College of ACES
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Deployed Spouses and Parents Leave Void in Families

Published April 24, 2003
April 24, 2003

URBANA--Although spouses and families left behind on military bases have other military families to support them, husbands and wives of reservists who have been called up may not have immediate access to that kind of comfort. And that sort of understanding can be invaluable if, for example, military spouses hear that their family member's unit has had casualties.

"One of the big challenges for reserve families is that they are spread out. They may not be close to a base where they can find comfort from others who are facing similar issues," said Robert Hughes, head of Human and Community Development at the University of Illinois.

Before he came to Illinois, Hughes helped the Department of Defense develop Web-based resources to teach people in the armed forces how to balance family and military life when a family member is on active duty. With colleagues at the University of Missouri, he created the Healthy Parenting Tool Kit, found at healthyparenting/index.cfm.

Military deployment goes on almost invisibly in peacetime. It's a fact of life that military families learn to live with. Hughes said that almost all of the service branches have some mechanism for encouraging the family members of deployed reservists and keeping them in touch with each other. The Web site was created partly because the Defense Department knew reservists' families don't have the easy access to information that families on base have.

Also, Hughes said that military families, like other families, worry about a blotch on their record if they seek help with problems they might be having. "It's really critical to be able to get information in people's hands without them having to identify themselves," he said.

The most immediate challenge of a spouse's deployment is that the one left behind becomes totally responsible for all of the ordinary business of handling household chores, including parenting and child-care responsibilities, he said. "And, all the while, you're worried because you know this family member is in a dangerous place," said Hughes.

Hughes says the first advice spouses left at home always hear is to take care of themselves. "But how do you take care of yourself when suddenly you have double the parenting work you used to have?" he said.

"Military families are very self-reliant. They're good at taking care of themselves. They're eager to take care of themselves. For that reason, they can be reluctant to ask for help," he said.

Hughes said it's important for these spouses to realize that it's not a sign of weakness to ask someone to take care of their kids for a while. "We all need help occasionally. No one is going to think there's something wrong with you if you ask for it, and you'll have a chance to help somebody else out at some point," he said.

And it's important for the deployed spouse to know a support system is in place back home "to deal with everything from a broken water pipe to the major sorts of difficulties a family might have," he said.

"It may seem like an odd thing for the military to pay attention to, but I think most commanders will tell you that it's absolutely critical that their soldiers are not distracted by difficulties at home so they can pay attention to carrying out their mission," he said.

It's easy for spouses at home to be distracted from their "mission" as well. Although modern technology keeps families in touch via e-mail and even videoconferencing, it also brings combat into the home in a way that can be upsetting, especially to small children. "Almost all military families will tell you that they try to control how much TV they're watching. There's so much information, and families will listen anxiously to every morsel of news, wondering is this my son or daughter's unit?" he said.

Oddly enough, the most difficult part of deployment may come after the family is reunited, said Hughes. "Military people who have done this more than once will tell you that it's always harder to come back than it was to leave. Spouses and children will have changed, they've learned new things, someone may have taken over a chore that you always did. It's just this awkward feeling that your place in the family isn't quite there, and it can be a challenge to fit back in," he said.

"And the one who's returning will have changed. When military people have been in very dangerous, stressful environments, it takes time to readjust. Couples have to find a way to reorganize the family and incorporate everybody back into it," he said.

Hughes cautions that military parents who spend a lot of time on deployment may withdraw from being active parents. He worries that they may not use the opportunity to parent when they are around or use the telephone, letters, or e-mail to keep in touch and continue to have relationships with their children, he said.

"None of this is easy. It's a long learning process for these families. But a very large percentage of these soldiers are very young men and women, as young as 18 years old. There are lots of things they haven't figured out yet about themselves, and now they've taken on this very complicated, very dangerous job, and they're managing their families all at the same time. You have to be impressed by how well many of them do it and how capably they manage things that would challenge any of us," Hughes said.