Coparenting, or the coordination between parents as they work together to raise a child, is hard work. Staying consistent, attuned, and effective as a team is a challenge for any family. For military families, separations due to trainings and deployments add to that challenge.
I work with military families during deployments and I often hear about worries related to coparenting. Many couples believe that a homefront parent must do the parenting all alone and there is nothing a deployed parent can do to help. For this reason, I hear deploying spouses tell me they feel very guilty for leaving. Parents are so often relieved to hear that, just like there are ways to stay connected as a couple, there are ways to coparent while separated. Below are some guidelines for how to navigate coparenting during a deployment.
Reflect on your shared parenting values
Whether you have talked to your partner about this or not, you and spouse hold shared parenting values. What do you and your partner believe is most important to teach your child, and how do you believe that is done best? Being on the “same page” and holding true to these values is key for effective coparenting throughout a deployment.
Think of coparenting like a dance and the music like your parenting values. When you move, your partner moves with you. As you dance, you are connected and coordinated because you are guided by the same music. Sometimes you are in the lead, and sometimes your partner is in the lead, but you move together. At times, someone may stumble. Dad says no, mom says yes. Or during a challenging task, you think it’s most important for your child to learn to ask for help, while your spouse thinks they should learn independence. It happens. But, you can get back on track. You have the music (your shared parenting values) to get you back in the dance together.
Consider making a list of your shared parenting values together. Think of it as a “guidebook” to look upon during difficult parenting moments throughout the deployment.
Make a coparenting plan
Like most things in life, planning ahead tends to make things a little bit easier. Sit down together and talk through your coparenting plan. Consider the following:
- If you’ve had previous military separations, what was the coparenting experience like for each of you? What worked? What didn’t? What needs to be adjusted due to your children being older or having additional children?
- How will division of labor change? Who does baths, bedtime, morning routines, meals, driving to and from activities? In what ways will the homefront parent need extra support? If you live near family or friends, are there ways to share meals? Carpool? Babysit? If your family can afford daycare, lawn care, housekeeping or if you are able to utilize free services on post, consider together how they may help. Don’t hesitate to use your resources.
- Discuss parenting routines that the deploying spouse can participate in from afar. Depending on differences in time-zones and schedules, a deployed spouse may be able to video chat with your children as the homefront parent cooks dinner. Or, read a bedtime story together. Even with conflicting schedules, a deployed spouse can create videos that can be played during family routines. For example, a deployed spouse could create a video of themselves saying a bedtime or mealtime prayer. For a low-tech idea, consider writing a series of special notes to share with your children on a regular basis, or during important milestones, such as birthdays, first and last days of school, and holidays. With some creativity, there are endless ways to stay involved.
Be sure to also talk with your children about this plan. Share with them how routines will change, and how their deployed parent will continue to be involved. Allow your children to ask questions and make suggestions. Although deployments can be related to feelings of sadness, anger, or anxiety for children, including them in this plan will give them some sense of control and may ease concerns. It is also an opportunity for your children to look forward to interacting with their deployed parent in special and unique ways. It may be helpful to practice doing the new routines with your children before the deployment, especially for children who struggle with transitions.
Use “covert” coparenting
Ok, you’ve done the planning and the deployment has begun. Now what?
This is a big one. Coparenting involves both overt parenting, which happen when both parents are together, and covert which occurs when one parent is away1. Covert coparenting is a great way to communicate to your child that although their deployed parent isn’t right in front of them, they are still their parent, still involved in their life, and still love them.
If your child comes home from school with an “A” paper and you say, “Great work! Mom/Dad will be so proud when they see. Let’s send a selfie of you holding it,” that is covert coparenting. If you kiss your child goodnight twice, one from you, one from your spouse, that is covert coparenting. If, when a deployed spouse is video chatting with a child says, “Your mother/father told me about your detention. We both know you can behave better,” that is covert coparenting. If you hold your baby up to a picture of your deployed spouse and say, “There’s Daddy/Mommy! They miss you so much,” that is covert coparenting. You can make any parenting moment into a covert coparenting moment.
Consider your child’s unique needs
Some children do best when they have a lot of “face time” with their deployed parent. Other children, possibly a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), may struggle to sit still in conversation for that long. Instead, connecting with their parent in other ways (e.g., sending a daily message or picture) may be most important. A child with an anxiety disorder may need extra reassurance (using covert coparenting). A child on the autism spectrum may need extra time to adjust to new parenting roles, or may best connect non-verbally (e.g., keeping an item of clothing with mom/dad’s scent).
If you live in a military family, you know that planning ahead can only take you so far. You may have the perfect bedtime routine planned out, and then learn that you or your spouse has been moved to a different work shift. Or, maybe you learn that before dinner just isn’t a good time for your toddler to sit on the computer to chat. Likely, the plan will not go perfectly. Therefore, it is important to be flexible and adjust the plan along the way. Remember, you have your shared parenting values to guide you.
No doubt, coparenting from afar takes intention, consistency, and creativity. Yet, many military families that I work with find they are able to maintain a strong coparenting bond, and even grow as a coparenting team through a deployment. The work that you put into coparenting will surely not only benefit you as parents, but will contribute to your child’s wellbeing throughout your deployment.
Vanessa Jacoby, PhD
Vanessa Jacoby, PhD, is an Assistant Professor and Licensed Clinical Psychologist with a child specialization in the Division of Behavioral Medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center. She is member of the STRONG STAR Multidisciplinary Research Consortium and the Consortium to Alleviate PTSD, whose mission is to alleviate and prevent posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other deployment related problems in active duty service members and their families. In her work at STRONG STAR, Dr. Jacoby conducts prevention and supportive programs with military families with young children experiencing deployment.
(Manglesdorf, Laxman, & Jesse, 2011)