wondering when she may have to leave them again. Or was she was a military wife whose husband was away—again—struggling to balance motherhood with constant worry and fatigue? The look of sadness and exhaustion in her eyes made me assume it was the latter.

I thought back to the dinner our family had out at a local restaurant on Veteran’s Day. They advertised a special for a free meal for military members and retirees. There, too, I saw numerous retired veterans and current service members—some in uniform, others wearing distinctive buzz cuts or tattoos—dining alone. I joked with my husband that we should have invited them all over to our house. I still wish we had.

I thought back also to a recent experience in the airport, picking up a family member. Many US troops were returning from tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. As they entered through the arrival gates, the USO representative would call, “welcome home, hero!” and most people would applaud. (My daughter shot scowling glances at those who did not). Most of these soldiers were greeted by smiling (and sometimes crying) spouses, parents, siblings, and children. But, many were not. They walked past the embracing families with their heads hung low, probably headed to the barracks or a small apartment—alone. I hoped they knew how much we all appreciated what they had done, and how happy we were that they were home. I clapped even louder for those troops, just to make sure they heard.

One soldier was greeted by his wife and their baby, who was probably about six months old. The tears that immediately started rolling down the soldier’s face indicated that this was likely the first time he had held—and possibly seen—his child. I wiped the tears from my eyes as well. Although my own husband missed the birth of his oldest son—and I know how often it happens—I am still always struck with sadness when I think of a parent missing the birth, and early months, of their child’s life. I just can’t imagine.

With thousands of military members being deployed at any given time, and each of their families at home, waiting, worrying, and wondering, it’s hard not to notice how many people are here—alone. It also seems hard not to notice military couples struggling to maintain their relationships through multiple deployments, combat stresses, and the lingering effects of war, resulting in high divorce rates and crumbling families. Spouses left behind, children without parents, families breaking apart, mothers and fathers never returning home, children being born with fathers in combat—all right in front of us, there for us to see. Yet it seems that so many of these stories—these people—go unnoticed. It breaks my heart.

So, I’m asking each of you that if you do nothing else to honor—to thank—military families, please do simply this: Notice. Offer a smile, a hug, a helping hand. Military members and spouses may be frequently on their own, but they do not have to be alone. Reach out. Notice. Remember. And never stop saying thank you.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Where Has the Time Gone?

I read once that a blogger should write a new post at least once a week, preferably more, to keep their readers’ attention.

Oops.

I apologize to each of you for being absent for so long. Things have been a little, well, hectic lately. Here are a few of the things I’ve had going on in recent weeks:

· Working a new full-time (nine hours a day) job;

· 45 minute commute each way, every…single…day;

· Teaching online courses part-time (usually done in the late night/early morning hours);

· Staying in contact with friends/family (although doing quite a poor job at it, I must admit);

· Trying to continue working out every morning (usually done at 4am);

· Running a consulting business (also done late at night, after everyone else is in bed);

· Mommying (aka, chauffeuring, counseling, hugging, feeding, calming, caring, and coaching);

· Helping my husband find lost socks, paperwork, and anything else that mysteriously disappears;

· Filing taxes (oy ve);

· Maintaining a household;

· Hosting a houseguest (husband’s grandmother);

· Trying to remember to breathe;

· And sometimes, sleeping (although very little).

I’m not complaining. In fact, I feel blessed to be so busy. But, I do regret that I’m not able to write as much as I’d like. I also regret that haven’t been able to post about the important topics we discussed earlier for April. But, I will. We may just have to push some of those discussions into May. I hope you will all understand.

The full time job I recently started has given me the opportunity to work with military families through deployment, reintegration, and relocation issues. And, I must tell you, it has given me an even deeper appreciation for what we all do—each and every day. The bonds we build, the tears we hide, and the sacrifices we make. They may not be visible to everyone, but they are very clear to me. So, to each of you, I say thank you. And even while I’m absent from the blogging world, please know that you are in my thoughts every day. And, if no one else has told you recently, I’m proud of you, and thankful for all that you do.

Bye for now. But, I promise, I’ll be back!

Friday, April 1, 2011

April: The Month to Speak Up

April brings so many exciting things: April Fool's Day (which is in full force in my house), the final onset of Spring and warmer weather, Easter, tax day (ok, that one's not so exciting). But, April is also a month to recognize many great causes, a few of which I want to draw specific attention to today. I hope you will join me in making this a month to remember, and a month to make a difference.

First, April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. As a survivor as well as a long time advocate, this cause is very near and dear to me. One out of every three women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. That means that each of us knows someone who has been a victim. This epidemic will touch each of our lives in some way. And it's time we get involved, learn more, and find out how we can prevent sexual violence and support survivors.

A few ideas for how to get involved:

* Volunteer your time and gifts to your local sexual assault advocacy program.
* Take a stand against sexual violence in all its forms, including victim blaming, sexism (including so-called "jokes"), and sexual harrassment.
* Support survivors. Here are three things to say to a survivor of sexual violence: 1. I believe you; 2. This was not your fault; and 3. I support you.

For more information, visit: http://www.nsvrc.org/saam.

April is also Child Abuse Prevention Month. No one wants to see a child hurt. Yet, child abuse is a persistent problem in our country. Every child deserves to feel safe and loved. The best way to accomplish this is to start listening to children and holding perpetrators accountable for their abuse.

A few ideas for how to get involved:

* Become a supportive person in a child's life. Having just one caring adult can drastically change a child's outlook and chance for success. Be that person.
* Support protective parents. The best way to support a victim of child abuse is to support their non-abusive parent. For example, rather than judge a mother whose child has been abused, ask what you can do to help her.
* Volunteer with a child advocacy or domestic violence program in your community.

To learn more, visit: http://www.preventchildabuse.org/publications/cap/index.shtml.

April is also Autism Awareness Month. To be honest, autism is something I knew very little about until meeting my nephew. He is smart, adorable, and sweet--and he is also autistic. And after seeing how much his parents fight to get him the support, care, and education that he deserves, I've realized how important it is to raise awareness. He, and all children and people with autism, deserve our love and respect.

A few ideas to get involved:

* Find out more about autism. There are numerous websites, books, and other resources to help you learn more. Take the time to do so.
* Support a family who is living with autism. We all know someone.
* Stop viewing people who have autism as different, and start seeing them as unique, valuable people, who also have something special to teach us.

To learn more, visit: http://www.autism-society.org/about-us/national-autism-awareness-month/.

And finally, April is also the Month of the Military Child. And, of course, I have three adorable reasons to be passionate about this cause. Whether they're at home worried about their parent who's once again deployed, or preparing for yet another cross country move, military children endure incredible sacrifice and heartache, and do so with amazing resiliency. It's time we start showing them the support they deserve and so desperately need.

A few ideas to get involved:

* Thank a military family. Not just the soldier, the entire family.
* Buy a Daddy/Mommy Doll for a military child. Our kids love theirs, and it's great to have something to hug when your parent's deployed. You can order them here: http://www.huggeemissyou.com/?gclid=CKmu4dba-6cCFQat7Qodp1QPrA.
* Understand that the war is not over. And even after our troops come home, they and their families still have to heal. Help by offering a hug or a shoulder.

To learn more, visit: http://www.monthofthemilitarychild.com/.

It may seem overwhelming to learn about each of these issues, but each is important, and deserving of our time and attention. And they are also all connected: They each teach us that we have a duty to ensure every person in our society has a voice. That does not mean speaking for them. Everyone has a right, and has the ability to, speak for themselves. Whether they are a sexual assault survivor, victim of child abuse, military child, or a person with autism, everyone has a story to share. Our role is to silence the voices of abusers, critics, and those who choose to be apathetic and uninvolved. By silencing these voices, we make a space for everyone to speak their own truth. And that, for me, is the only way to truly raise awareness.

So, for all of these reasons, I’m renaming April “The Month to Speak Up.” We can all take a stand, raise awareness, and make a difference. Won’t you join me?

I will be posting more about each of these important issues throughout the month of April. So, stay tuned for more ways to Speak Up.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Why I'm Going Vegan

First, let me explain that this is not a judgmental, preachy blog about why everyone should become a vegan, or how I’m somehow stronger or wiser for deciding to do so. How and what you eat is a very personal decision, and one that should never be forced. My husband is not becoming vegan, although he has drastically cut back on his meat and dairy intake (and feels better having done so). I’m only writing this to explain why I have made this decision—for me.

I have been a quasi-vegetarian for years. Growing up, I never liked meat, and always felt a little guilty eating it. But, I was raised by my Polish, meat-loving, grandmother who loved to cook goulash, pierogi, golonka, meat wrapped in bacon (any kind of meat really), and pork chops. (She is now 75 years old and has severe heart disease and corroded arteries). Being a vegetarian in her house was not an option. But, when I could, I would sneak meat to my very appreciative basset hound, or throw it in the trash when my grandmother wasn’t looking. (When I recently told my grandmother that I was a vegetarian, she in her ever-strong Polish accent declared, “Ahh, sh**, I always knew you’d grow up to be a hippie.”)

When I moved out at 15, I ate anything I could afford. And while that diet typically consisted of ramen noodles and tortilla chips (not healthy, but vegetarian), I definitely wouldn’t turn down a free burger if it was offered. And while I was in college, working at a Chinese restaurant to pay the bills, I ate whatever the owners would let us have for free. If I had to buy groceries, a pack of hotdogs for 99 cents would often make its way into my cart. (I don’t even want to think about what’s actually in hot dogs). I knew I wanted to avoid meat, but at that time in my life, it just didn’t seem like an option. (I know now that I could have easily eaten a vegetarian diet on very little money. But, we’ll just add that to the long list of things I wish I had known at 15).

As I got older, I stopped eating red meat (except for the rare burger every five years or so), but would allow myself the occasional chicken or turkey sandwich, justifying that I needed the iron because of my anemia. I didn’t want to eat meat, but I had to. Or, so I thought. The funny thing is that meat really doesn’t contain as much protein or iron as people think. And when you factor in how much fat and cholesterol you’re taking in along with that iron, it’s really not worth it. I am now perfectly capable of getting all the iron and protein I need from beans, vegetables, nuts, and whole wheat. My iron levels are as high as they’ve ever been on a meat diet, and I feel much, much healthier.

I’m not morally opposed to eating meat or dairy, and no, it’s not a religious decision. Well, not really. What I’m opposed to is inflicting senseless torture upon living creatures. I know that sounds harsh, but that’s the state of our food supply in America. We no longer live in a society where farmers simply raise and slaughter animals and go out to milk the dairy cows each morning. We live in a society of large scale factory farms where unspeakable horrors happen to animals every day. I’m not going to go into the details of the violence or suffering that happens to animals, because I’m not here to guilt anyone into a meatless, or even reduced meat, lifestyle. But, it doesn’t take much to learn more about what really happens, if you choose to. I will give you something to think about, though. A dairy cow is expected to produce approximately 80 gallons of milk per day. The only way for a cow to produce that much milk is to be continually pregnant. What do you think happens to the babies once they’re born? I find it interesting that people are outraged when they hear of puppies or kittens being slaughtered—and rightfully so. But, every day, people turn a blind eye to the same happening to calves. I’m simply not willing to do so anymore. As a mother, I can’t justify any mother or child suffering—even a four-legged one.

Let me clarify that there is nothing inherently wrong with eating meat or dairy. I have heard many people say that it’s part of the natural food chain; the way it’s meant to be. And, if we were only eating what we needed to survive, I would agree. But, let’s face it, Americans are eating far more meat than we would ever need. Americans eat one million chickens every hour. Every hour! We kill over 10 billion animals a year. I’m not even going to go into how much land, gas, grain, and other resources are used in this type of production. Most of the world’s grain is going to feed cows in the U.S., so that they can quickly become plump and ready to be slaughtered—rather than going to feed the billions of people who are starving in the world. We’ve just gone way…too…far. We don’t need to eat sausage for breakfast, a big mac for lunch, and steak for dinner, and wash it all down with a milkshake. We don’t need fast food. We have become so used to it that we want it, maybe even become addicted to it. But, we certainly don’t need it.

There are ways to ethically consume meat and dairy. Find a small farm and buy a half a cow. Yes, even if you live in a large city, there is a farmer within a few hours of you. You’ll save a lot of money, and that one cow will feed your family for months—as opposed to the thousands of cows that are mashed up together in the meat you buy at the store or the drive thru window. I admire people like my friend Mary who get eggs from their own chickens. I’m not really ready to commit to being a chicken momma just yet, but I will buy eggs for my family from a local farm, not the grocery store. And yes, you can find milk from a local dairy farmer, too. Although, I will tell you that soy, rice, and almond milk are much, much better for you. You’ll notice an instant change in your weight, complexion, and energy level if you eliminate dairy from your diet. But, if you have to have it, try to find a local producer. Then, you can check out the operation and make sure you’re comfortable with everything you see. And most of all, we can all just cut back.

You don’t have to have meat in every meal, or even in every dinner. It’s not about depriving yourself. It’s about being honest with ourselves about what we truly need to eat, and being mindful of where that food is coming from. That’s it.

Before anyone says that you can’t afford to be a vegetarian or a vegan, let me assure you that you will actually save money. Vegetables, fruits, whole wheat, beans, and nuts are much less expensive than meat. Since I’ve stopped eating meat and dairy, my husband has drastically cut back, and our daughter has been a strict vegetarian for over two years, our grocery bill is lower than ever. And, if you factor in how much you’ll be saving on health care down the road, cutting back on meat and dairy is a much more affordable way to live.

I’m not asking anyone to stop eating meat or dairy. I’m just urging everyone to be more mindful of what you eat, where it came from, and how much of it you truly need. If we take charge of what we’re eating, we’ll be healthier, weigh less, feel better, reduce suffering, and change the world. I’d say that’s at least worth considering, right?

A few resources to check out:

Kathy Freston, author of The Veganist: www.kathyfreston.com

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: www.pcrm.org

Suggestions & recipes for one meatless day (Meatout Monday) per week: www.meatoutmondays.org

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Planning to Live Day-by-Day

Hello, my name is Pam, and I am a planner.

"Hi, Pam."

Yes, I love to plan. I start asking the kids about their Christmas wish list in June. I start researching summer camps in February. I make lists of items we’ll need to take on our Christmas vacation in August. (Although I have learned to not actually book the vacation until November). I keep a journal with pictures of places I’d like to visit, books I’d like to read, things I’d like to learn. And yes, I love to plan for our next home. As you might imagine, this habit does not play well with the military lifestyle.

(I could hear those of you who are in the military laughing after you read the first sentence).

I find myself constantly asking my husband about where our next duty station may be, as if he actually knows. I look at house listings, although after dealing with the expense and trouble of selling our previous home, I know that we have no intention of buying, at least until we know we’ll be somewhere for a while--whenever that may be. And although I realize it’s futile, I find myself always wondering what’s next. But, as everyone in the military knows, it’s absolutely impossible to plan. It’s unrealistic to plan--for next year, next month, or even for next week. But yet, I really, really want to!

Have you ever heard motivational speakers or financial planners ask questions such as, “where do you see yourself in five years?” I used to looove those questions. I would gleefully get out a pad of paper and start jotting down all of my plans, sometimes complete with a timeline. But, now, that question causes me to panic. I know where I’d like to see myself in five years, but the truth is that I have very little—if any—control over what actually happens.

Control. Yes, I guess that’s it. For me, planning is a way to maintain some shred of control in this typically uncontrollable life. (Yes, some may call me a control freak rather than a planner. But, I don’t think we need to resort to name calling). Planning puts me back in the driver’s seat, rather than hanging on to the bumper. But, it also makes me panic when I realize that my plans may not come to fruition.

But, as I think about it, if someone would have asked me ten years ago what my ten-year plan would be, it definitely would not have involved being married to a soldier, living on the other side of the country, and having three children. But, I really can’t imagine my life any other way. So, maybe that’s the lesson. Our plans aren’t always what’s meant to be. And sometimes life has surprises in store for us that we may not be prepared for, but that will bring us incredible joy. It turns out that being grateful for what comes is actually more fulfilling--and more realistic--than trying to plan for everything that may come.

So, rather than live in a perpetual state of panic, I think it’s time to shift my focus. I may not have control over what state we will live in, what my career will be, or whether my husband will be home, but I do have control over how I view my life. I can be happy and grateful for all that I have, no matter what our zip code may be. And yes, even if we are--heaven forbid--separated by a deployment again.

I am trying to learn, albeit with some angst, the art of taking life day-by-day. I’m learning to live in the moment and focus on now, rather than worrying about tomorrow. And, above all else, I’m learning to be grateful for this frantic, ever-changing, completely uncontrollable life. Because, even if I can’t plan it or control it, I love it. And if I have to keep hanging on to the bumper, I can at least enjoy the ride.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Four-Legged Angels

Sitting here today, typing away on the computer, I am surrounded by our kitty, who is snoring on the desk, and our pup, who is sitting dutifully by my feet. And I am once again reminded of all the four-legged angels who have been in my life over the years.

The first angel who always comes to mind is Stephanie, my droopy, but adorable basset hound, who my grandmother adopted from a breeder when I was 7 years old. Stephie was only a baby, but had already been beaten and malnourished. She was supposed to be a gift for my Uncle, but she did not trust men at all. She had been abused by the man who ran the kennel, so she would cower away any time a male came near her. So, she became mine--my pet, my friend and my companion during a very difficult childhood. I had to feed her out of my hand because she was afraid to come to the bowl. We did everything together--played, slept, watched TV. Unfortunately, we also shared many not-so-happy childhood events together. She experienced abuse, neglect and even homelessness right by my side. She would try to protect me and suffered many consequences because of it. But, despite all of her pain, she was always by my side.

Stephie passed away when I was 20--after a long 13 years together. I was crushed. Not only had I lost my lifelong friend, I lost the only being who had been there for me.

Shortly after Stephie passed, I found out that I was pregnant. It was my senior year of college and I was far from being ready to be a Mom. But, after much fear, worry and utter panic, I realized how much I already loved the tiny, still unknown, child inside of me. I would have loved for Stephie to be by my side during this miraculous time. And it still makes me sad that she never got to meet my daughter, although I know she looks down on her every day.

My daughter also shares my love for animals. For her fifth birthday, she asked friends to bring donations for a local animal shelter, instead of gifts for her. When we delivered the gifts, I decided to surprise her with a new pet. So, on that day, we adopted a cat.

Yin, our dear rescued kitty, brought so much love and joy to our home. She would snuggle by my daughter when she was sick or sad and keep me company during many late nights studying for law school courses and the dreaded bar exam. And when I met the love of my life (who I later married), Yin would greet him at the door and sniff him thoroughly, like a parent interrogating her child’s suitor. They quickly loved one another. He would play with Yin as soon as he walked in, and she would return the favor by rubbing against his leg and purring. On Mother’s Day and other occasions, my then-beau would always buy me 3 cards—one from him, one from my daughter, and one from Yin. The latter he would simply sign, “Thank you for loving me. Meow.” It was his tenderness and love for Yin that was one of the many things that made me fall in love with him.

When Yin passed away in March of 2008, we were all devastated. My husband (who was then my boyfriend) was in Iraq at the time. The line was silent for a long few moments when I broke the news to him.

A few months after Yin passed, and shortly after welcoming my love home from Iraq, we went to the local animal shelter, thinking that we were going to adopt a puppy. But, as soon as we saw this adorable litter of polydactyl (six-toed) kitties, we fell in love. Well, I should say, my daughter and I fell in like, my husband was smitten. He reached in the cage and pulled out this fuzzy little calico ball and held her to his chest. She started to purr and then decided he was a bit too close and gave him a little swat across his hand. I think it was her combination of independence and affection that got him--kind of like myself. Her six-toed white paws reminded him of a boxer, so we decided to name her Roxy (as in, the female Rocky).

When my husband is home, Roxy follows him everywhere—sleeping by his side if he’s on the couch, snuggling by him at night (yes, we do kick her out sometimes) and even waiting for him outside the bathroom.

And when he was once again deployed, she slept on his pillow every night, as if keeping it warm for him until he returned. Watching her rub against the computer screen while we were skyping, wondering how he got into that screen and plotting how to get him out, was heartwarming. I think we sometimes forget that pets experience sadness and grief, as we do. But, when I saw our kitty roll over and snuggle against my husband's pillow, I knew she missed him, too.

Soon after Roxy joined our family, our daughter's requests (campaign) for a dog began. I had recently cared for a friend’s dog for over a year while he was out of the country for work. And dealing with the mess and torn up yard and muddy carpets (yes, I’m a bit of a neat freak) convinced me that I’m much more of a cat person. But, as always, she was persistent. She worked extra hard on her chores and school work to prove that she could handle the responsibility. She researched dogs and the care required and would often present us with her findings. So, of course, we gave in.

Soon we got a call from a local no-kill agency that found a rat terrier mix who needed a new home. We went to meet this little girl, who we had been warned was a bit timid. She had been abused and abandoned; which, of course, made me want to adopt her even more. (Survivors of all kinds need to stick together). She was perfect. My husband was hesitant, but as soon as he met her, he gave in. And now, that once timid and shy pup is a spoiled and happy member of the family. She’s still cautious of some strangers, but with us, she’s playful and loving.

Our pup, Cricket, runs and waits at the door a few minutes before the my daugther's school bus arrives each day. She knows when her best friend is coming. And when it’s time for bed, Cricket runs to my daughter's room and tucks herself under one of her favorite fleece blankies. Her only care in the world right now is that rascally cat, Roxy, who likes to attack her. But, even when Roxy tries to strangle her (one of the disadvantages of a cat with thumbs), Cricket seems to think she’s being hugged, so she just wags her tail. She is truly one of the most lovable creatures I have ever known. I can't imagine anyone ever hurting her, but I am happy that she now has a forever family.

There are also animals whom I have never met, but who I am grateful for. During this last deployment, my husband would tell me about the stray dogs who roamed near their camp in Iraq. These malnourished, homeless pets would wait outside the camp, hoping for some food and love. He would bring them scraps, and soon, they became his faithful admirers. He loved these dogs. And hearing him talk about them, and the companionship they provided when I could not, made me love them, too. We even looked into ways to bring them back to the US, but discovered that it would be nearly impossible. I don't know what happened to them once he left, but I hope that another soldier took over as their guardian, and that they are still caring for our troops today.

Our current pets, Roxy and Cricket, are an adorable and hilarious duo. And, along with my husband and myself, and our three amazing kids, they have made our family complete. And, even though some are no longer with us, I know that all of my four-legged angels are out there somewhere, looking down on my family, happy for us and the love we share. And no matter where life may take us, and what challenges we may encounter, I will forever be grateful for my four-legged angels.

I hope this has encouraged you to remember the pets who have touched your life, and to give some extra love to those who are with you currently. They truly are a blessing.

Because He's Home

My husband came home safely from Iraq—his fourth deployment in this war—eight months ago. And while we don’t know when he may leave again, I am so very grateful that, at least for now, he is home. And because he’s home and he’s safe, there are a few things I must do. Because he’s home . . .

1. I will watch news reports of what’s happening in the war (on the rare occasion that the news still covers the war). I won’t allow myself to forget that other people’s husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, and fathers are still fighting.

2. I will not complain about long hours he spends at work. Because work is now only a few minutes away, not halfway across the world. And work now involves papers and computers and orders and whatever else he does, but does not involve IEDs.

3. I won’t complain about him snoring or hogging the covers. I’m just thankful that he’s sleeping in our bed and not on a cot in the middle of the desert.

4. I will help families whose loved ones are still deployed, in any way I can. So many are still kissing their spouses over webcam and rocking their crying babies to sleep, telling them once again that Daddy loves them and will be home soon. I need to be here for them.

5. I will cherish each day and not take anything for granted. I will hold him a little closer at night and kiss him a little longer when he leaves each morning. We never know how many of those moments we will get, so I will appreciate each and every one.

I will do all of these things now, because he’s home. And hopefully, when that dreaded day comes that he has to leave once again, others whose loved ones are home will do the same. If your soldier is home, give him or her a little extra love today. And if s/he’s not, I hope you can feel the love we are all sending to you.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Celebrating Us

March 8, 2011 is the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. The annual holiday has roots in our Women's Suffrage Movement and is now celebrated worldwide. International Women's Day—which is aptly framed by Women’s History Month—is an opportunity to honor women, celebrate the accomplishments we’ve made, and raise awareness for the obstacles that we still face. This year's theme is "Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women."

I recently wrote a blog with suggestions for how to honor and celebrate women. Although it was not written for this holiday, I think it is definitely appropriate. So, in honor of this great day, here are a few ways (big and small) to honor women ...

For the entire day, refrain from lamenting about how fat, skinny, too tall, too short, too old or too whatever you are. Just for this day, let’s try to focus on what really matters—how strong, intelligent, accomplished and compassionate we are. Hey, you never know, it might just stick.

Don’t listen to any music that contains lyrics that degrade women or promote violence against women. And no, it’s not just rap music (although I do suggest burning anything you own by Soldier Boy or Chris Brown). Other genres are just as guilty—“Every Breath You Take” by the Police, “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Come Off” by Joe Nichols, and “Never Make a Pretty Woman Your Wife” by Jimmy Soul come to mind. And please, stop giving these morons your money.

Volunteer for an agency that helps women, whether it’s a food bank, low income childcare center or, of course, domestic or sexual violence agency (you knew I’d make a plug). You don’t have to be a millionaire to make a huge impact. Give your time, your talents, and your love. It really will make a difference.

Hug a supportive man in your life. Yes, men who honor our equality deserve some recognition, too. And then, gently suggest that perhaps he should prepare dinner tonight.

If you have a partner, remind yourself that you are with that person because you want to be, not because you need to be. Knowing that you have chosen to spend your life with this person, even though you did not have to, is a much more powerful feeling, in my opinion. And take a moment to thank all the strong women in history who have made it possible for you to have that choice. If you are single, remind yourself that you are of no less value because you do not have a partner. You are a whole person, who is leading an important life, with or without someone there to witness it daily.

For the military folks reading this (and those who are not), learn about female veterans. Get to know them and learn their stories. They have amazing strength and passion to share.

Find out what’s going on in politics—whether it’s local, state, national or worldwide. We won the right to participate in government 91 years ago. Let’s not waste it.

Teach yourself and your child(ren) about strong women in history. Here’s a list to get you started: http://www.angelfire.com/anime2/100import/.

Support all of your Sisters, even if you don’t agree with everyone’s lifestyle, choices or ideas. At least for today, let’s try not to say anything negative about another woman. And yes, that includes Kate Gosselin, Nadya Suleman (Octomom), Sarah Palin, and Lindsay Lohan (or whoever happens to be the target this week). Maybe someone will even refrain from saying something negative about you, hmmm?

Women, open your own account. Even if you’re in the most supportive, loving, never-in-a-million-years-would-it-ever-fail relationship...it’s still a good idea.

Learn the whole story. If you think Charlie Sheen’s antics are cute, do a little more research to discover how he has treated the women in his life. He’s been arrested for domestic battery against his most recent ex-wife, Brooke Mueller, who currently has a restraining order against him. Sheen also physically and emotionally abused Denise Richards, “accidentally” shot Kelly Preston, and was arrested for beating his girlfriend, Brittany Ashland, in 1996. And that’s just a summary of his history of abusing women. There’s more. And there’s nothing funny about it. Stop supporting men who beat women. And yes, I’m also talking about Mel Gibson and Alec Baldwin. There are plenty of other actors out there. Let’s stop giving these guys any of our time. Here's another idea: Write a thank you letter to the producers of Two and a Half Men, who finally did the right thing.

Hug your daughters and tell them how strong, beautiful, and amazing they are. Tell them about the struggles you’ve overcome and what your dreams are for their future. Ask about her dreams. Encourage her. Tell her that she deserves to be treated with respect. To honor this year's theme, "Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathway to decent work for women," remind her of the importance of education. And encourage her to explore math, science, or any subject that may be difficult for her. Perhaps the best thing about getting an education is mastering something that once seemed impossible. And most importantly, lead by example. Be proud of yourself, and she will learn to be proud of herself, too.

Teach your sons about women’s value. Teach them that there’s nothing weak or inferior about women. Teach them that it is not an insult to “throw like a girl” or any other stereotypical statements they may be hearing from peers. (And please, please never say anything sexist like this to your, or anyone else's, child). The more men in this society who value women, the farther we will be able to advance. So, tell them young and tell them often—women really are their equals.

Find out about the powerful women who live in a country other than your own. Women in many developing nations are facing obstacles that we, in the United States, could never imagine. Learn about these struggles and what you can do to help, because no matter how far away these women may live, they are all our Sisters. Here’s a great organization to check out: http://www.madre.org/. And, if you’d like to have monthly dinners with a group of like-minded, socially conscious women in your area, while helping women worldwide, visit http://diningforwomen.org/.

Finally, recognize your own accomplishments. We may not have fought for suffrage or have our names in a history book. But, each of us, in our own way, has done incredible things in our lives—whether it’s caring for our child(ren), excelling in education or our career, supporting our soldier, being a great friend, helping a worthy cause, or some combination thereof. Take a moment to appreciate all that you’ve been able to accomplish. You deserve it.

Happy International Women’s Day, Sisters!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Few Thoughts on DADT

I started this blog weeks ago, shortly after President Obama (finally) announced the repeal of the 17-year ban on gay and lesbian service members serving openly in the military. This antiquated Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT) policy basically would “allow” homosexuals to serve in the military, as long as they didn’t disclose their sexuality. It "allowed" someone to defend our country, as long as they hid who they truly were. Thankfully, it has finally been repealed. I know that this is a touchy subject, and one that will likely cause some to disagree with me. But, I’ve never been one to say only popular things. And this simply needs to be said.

It may seem obvious, but think about what would happen if we were to require women to pretend to be men in order to serve (as we have in the past), or African Americans to paint their faces white in order to serve, or people to hide their religious beliefs in order to serve (as some feel they must). People would be outraged. Yes, racism, sexism, and discrimination are still alive and well, and are certainly present in the military. But, for the most part, we respond to it, we hold people accountable for it, and many fight against it. Homophobia, unfortunately, is one remaining form of bigotry that is largely tolerated. And it’s long past time for it to stop.

Regardless of your view on homosexuality (and I can assure you I will address these views in a later blog), there are many important reasons to support the repeal of DADT. Most of all, gay and lesbian soldiers have been serving in our armed forces, and fighting for our country, forever. They train, sacrifice, and deploy for months on end, just as heterosexual soldiers do. They suffer injuries, depression, post traumatic stress disorder, and many lose their lives, fighting for each of us. And they leave behind partners who love them as much as I love my husband, as much as many of you reading this love your soldier. So why should they deserve any less respect than any other soldier, any other hero?

For those of you who are military spouses, think about what got your husband or wife through those long months of a deployment. For my husband, he of course looked forward to phone calls home and Skype dates. (And he especially looked forward to receiving boxes of cookies). But, what kept him going day after day were the pictures of me and the kids that he had taped to the wall around his cot. Every morning, he would look at the pictures of our family—happy and together—and remember that he had someone to fight for, someone to come home to. It was important for him to be able to see us any time he wanted, even if the Internet and phone lines were down. The kids loved seeing their pictures in the background when they talked to Daddy on the webcam. And yes, so did I.

Now, imagine being at war and not being able to put up pictures of your partner. Imagine fighting all day, risking your life, seeing friends and comrades injured and killed, and then having to hide who you truly are. Imagine having to sneak phone calls and keep pictures hidden. Imagine knowing that the country you are fighting for doesn't respect who you are. Just imagine.

And think about the partners who are at home—waiting, worried, counting down the days, afraid they may never see their love again, just like the rest of us. Don’t they deserve to send pictures—pictures that will be taped to temporary walls and looked at with love and admiration? Don’t they deserve to see their picture in the background during webcam chats? Don’t they deserve to know that their loved one, too, has pictures of home to keep him or her safe and focused? Don't they deserve to freely run into their love's arms when he or she returns home? Of course they do. We all do.

To anyone who is reading this who is not serving: Well, to be frank, you have no right to judge someone who is. And to anyone who is reading this who is serving, and who thinks you can’t comfortably serve next to a gay or lesbian soldier: As a commander once said to his troop, “Now might be a good time to get over it.”

I’m sorry to be harsh, but the fact is that no form of intolerance or hatred has ever ended comfortably. People were uncomfortable when women received the right to vote. People were outraged when schools integrated. But, they learned to deal. And if they didn’t, we certainly didn’t feel remorse for them. We moved on. And this change, this long overdue liberation, should be no different.

Anyone who is willing to risk their lives for our country deserves to be themselves. They deserve to have comforting pictures from home taped to their wall. They deserve to say “I love you” to the person they long to hold again, without the fear of someone hearing them. They deserve to love openly. And just like any hero, any human being, they deserve our respect.

And that, to me, is all that really matters.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Single Mommying is Not Military Mommying, and Vice Versa

I recently read a blog by an Army wife who was discussing her life as a “single mom” while her husband was deployed. This is a common comparison, and one that often annoys single mothers. Having been both a single Mom and a military Mom, I can attest to the fact that there are many similarities between the two, but there are also many, many differences.

Single Moms are parenting alone—physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Yes, they often have supportive family and friends. But, ultimately, their world consists only of them and their child(ren). As a military Mom, you may only be able to speak to your partner a few times a week, but you know he is there, and that he has your back, in good times and bad. You can, in small ways, share your feelings and stresses with him, albeit through a letter, email, or brief phone call. You are still parenting as a team.

At home, you can still say, “I’m going to tell your father"--both as encouragement when your child does something worthy of praise, or as a deterrent when your child has, or is about to, do something requiring discipline. I realize that the threat is somewhat diluted when Dad is halfway across the world, but it’s still effective--no child likes to be chastised by Dad, even over Skype. Single Moms have no such incentives or deterrents. They have to be both nurturer and disciplinarian, and I have to say, that the single Moms whom I know are doing so very well. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not incredibly difficult.

Perhaps one of the biggest differences is that, even while your husband is deployed, he is still contributing financially to your home. While some single Moms are receiving child support (which is often a laughably small amount), most are supporting themselves and their children completely on their own. Single Moms have to work. And many have to work more than one job. So while many military Mommies (although not all) are able to stay home and focus on their children, the vast majority of single Mommies have to work all day (or all night) and still be able to handle all of the household chores and parenting when they get home. Every bill is their responsibility. Whether their children have dinner that night or their home has electricity is completely up to them. That’s a difference that should never be overlooked.

But, before you think I’m being hard on military Moms, let me point out a couple of key differences to you single Moms out there, as well. Yes, you are handling everything on your own. But, as I mentioned, your world revolves around you and your child(ren), which, at times, is a blessing. As a military Mom, you are dealing with everything at home while also worrying about IEDs, suicide bombers, and communication blackouts (times when your husband can't call because someone has been killed). You have to deal with the ever present terror that a car may pull up to your door and tell you that your husband isn’t coming home. You have to prepare dinner with children pulling on your leg, all while clutching the phone waiting for a staticy phone call, letting you know that, at least for one more day, he is safe. The sheer worry, panic, and insomnia make the day-to-day responsibilities of being a Mom that much more difficult.

Military Moms are also often living very far away from their support systems. Some choose to go “home” when their husbands deploy, but most stay at their duty station. This isolation contributes heavily to the depression and anxiety experienced by military Moms. It is also what makes having connections with other military spouses (and, I believe, other woman in general) so much more important. Single Moms, many of you have the luxury of living close to your family or long-term friends, which can make your daily burden a little more bearable.

To sum it all up: Single Mommying is like lifting a 2,000 pound weight by yourself. Military Mommying is like lifting a slighter lighter, 1,500 pound weight, with a strong wind blowing in your face: your load might be lighter, but other conditions make it just as difficult to carry.

But, imagine how much easier those weights would be to lift if we simply helped one another. I’m not here to tell you that either of these roles is easier than the other. All women carry immense responsibility. Single Mommies and military Mommies carry even more than most, and do so with an incredible amount of grace and strength. Rather, I want to encourage everyone to understand that their struggles are not the only struggles, and that we all need one another. Military Mommies, you can offer single Moms the emotional support that we are all so very good at providing. And single Moms, you can offer the strength that you have so skillfully developed.

Most of all, we have to stop playing the “my life is worse than yours” game. Single Moms, when you hear a military Mom say that her husband is deployed, don’t be so quick to say, “what's the big deal? I do this alone all the time.” Remember that she will be plagued by constant worry and sleepless nights. Be quicker to offer a hug than judgment. And military Moms, don’t be so quick to tell a single Mom that you know what she’s going through, because really, you don’t. But, what you can do is offer your help and your love. We can listen to one another and try to understand what the other is going through.

We need each other. We have loads that are far too heavy for any one woman to carry alone--even amazing, strong women like us. But, with just a bit of understanding and compassion, we can all make each of our loads a little more manageable. And, as a bonus: You might just meet some wonderful friends along the way.

Monday, February 28, 2011

A Short Note About a Big Word

I think I have finally recovered from the whirlwind tornado that we shall call: February. Child with the flu (and 4 days home from school), helping with the backlog of homework, daughter's slumber party, the disinfecting and laundry that’s associated with having a child with the flu, plus several other insane moments, all packed into one short 28 day month. Oh my.

Plus, in my zeal to get back into my career, I threw out several hooks looking for work, and a few too many of them caught. I had interviews and classes to teach and grants to write and and and and ... It was starting to feel as if the boat might capsize. But, alas, I can breathe again. And, therefore, I can write again! I have so many blogs that I have started, but haven’t been able to finish, but I will…soon. Really, I will. But, for now, I just want to write about something that’s been on my mind, and in my heart, lately: Gratitude.

In this sometimes crazy life of deployments, reassignments, uprooting careers and children’s schools, parenting, moving away from friends, moving all of your earthly belongings, long hours away from your spouse, and the everyday great unknown, it is easy to lose sight of all of the amazing things in our lives. But, lately, I’ve been more aware than ever of just how much I have to be grateful for. My prayers these days are long and detailed, but consist primarily of two simple words: Thank You. I have a fantastic life and so very much to be joyful for. Here are a few of the things I’m saying “thank you” for this week:

• The ability to keep in touch with old friends. Whether by phone, text message, email, or Facebook, I love every opportunity to talk to my sisters and friends who are far away.
• The women I’ve met here and the beginning of great new friendships.
• My healthy and happy children who make me smile every day.
• My great husband, who I learn from every day, and who is happy to learn from me as well. He is truly my best friend.
• The ability to write. No matter how crazy life becomes, sitting down with a pen and paper or my laptop always makes me feel better.
• Valentine’s Day chocolates.
• Long walks around the lake to offset my weight gain (and guilt) from consuming too many of said chocolates.
• Lessons learned. Namely, learning once again that what I think I want is not always what I need.
• Our home. After moving halfway across the country, this new house has, for several weeks, felt merely like a residence. But, I am happy to say that it is finally, thankfully starting to feel like home.
• Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. The good times, the crazy times, the tearful days, and the cheerful times. Each and every moment. Because each one matters.

I have a few exciting opportunities on the horizon that are still keeping me busy. But, I promise that the blogging will continue. Here are some of the posts that I’m working on:

• PTST and Domestic Violence: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?
• Single Mommying is Not Army Mommying, and Vice Versa
• United by What Could Be: What it really means to be an Army wife.

...and many more. Stay tuned! And, for now, please take a moment today to appreciate all of the wonderful people and things around you, and to say, simply, thank you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Joys, Frustrations, and Lessons of Step-Parenting

We are, what I guess some would call, a “blended family.” We have three beautiful children. One of these children—my daughter—I carried, gave birth to, and have cared for since before she was born. Our sons, however, came into my life later, when I met, fell in love with, and married their father. They are not biologically mine, but are no less a part of my heart and soul. In our family, we try very hard to avoid the term “step.” Our children are our children, regardless of whose DNA they carry. But, we can’t ignore the fact that our family is a bit different.

People often say that parenting is the hardest job there is. But, I would argue that it’s a close second to the truly most difficult job: Step-parenting. It’s the mixture of all of the joys, blessings, and pains of parenthood, combined with the excruciating pain of not being able to have your babies with you. I once heard that becoming a parent is making the decision to have your heart walk around outside your body. Step-parenting, then, is the decision to let your heart(s) walk around outside your body, possibly in another city (and state, especially for military families), being cared for by someone else, only to be seen on holidays and summers. Now that’s hard.

Our sons only live with us part of the year, during vacations, school breaks, and summers. And thanks to our recent PCS (military move) halfway across the country, we are now 18 hours away from them, which makes impromptu visits nearly impossible. Our daughter, thankfully, is with us all the time. (Which is a very good thing, since I can barely be away from her while she’s at school). We miss the boys, they miss us, our daughter misses her brothers, and yep, they miss her. We do our best to make it work, and to talk to them every day. But, it’s still not the same as being able to scoop them up and give them a big hug and kiss. It’s hard. Very hard.

Step-parenting also means navigating hurt feelings and repairing the damage of shattered relationships. Each of our children has endured a divorce, which has left inevitable scars. For the first year of our marriage, our daughter would always try to play peace keeper, getting visibly nervous if she thought my husband and I were upset with one another. We never argue in front of her, of course, but she could always sense if something wasn't quite right. After many conversations about how it’s normal for parents to disagree, but that we love each other very much, she started to relax. She now understands that just because I’m annoyed with Daddy, that doesn’t mean we’re breaking up. (It just means that sometimes Daddy is annoying. Ok, and maybe Momma can be, too). Our oldest son once asked if Daddy and I were going to break up. He looked so sad, afraid, and unsure of what his future would hold. This is what divorce does to children. We reassured him as well, and the longer we are together, the more confident he becomes in our bond, and in our family. But, we know that they may always have a small voice in the back of their heads reminding them that marriages sometimes fail. Which makes us even more determined to ensure that ours succeeds.

Thankfully, not all of the children have had this same reaction to their parents' divorce. In fact, our youngest son doesn’t remember his mom and dad ever being married, since he was so young when they separated. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but the benefit is that he doesn't really think about the fact that they split up, and therefore doesn't worry about us doing so either. To him, this is just how our family has always been. In fact, he called us once frantic because his big brother told him that their mom and dad used to be married. “It’s not true, is it?!” he demanded. When we told him that it was in fact true, he squealed, “Ewwwww, that’s so gross. Daddy’s supposed to always have been married to you!” Of course, we told him that it’s a good thing that his mom and dad were together, because they made him and his brother. But, his insistence that I was his Dad’s one-and-only was rather endearing.

Step-parenting often means non-traditional family celebrations. While my husband was deployed, my daughter and I would make the then 12-hour drive to visit the boys at least every couple of months. They would count down the days until we were coming to visit. But, they weren’t only looking forward to seeing us. They also knew that I would bring my laptop, which meant they would also get to talk to Daddy on the webcam—which they absolutely loved. Christmas 2009, we packed up the car, drove 12 hours, rented a room on the nearby Air Force Base, put up a small tree, and added a few Christmas decorations. We spent our holiday opening gifts with Daddy on the webcam. It was almost like we were all together. Almost. And although I really enjoyed those moments, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how our family would always be--with children halfway across the country and a husband constantly deployed, spending way too many holidays in hotel rooms instead of our own living room, blowing kisses through the computer instead of sneaking kisses in person. Thank goodness for Skype. But, I knew that as long as we were together--in whatever way possible--we would all be ok.

Blending families, of course, also means dealing with exes. Co-parenting with my daughter’s biological father is easy—-he moved out of the country. To another continent, in fact. (I would recommend this for any difficult co-parenting relationship.) Seriously though, it was very, very difficult for my daughter when he first moved away. She felt abandoned, confused, and hurt. But, thanks to the incredible bond her and I share, and her amazing resiliency, she made it through. She now understands that everyone makes choices in life, some good and some bad—her father’s was particularly bad. But, no one else’s choices should ever define who she is. She is a phenomenal young woman, and he is missing out on seeing her grow up. But, she is happy with her life, and happy that she has a stable home.

This doesn’t mean that it has always been easy. We dealt with the joint custody, every other weekend visitations, and co-parenting drama for the first two years after my divorce. We juggled holidays and disagreed over her extracurricular activities. Actually, we disagreed about a lot of things. But, what I always tried to remind myself is that, as much as I would get aggravated with my ex, he was half of my daughter. And that would make me always appreciate his existence, even when times got hard.

It has also helped that my daughter and my husband are so incredibly close. A few months after we got married, she asked if it would be alright to call him Daddy, which made him so proud that he cried. We both told her that it was completely up to her, and that she could call him anything she wanted (within reason). But, she insisted that, because he was the one who sat up with her when she was sad, hugged her goodnight every night, helped her with homework, went to school to intimidate kids who were picking on her (as only a Dad with combat boots can), and even while in Iraq, called her every day, he absolutely deserved the title. Agreed.

Although this facet of our parenting web has become easier, my husband’s co-parent is still in the good ol’ US of A, and has primary custody of the boys. And although I sometimes joke that I wish she would move away, I am actually very, very grateful for her and all that she does. We have a difficult relationship. To say the least, we’re not friends. My husband and I talk to the boys on the phone every night and send things to them frequently. Sometimes these gifts and letters get to them; other times their mom throws the items away (err, 'misplaces' them). But, we just keep on sending them. The boys understand all that we do, and they appreciate it. And hopefully, eventually their mom will understand that hating us does not help them. We’ll see. But, in the meantime, I remain very grateful for all that she does, and hopeful that someday our relationship, and her relationship with my husband, will improve—for the boys’ sake. I’ve always been told that you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. We’ll see if she eventually bites.

What I have learned is that, ultimately, you must love your children more than you hate your ex. And, equally as important, you must love your step-children more than you hate their biological parent. It really does not matter how horrible your relationship with that person may be. Both my husband and I had rather tumultuous marriages, and even rougher divorces. But, none of that matters anymore. Our exes each blessed us with amazing children, and for that we are grateful. So, no matter how difficult things get, we will always remember that.

All of these struggles are nothing compared to the joy I felt when my son drew a picture of his family. In bright crayon, he drew stick figures of him, his brother, his sister (who he was holding hands with, since he absolutely adores her), his dad ("Daddy"), his mom ("Mom"), and me ("Momma"), plus of course, our dog and cat and their dog. In his picture, we were all smiling, just one big, happy family. And to know that he sees us in this way makes every bit of this journey worthwhile.

Our family may not be traditional. We may spend far too much time apart. We may blow too many kisses over the phone, and share not enough in person. We may not get to hug each other nearly enough. But, that just means that we will cherish every minute together, every kiss, every hug, and every moment of our non-traditional, sometimes crazy life. We love each other, unconditionally and without end. And really, that’s what being a real family means.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Becoming Herself

My baby girl celebrated her eleventh birthday this weekend. Eleven. And, of course, I cried, just as I did when she held her bottle for the first time, took her first steps, started kindergarten, lost her first tooth, and every other milestone and birthday along the way. I had the frightening realization that she is now closer to college than to kindergarten. I also realized that, the older she gets, the more she becomes her own person, her own unique being, and less a copy of me.

We have always had an amazing—almost psychic—connection. We finish each other’s sentences, hum the same songs, and will often crave the same foods, at exactly the same time. We also mirror, and feed off of, one another’s moods. If she’s sad, I get gloomy as well; if I’m happy, her mood perks up. Although she enjoys spending time with friends, she always wants to know that I’m nearby, in case she ever needs me. I never feel complete without her by my side. We are, in many ways, like two halves, lost without the other. But, as she matures and develops her own interests (often outside my realm of understanding), I have to accept that she is not my other half. She is uniquely, magnificently, and beautifully her own whole. As she should be.

Although we are very much alike in many (often eerie) ways, we are also, in many ways, different. She is a science wiz, able to easily master everything from biology to physics. I took one science course in college (because I was forced to) and barely mustered a C+. She has always been fascinated by how things work, from her very first toy that she took apart and reassembled, when she was only six months old. I, however, love to learn about people and ideals, but really don’t care how something works, as long as it does. She loves to watch shows like “How it Was Made” (as does my husband). I would rather watch paint dry. We are both avid readers, but she is much more dedicated than I, and can easily finish a 300-page book in a single evening. We are both animal lovers, but she is a proud PETA member, vegetarian, co-founder of an Animal Rights Club, and volunteer for an area animal shelter. (I guess you could say that she doesn’t do anything small.)

How much, and in what ways, she needs me is also changing. When she was an infant, she needed me for everything—food, clothing, sustenance. As she grew, she needed me to teach her how to read, write, and tie her shoes. In elementary school, I offered help with homework and guidance during arguments with friends. As she gets older, she may need me less, but needs my guidance and love even more. Now, in middle school, I’m here to help her through much more difficult experiences—like soothing heartbreak and resisting peer pressure. And, as she continues to grow, I know that the pressures will become much more intense, and therefore my lessons and guidance even more critical. I hope to help her continue to have the strength to stand up for her convictions, the courage to resist temptations, and the freedom to become uniquely, magnificently her own woman.

We may not be two halves, but she is and forever will be a part of my soul. And ultimately, the most important gift I can offer her is the ability to become herself—the most amazing person I’ve ever known, and a person who will undoubtedly make this world a better place. In fact, she already has.

Yes, she is becoming her own woman. But, she will always be my baby girl.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How it All Began

February 3, 2006: I went on a date with a sweet man tonight. He’s shy and funny and very, very cute, and has an intoxicating smile. We talked during the whole dinner, talked the whole way home, and then drove around for a few hours so we could talk some more. I’m not ready for a relationship. He isn't either. We should just be friends. But, when he brought me home and kissed me on the forehead, I felt my knees go weak. Who knew that could actually happen? I think I might be in trouble. But, it might be worth it...just to see him smile.

That was five years ago. I had just gotten divorced after a very, very long court battle. I was going to law school full-time (finishing my last semester), working part-time, and raising the most amazing little girl on my own. I was only dating because I never really had before. I married my first husband when I was only 20 and hadn't really done the whole dating scene. I didn't intend to meet anyone. And I never imagined that during this tumultuous and crazy time in my life, I would meet him.

The first few months of our courtship (please forgive the very out-dated term, but that’s the best way to describe it) were wonderful. In the beginning, we would only see each other when my daughter was with her dad or at a friend's house, since I was very protective. We would have late night phone conversations, after my little girl went to bed. And we would look forward to our occasional dates. Eventually, once I trusted him, I told my daughter that we were going to the circus with a friend. We had a fantastic time together. And the two of them looked like they had known each other forever. When we got home, she said, “I really like him, Momma. I like how he smiles at you.” So do I, honey. So do I.

I had also met his two sons. His youngest immediately hid my keys, hugged my leg, and wouldn’t let me go. I was instantly in love. His oldest son was a bit more cautious, but still decided that he liked me, and wanted me around. And I fell in love with him, too. It felt like I had known these boys forever, and it made my heart hurt every time I had to leave them. It still does.

After a few months of juggling school, the Army, and certifiably crazy exes, we decided that we just couldn’t do it anymore, and we broke up. We loved each other. But, we really weren’t ready for everything a relationship would entail. Especially a relationship that involved kids and ex-spouses and the military. It was just all too much. When I told my daughter that we had broken up, she said, “Momma, what did you do?” I still don’t know why she thought it was my fault. But, she obviously wasn’t happy about it.

Soon, we both moved on. Kind of. I studied for, took, and thankfully passed the dreaded bar exam. He called me the night before and during all of my breaks, to see how I was doing.

He was working long, difficult hours and preparing for a deployment. I would call him to make sure he was taking care of himself.

We both even started seeing other people. I told him that the woman he was seeing was a waste of his time. He told me that the guy I was seeing was a jerk. We were both right.

On New Year’s Eve, he was out on a date, but snuck away to call me at midnight. (I’m sure his date appreciated that). And I would sometimes leave dinner dates early so I could come home to talk to him instead. He would occasionally remember something that he “forgot” at my house, and would call to ask if he could swing by to get it. I agreed to teach a class near his house (an hour away from me), so I could come see him afterwards. You know, because I was “in the area.” Looking back on that time now, we were pretty ridiculous. Always sneaking phone calls and finding excuses to see each other, yet claiming that we did not want to be together. Denial, they say, is more than just a river in Egypt. For us, it had become an Olympic sport.

A few months later, he deployed to Iraq. I hated that I wasn’t there when he left. I hated that he got on that plane thinking that no one would miss him, when in fact, I missed him every day. We emailed, we wrote letters, we talked on the phone. He told me how hard this deployment was on him. I heard bombs going off in the background when we spoke. He tried to tell me that he was safe. I didn’t believe him, but I prayed he was right. We just kept talking. And talking. We became best friends. I realized how afraid I was to lose him. And soon, he wrote me a long letter, telling me that he didn’t want to lose me, either. We decided to try again.

When he came home from that deployment, I was there to pick him up. And we’ve been by each other’s side ever since. He asked my daughter’s permission to marry me. She said yes, and helped him pick out a ring. Soon, I said yes, too. (I had been warned by my daughter that I'd be in big trouble if I didn't). We were married on a small beach, just me, him, and our three children. It was pure perfection.

We’ve endured another deployment since that time. Another eleven months of phone calls, webcam dates, tear-stained letters, scared babies, and constant worrying. But, we made it. I am so grateful for everything we’ve made it through. What we've discovered is that we were right: we would just be friends. Best friends, in fact. Best friends, lovers, life partners, confidants, companions. But, above all else ... friends.

I sometimes wonder what I have gotten myself into with this life: the deployments, the blended family, the moves, the uncertain future. But, then I look at my husband, my best friend, and our children—two his, one mine, but all ours--and I know that every hurdle, every bump in the road, every tear has been so very worth it. I would give anything in the world...just to see those smiles.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Epidemic of Disconnection

Yesterday, Oprah invited soldiers, reporters, and even the First Lady, to talk about honoring our military families. I was somewhat skeptical about watching the program, since I have been disappointed by many, many programs that have attempted to address this issue before. But, I must say that Oprah did the topic justice, and the show left me in tears.

One of Oprah’s guests, Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, discussed what he calls our “Epidemic of Disconnection.” He explained that many Americans are simply not paying attention to what is happening in this war. People are disconnected from the war, from the soldiers, from the families. This term struck a nerve with me. I've been amazed, and discouraged, by the lack of attention given to this war, and to our soldiers. I was glad to see attention being brought to this epidemic, finally.

We are, as a country, very disconnected. This has been a war met with apathy and disinterest. When I hear news reports of people who have been killed, I am of course sad for their families and for the loss of life. But, I also wonder about all of the soldiers we lose each and every day who no longer make it on the news. As my husband sits quietly during news reports of shootings, I know what he's thinking. He, too, is saddened by these tragedies. But, I know that part of him is wondering, “what about us?” He, thank God, is safe at home with his family. But, many of his friends and colleagues are not. Many are serving in Iraq or Afghanistan now, and many never made it home. I know he wishes that, just once, public respects would be paid to these fallen heroes as well.

On this show, Oprah and Michelle Obama admitted that, until recently, they did not know anyone who was serving in the war. And that, without this connection, they too were part of the epidemic of disconnection. To be honest, before marrying my husband, I knew a few people who were serving, but I didn’t really understand their, or their families’, sacrifice. I, too, was very disconnected.

My husband's second Iraq tour was while we were dating. And although I worried about him every day, I didn’t fully comprehend what he was experiencing, or the impact that this war would have on him, or on our relationship. It wasn’t until his homecoming, and seeing the effects of his trauma, that it started to sink in. I started to understand what this could mean for us, just in time for him to leave—again. This time, we were married, and dealing with this separation and fear as a family. And it was harder than I could ever have imagined. I felt, during those eleven months, more disconnected than ever.

Even as a military spouse, I have fallen into this epidemic of disconnection. During his deployments, we lived an hour away from post, I never attended an FRG (family readiness group) meeting, and had very minimal contact with other military spouses. I justified that I didn’t need the support, that I could handle his deployment and our readjustment period alone, that I was strong enough to do this on my own. All typical justifications, and all completely delusional.

I, thankfully, had many supportive friends. They tried their very best to help me through the difficult times, but they couldn’t fully understand. And, to be fair, I didn’t give them much of a chance to. I would joke about how tired I was, but never really admitted how truly exhausted, depressed, and afraid I was. I didn’t talk about how worried I was that the man who was coming home may not be the same man who left. I didn’t talk about how alone I felt. I did break down, on occasion, but always brushed it off as fatigue. I know that my closest friends saw through this façade, but didn't really know what to do.

I never truly felt connected to military spouses either, until recently. It wasn't until we moved halfway across the country, away from my comfort zone, that I started to realize how much I needed this Army wife community. Not long ago, my daughter asked if an event we were attending was 'on or off post' and talked about 'stopping by the PX' on the way home. “Wow, you really sound like an Army kid,” I quipped. “Well, I am,” she responded. Of course. I guess she understood our connection even sooner than I did. She knew that she was part of, not only our family, but of the military family. And when her teacher brought up the topic of the Iraq war, she proudly raised her hand and said, "my Dad has been four times. And we're really, really glad he's home." She knew that we had experienced sadness and difficulties that many other military families have felt. It took me a bit longer to make that connection.

Now, I can say that I am honored to be an Army wife. I finally feel connected to the thousands of other women who have cried themselves to sleep at night, waited for the messenger to buzz or phone to ring, and counted down to homecoming, only to wonder what the effects of this deployment may have been. I wish I would have reached out to this sisterhood sooner, for my sake and for our children's. But, I am so very glad that I have now.

Military families rarely ask for help. I know that this is true for me, and for many of the military wives I have had the fortune of meeting. If we do ask for help, it is usually of another military spouse. But, part of the reason that civilians feel disconnected is because we segregate ourselves. I truly believe that it is important for military wives to stay connected to, and build new connections with, women who are not married to the military--we need to be connected to them, and they need to be connected to us. If you feel like they can’t understand, help them. People want to be connected, they want to understand, they just need to know how. And we can never bring attention back to this war, and to our soldiers, until we start speaking up.

For civilians who are reading this, I'm asking you to find a way to be connected. It doesn't matter if you support this war or not. Many military members and their families don't support it either. But, they're fighting in it, and sacrificing, so they...we...deserve your support.

Bob Woodward suggested simply Googling "injured soldiers in {insert your city}" to find an agency that supports soldiers and their families. Excellent idea. But, I would also suggest finding the military families in your area and asking them what you can do to help. You can find a military family in your neighborhood, or your children's schools, or a faith group. They're close to you, somewhere. They may not ask for your help or your shoulder, but I can guarantee you that they probably need both. Whether you volunteer to build houses for wounded soldiers, or simply offer to shovel your neighbor's driveway while her husband is deployed, there are ways to get involved. You just have to ask.

Don’t let this be the war of apathy. Don't let this epidemic of disconnection continue. We have a chance to make soldiers feel like heroes again. We have a chance to make military families feel loved and appreciated. And we, as military families, have a chance to reach out and receive the help we so desperately need.

It’s time to help one another. It’s time we get connected once again.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes

We talk about lots of things in our family: politics, religion, movies, bodily functions, pets, chocolate. You name it, we probably talk about it. (Some discussions are obviously more pleasant than others). Today, my 10-year-old daughter asked me what I think the world should be like in the future. I gave her what I thought was an insightful answer. But then, I asked her the same. This was her response:

1. There should be no more gasoline or electricity. Everything should run on solar and wind power. Oh, and cars should fly. (Duh).
2. We should find a material to build houses out of that's strong, but cheap. That way, everyone could have a home.
3. All animals should have a safe home, too. Well, the domesticated ones, like dogs and cats. And the wild ones should be in the wild, not in a circus or a zoo.
4. World peace. No, really. No more wars. Enough already.
5. People would stop being mean to each other because they're a different color or gender or ability or love people differently. It shouldn't matter if you're brown or beige, move or think differently, whether you're a girl or a boy, or if you love a girl or a boy. It's just who you are. And it's cool that we're all different.

Sounds easy enough, right? So, how about we get started on this now?

What would you add to this list?

Be Careful What You Wish For

You may have noticed from previous posts that I’m struggling a bit with staying home. I’ve always worked. Always. And even though I’ve now started working from home, I have definitely missed interacting with coworkers each day, the thrill of impending deadlines, getting dressed up, and yes, even the rush of trying to balance a 9-5 while caring for my family. Being a working mother is part of who I am, or at least, who I was.

I’ve been praying for a job opportunity to come along. I’ve been working on my business, writing, and preparing for an online class, but spending a good portion of my time searching and applying for full-time, outside-of-the-home work. I've been applying for everything. After two major disappointments, I started to get discouraged.

And then, I received a call about a position I had applied for, but really was not very excited about. I know that sounds ungrateful, or picky, or something else not-so-good. But, it’s true. It's a position working for a big law firm, helping with litigation, something I have never, ever wanted to do. (I’m a lawyer, but I’m not that kind of lawyer). I went to the interview, nervous and unsure, and, to my surprise, was offered the job.

I came home to tell my husband, expecting him to be thrilled at the prospect of being a two-income household once again. But, instead, his response was, “It doesn’t seem like you’re very excited about it. I want you to be happy. So, if this isn’t the one, don’t take it.” I was grateful for his support, but even more confused.

When my daughter came home from school, she asked why I was so dressed up. (She has become used to me coming to get her in jeans, so this interview suit seemed foreign to her). I told her that I had a job interview, and that I had been offered the job. I explained that it was a position working with a firm and that it would probably be a 9-5 job, although there may be some nights or weekends.

Her face dropped. And, of course, so did my heart. “Oh,” she said, “I guess that’s good.” “Ok, so tell me what you’re really thinking,” I prodded. She went on to explain that she wants me to be happy, and knows that I miss working, but that she’s really enjoyed having me home. “Besides, Momma,” she added, “you’re a lot nicer and less stressed out now.” Wow. With this, my husband smiled and turned away, which meant that he obviously agreed.

I have always made sure my work schedule was flexible, so I didn’t realize just how much time I had taken away from my family, especially my little girl. Even though I went to work after she left for school in the morning, and got home before she did in the afternoon, I often had to work late, or bring work home, and out-of-town travel was common. So, I did miss out on a lot. And, in addition to being sometimes physically absent, I was also emotionally absent, often worried about work, and therefore unable to be fully present at home.

Since we moved across the country two months ago, I've enjoyed being here to help my daughter get settled in to her new school, new home, and new routine. I've enjoyed having more time to write, exercise, and even, surprisingly, cook. (Many of you know that the only thing I used to be able to cook is coffee. But, now, I'm becoming quite the chef. Kinda). Most of all, I've enjoyed my long walks and talks with my daughter in the afternoon, catching up on the excitement, ups and downs, of her day.

Now, I’m not saying that it’s bad to be a working Mom. I’m grateful that my daughter got to see me pursuing my education and career, while still caring for her each and every day. She knows that she can accomplish anything, she understands the importance of an education, and she is passionate about pursuing her own career some day. So, yes, I’m glad that I have had a career, and I have no intention of giving that up. I just wonder if it’s time to re-examine what that career should look like. (And I'm fairly certain it won't involve a law firm).

So I am now praying, not for a job, but rather for patience and guidance. In fact, most of my prayers recently are not requests at all, but rather a list of all the things I am grateful for, including this time at home. God has shown me numerous times that I don’t always know what’s best for me. But, what I do know is that I am incredibly blessed, and have many, many things for which I need to say, simply and truly, THANK YOU.

I still don’t believe I am ready to be fully self-employed, especially working from home. I haven't decided what to do about the job offer, but I know I will make the right decision. I'm grateful for the offer, grateful for any glimmer of hope in this dismal economy, but also cautious. I know that I still want to find a career that I’m passionate about, and that will make this world a better place for our children. I want to find that career that fuels me, that makes me want to go to work, and leaves me feeling energized. Anything less, is simply not worth the time away from home. So, my friends, be careful what you wish for. You just may find that it’s not really what you wanted at all.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Dream I Never Knew I Had

As a child, I never dreamed of being a wife and mother. I didn’t fantasize about my wedding day or scribble my hypothetical future children’s names on notepads. I rarely played with dolls, and if I did, I usually pretended they were the neighbors’ or some distant relative who came to visit. I did enjoy playing with my Barbie, but Ken was never Barbie’s husband, he was her assistant. (I know how anti-feminist Barbies are, but it was the 80s, we didn't have a lot of toy choices). My Barbie was a busy executive (or veterinarian, journalist, or President) and obviously needed a lot of help. So, along with her driver, GI Joe, Ken would keep her on schedule. Obviously.

(Confession: There was a brief period when a dear friend of mine and I would play ‘house' and pretend that we were grown and married—she to Patrick Swayze, I to Richard Grieco. But, I think we can safely blame this unfortunate period on too many episodes of 21 Jump Street, not on some general desire to be married).

After surviving a less-than-fantasy-like childhood, moving out at 15, and juggling ambition mixed with a high dose of bad decisions, I was on the path to becoming a single, professional woman, as I had always imagined. And then, it happened...

I was a 20-year-old senior in college when I found out that I was pregnant with my daughter. Odd pains sent me to the emergency room, where a nice, but way too rushed, nurse asked if there was any way I could be pregnant. “No,” I laughed. “I’m not having kids.” “That’s not what I asked you,” she said (as if she had heard those words from very pregnant women before). And, after making her administer the pregnancy test three (yes, three) times, all of which came out frighteningly positive, she quipped, “well, I guess you are having kids after all. In about 8 months, to be exact.” Touché.

After a makeshift proposal (involving an ad for a minister and a guilt-inducing speech about the importance of a two-parent household), I married her father, a man whom I had only intended to pass the time with until I graduated. (My moral compass has thankfully shifted closer to North since then). I had no idea how to be a mother. I knew nothing, except that I was scared to death. But, somehow, I also knew that, whoever this little person was inside of me, I would do anything for her, even ... get married.

The day my daughter was born, I fell in absolute, unreplicable, undeniable, overpowering love. I looked into her tiny brown eyes and saw everything that mattered, every reason for my life, every beauty in the world. And from that moment on, my once fiercely-independent, very non-maternal life became all about her.

My career path shifted from business administration to working in the movement to end violence against women, because I wanted...no, I needed to make this world a safer place for her. Having a flexible schedule became much more important than having a big pay check. Spending time with people who were good to her became much more important than being with people who were fun (thankfully I've been blessed with many friends who are both wonderful and fun). My search for homes now focused on safe neighborhoods rather than proximity to adventures. In every decision I made, her needs and well being always came first. And I would have it no other way.

If you read my previous post about the divorce I endured five years ago, then you know how well my marriage to her father worked out. But, I will forever be grateful to him for our daughter. We were divorced when my daughter was five, while I was in my second year of law school. I finished school, began my career as an attorney (for a non-profit women's organization), bought a house, and was raising an amazing little girl on my own. Until, once again, God decided to throw me a curve ball, proving that I’m really not as in control as I’d like to believe.

In 2006, I met a handsome, kind man with sparkling eyes and an intoxicating smile. And I couldn’t deny that I had fallen in love again, this time with 3 men—the man with the great smile who made my heart melt, and his two young sons. I never imagined falling in love again. I never imagined getting married again, especially to a soldier. But, then again, maybe all of our greatest blessings are things we never would have, or could have, imagined.

Today, five years after falling in love with them, three years after once again saying, “I do” (and this time really meaning it), I can honestly say that I love being a wife and mommy. (Who would’ve thought?) It is my greatest accomplishment and my greatest joy. As I watch our three angels—the one whom I gave birth to and the other two who joined my heart and soul when I married their father—I feel complete bliss. They are what my life was meant to be. And although my career is still very important to me, my passion is doing work that is important, and will make their world better. Nothing can compare to the love and devotion I feel for them.

Although I never knew it, this is my dream. And I’m so very blessed to be living it.

Besides, I think Barbie would be happy that I married GI Joe.