I had never been away from my children until I joined the military in November 2002. My youngest was only a year old when I went to boot camp in Lackland Air Force Base. This decision was very tough, being a mother of two toddlers and a preschooler who might be gone from her family for weeks or months at a time. I knew I would have the strong support of my husband, but still, there was that mother part of me that really ached for my children.
A few months into my technical training, I was finally granted the privilege to visit with my family. This was the first time seeing them after my basic training graduation in December 2002. I was extremely excited to see them, although only my husband and daughter could travel in from the east coast. I wanted to give my daughter a bath since I hadn’t done that in a long time. As I cleaned her up, she began to stare at me, and after a little while, she seemed to be looking for my husband. She didn’t seem to recognize me as her mother. Before that moment, I hadn’t gotten this feeling from her, so I became worried and began to look at this separation experience from her perspective. I could imagine her saying in her mind, in her own “child language:” Are you my mother? Why have you been gone all this while? What kind of mother would leave her children, especially at a tender age?
As a mother who had been gone from her family, I was very excited to see my husband and daughter, but it was not necessarily the same feeling I got from my daughter. I now wonder: did I make the wrong decision to join the military and change the dynamics of my family? Should I have stayed home and allowed my husband to be the breadwinner through a different pathway?
This experience reminded me of my own childhood, when my mother left us (my two younger siblings and me) when I was twelve. Although she gave me a heads up about her leaving home, I often wondered: Did she love us? Why couldn’t she stay because of us? Why did I have to grow up in a home without a mother? I often admired homes where there were both parents. At this early age, I was forced into the role of a mother for my siblings due to our cultural expectations. Girls were supposed to know how to cook and clean, among other housekeeping abilities, before getting married, which was every family’s aspiration.
As the oldest girl, I remember how hard it was, missing the mother-daughter bond. I often wondered, would I be available when my daughter needed some female advice? Would I be present to experience sending my children off to kindergarten, elementary school, etc.? I remember a time when I went to my neighbor for some advice about some of my female concerns because my mother was not around. I’m glad I had women like my neighbor to bridge the gap when my mother was not available.
Now I’m thankful I was able to be home when my daughter was experiencing similar female concerns. I was available to advise her and even had the honor of sending her off to college. It was very painful to say goodbye to her as she was the last kid to leave home. On the other hand, my husband is now away as a Merchant Mariner. We have swapped roles, and I cannot imagine how hard it must be for him, since he is the one who now misses our grown kids and the milestones in their lives, like college graduation, their first move to be on their own, as well as other celebrations.
As our daughter grew older, I wonder if my separation from her caused her pain and affected her in a negative way. I have made it a point to explain to her the importance of my being gone even though it was hard for her.
These are some of the many pains military families have to endure to care for our nation. It is very important for military families to get the appropriate help needed, as each family member deals differently with the challenges encountered as part of a military family.
Augustina Mushale is a retired Air Force Nurse. She completed her Master’s Degree at UC Davis. She currently works as a triage nurse and an independent consultant.