Thursday, September 20, 2007

Return to the Home Front (Babble)

During the fifteen months my husband was deployed to Iraq, I had to function as a single parent. It was an exhausting, stressful time – so exhausting, in fact, that my sleep-researcher brother totaled up the number of hours of sleep I was averaging during Ian’s deployment and declared I should be dead. But as hard as it was having Ian away (see the Babble essay I wrote back in the spring for details), the idea of having him back at the end of the summer also caused me to worry about what readjustment would be like for all of us.

There’s a stock image of the family reunited. As the wife awaiting her husband’s return from war, I was supposed to be giddy, all happy preparations and excitement. In truth, I was extremely irritable the week before Ian’s plane finally landed in Milwaukee. Anticipation drawn out over such a long period of time can make you feel sick. The sheer exhaustion was catching up with me and I worried I would collapse in the home stretch. I ate too much, was short-tempered with the kids (now closing in on six, four and one), and a little scared. It’s hard to welcome someone back into the most intimate folds of your life when you’re not sure who that person might be anymore.

The scene where the wife and kids meet the returning soldier did not go at all as planned. My husband wanted to see us at the gate as he stepped off the plane, but the guest passes we needed to pass through security took more than an hour to get. The kids got squirrelly. The baby got hungry. There were a lot of little shoes to take off and put back on. The stroller had to be collapsed. My daughter’s backpack full of stuffed animals had to be searched for bombs. We got lost trying to find the gate. We missed Ian, paged him. He missed us, paged us. By the time we all found each other at the information desk, I was shaken and frustrated.

Aden ran to her daddy and hugged him. Mona followed her big sister’s lead. By the time I got my arms around Ian, all I could do was sob. I was happy to see him and angry that he’d been gone. I wept with relief and joy and regret and fatigue. (The scene was politely ignored by passing strangers.) On the drive home, there was too much to say, and no way to say it in a van full of small children. Ian was able to let go of the frustration of the airport instantly. He said in Iraq you learned to let the past be history because you needed all your attention in the new moment. Still grouchy, I worried we were already on a different page.

And in the weeks that followed, there were plenty of things to get used to. Ian marveled at the quiet as we went to sleep, because he’d lived so long with mortar fire and the constant whine of generators and military jets. I kept forgetting that he didn’t know where things belonged and that he still had to be introduced to some of the people and places the kids and I know best.

But we quickly established a new routine. School started. We potty-trained our toddler. The children adjusted remarkably well. It’s hard to believe Quinn’s daddy was a stranger to him only a few weeks ago. He rides around in his father’s arms as if it’s the most natural place from which to survey the world. The baby has crying spells that Ian at first took personally, but I reminded him that it’s hard to compete with a breast-feeding mother no matter who you are.

Considering Mona was only two when her dad left, she’s accepted him back into her life with surprising ease. She has moments when she comes to me saying she’s “scared of Daddy,” but they seem calculated for dramatic effect to get out of chores.

Aden, now almost six, had the hardest time with the separation and the reunion has been more complicated for her than for her siblings. When life got hard and her emotions were overwhelming, she used to cry about Daddy being gone. Now, when she’s upset she seems to flail about for good excuses to cry, but they are harder to come by. She has also come to the realization that although having Daddy home is fun, sometimes it just means one more parent around telling her what to do.

And the two of us as a couple are doing fine, although with three kids there is less time to be alone than we would like. One more person around to take care of the endless work that needs to be done to keep a household running is a huge relief. I haven’t touched the laundry since Ian came home, and I’m finally getting some sleep. I’m still not over the shock of being able to walk out of the house alone, unencumbered by children every time we need to mail a package or buy milk.

Recently, I got up the nerve to ask Ian about his chances of being redeployed. He said it was a possibility. I told him I didn’t know if I could do it again – that if he loved me, he wouldn’t ask me to. I wanted to ask him to leave the Reserves for the sake of our family, but I couldn’t. Ian has told me his presence saved lives in Iraq, so I’m stuck with a dilemma as old as war itself: I need him home with me to help raise our kids; he needs to use his talents to make a difference in the world. I don’t know which one of us is being selfish.

After weeks of trying to readjust to being a family of five, it’s finally starting to sink in that I’m not on my own any more. Today, while I was picking a few things up at Target, Ian took Mona and the baby with him to pick up Aden at school. As I stood against the front of the store, protected from the rain, waiting for them to return, I realized that for the first time in many, many months I was alone and smiling. All the responsibility for the kids and their schedules was, at last, not just on my shoulders.

The van pulled up. Quinn was asleep. Mona cried out, “Mama! You’re back!” When I asked Aden how school was, she said, “I did good,” with a satisfied smile. Ian was wet, but looked proud that he’d successfully picked Aden up in the rain despite being burdened with a sleeping baby and a three-year-old in mid-tantrum. The van was warm and dry. In the back was a fresh supply of diapers. The girls were the embodiment of a joyful noise and all I wanted to do was kiss my husband. Ian may have come home last month, but I feel like I just arrived.