My son left for Air Force Basic Training the summer after high school graduation. The next year, he completed his training, was assigned to a unit, and deployed to Iraq. He had barely turned 19 when I said goodbye and sent him halfway across the world. My mama-brain processed all those changes at one speed, but my mama-heart struggled to keep up.
When I got married 28 years ago, my husband was in the Army, so I was not unfamiliar with the military culture when my son enlisted. Still, the experience from a mom’s point of view rather than a wife’s point of view felt only vaguely similar, like a house cat and a lion are vaguely similar.
It’s hard to think of your child joining the military
Maybe you have a son or daughter talking about joining the military after graduation. Maybe your heart skipped a beat when it came up in conversation with them. Maybe reading about my experience fills you with dread, and you are already shaking your head and whispering “nope” under your breath.
I hear you.
I sighed and nodded in agreement with that sentiment.
I get it. And I will not sugar-coat the difficulty. From a mom’s point of view, this ranks at the top of the list of hard things I have done.
But that’s just it, isn’t it? I didn’t DO the thing. My son did. That summarizes the essence of why this is so hard. I just have to watch it. I don’t even have the illusion of control. We like to feel like we are in control, even if it is just an illusion. When your child joins the military, you lose that.
Letting your kids launch removes any control you had as a parent
But guess what? This season of life as we launch our kids requires EVERY mom to give up control. Not just the ones whose kids choose the military. The moms whose kids go away to college or those whose kids practice a trade or go straight into the workforce have to give up control just as much. They just get to keep the illusion a little bit longer.
And I am here to testify that being stripped of that illusion improved my relationship with my son. My son wanted to be a grown-up from the time he was 13. He never quite understood that growing up was a process; I would guide him through it step by step. No, thank you, skip to the end, I want to be an adult right now…you get the picture.
His joining the military cut off my ability to over-mother him during those years. It was a huge change that I didn’t even realize I needed. It saved us hours of conflict. He also gained a whole new appreciation for me because my role changed. I stopped being the gatekeeper and rule enforcer; instead, I got to be the cheerleader, nurturer, and helper.
When you spend eighteen years training and correcting your child, you tend to notice what needs to be improved. I remember he covered his entire body in Desitin during “nap time.” I remember how close he was to failing Spanish 1. Here’s the thing; moms remember too well.
As I watched my son do his service, it changed the way I saw him
As I watched my son do hard things and serve his country, his full-grown adultness was unmistakable. I felt undeniably proud but also acutely aware that my son was no longer a child. His actions and the responsibility he shouldered revealed an independent, strong young man. As his mom, I had a front-row seat to the transformation. It shifted the way I saw him and the way I treated him — both for the better.
I am a mother. I will always be a mother. But how that mothering looked in real-time changed as my son deployed. I had only ever been a mom to children and teens. Just like he was learning how to be an adult, I was learning how to be a mom to an adult for the first time. I learned to listen. I learned to encourage more than I criticized. I learned to say, “I trust your judgment” and “You are going to make a good decision.” It wasn’t all smooth sailing, but time was too precious to waste. This crash course for both of us condensed years worth of learning into a short intensive. Looking back, I am grateful.
The essence of what I learned: Don’t get in their way
If I had to boil down the essence of what I learned during my son’s enlistment and both of his deployments (he also deployed to Saudi Arabia), it would be: Don’t stand in the way. Don’t make yourself a hurdle on their path. As moms, the illusion of control over our kids is rapidly fading during this next season. They need to know we believe in them. More than anything we might DO, they need to know we stand solidly in their corner.
Your son or daughter might quietly ask, “Do you think I can rise to the challenge of doing this hard thing?” Let your answer be a resounding “Yes.”
More Great Reading: