Like many other Marines, my husband has spent the better part of the past 11 years away from home. For 6 ½ years of that time he has been deployed, away for training, or on temporary duty trips. While I didn’t know 11 years ago that we were entering the longest period of sustained combat operations in US history, I did recognize that what had been normal no longer was and I was going to need to find different ways to keep Daddy present in the daily life of our family.
Our oldest child was only a month old when my husband began work-ups for his first deployment. Even though she was so young we made reading aloud to her part of our daily routine. Each night, after bath and her last feeding, we would rock with her and read to her. The first books we read aloud were actually those from our night stand so she was lulled with stories from Robert Ludlum, JK Rowling, and Orson Scott Card. But as she grew more aware and physically capable we introduced board books and interactive books that she could enjoy. One day I realized that the books she enjoyed most were those that had real pictures in them so I began to show her our family photo albums. She loved them!
I began making little photo books for her. I bought a few inexpensive flexible plastic albums and put pictures of our family and places we had gone in them. We would look through them and I would narrate stories about the people and adventures we had had. When we traveled to visit family I was surprised that she seemed to recognize people that she had never met and it dawned on me that she “knew” them from our books. At that point my husband’s typical schedule was to be away for 2 weeks of each month. I asked him to take pictures of himself, places that he was going, and things that he was doing to so I could make a photo book of him.
She loved it! We read the Daddy book every day and I updated it with new pictures my husband would send or bring home. I began to notice that my daughter was making the transitions between the times Daddy was home to away to home more easily. She no longer seemed to experience stranger anxiety with him and she seemed confident in her understanding that Daddy was always part of her life.
When my husband deployed he continued to send home pictures of where he was. We had pictures of him loading onto the landing craft, on the ship, going through the Suez, in the desert, outside his tent, and under the canopy during chow. Bedtime stories became stories about “Daddy’s adventures” and, on the days that she missed him the most, our daughter used to carry the little album with her. When my husband returned home we put a picture of him coming off the helicopter as the last picture in the book.
The next deployment came closely on the heels of the return from the first. We continued to create and look through the albums but my daughter was now asking more questions about what my husband was doing and why he needed to be away for so long. During that time superheroes, princesses, and Marines were the common themes of play with my daughter and her friends. I began a new album that showed Marines doing the things that the children identified with the most and that I could use teach my daughter about the broader details and motivation of my husband’s service.
This new album helped our daughter to gain a sense of the fullness of the job that my husband does. It also became a great starting point for her to ask more specific questions, and a reference tool for my husband and I to provide answers and steer conversations. Over the next few years and additional deployments, I added more details to the original album. Elements such as: uniform patterns; service emblems, mottos and colors; ribbons and awards; and even the Marines Hymn became part of the little book.
After our second child was born and my husband was getting ready for yet another deployment I realized that most books to help kids through deployment focus on separation. While I believe in the importance of recognizing and appreciating the full emotional scale that separations can cause, I had the idea that my little book that focused on teaching and developing understanding about what Daddy does and why could benefit other families too.
I used the same text that had resonated with my children and their friends, and had the books formatted so that the reader (or parent) could insert pictures of their own Daddy or Mommy over those printed in the book. At the end of 2011, I published American Hero Books®: My Daddy is a Marine and American Hero Books®: My Mommy is a Marine.
My foray into the world of publication has been interesting and rewarding. The books have been well received and in September of 2012 American Hero Books®: My Daddy is a Marine was awarded a Best Children’s Book gold medal by the Military Writer’s Society of America. But the best reward has been the reactions of the children when I read the book at Story Time events. So many children jump up shouting “My Daddy does that!” or “That’s my Daddy!” and are excited to see a book that represents their daily life and the pride they have in their parent’s important job. That’s what I was hoping for.
Alia Reese is a new contributing author for USMC Life, click to read her bio.