Editor’s Note: As part of the Center for Deployment Psychology’s ongoing mission to provide high-quality education on military- and deployment-related psychology, we are proud to present our latest “Guest Perspective.” Intermittently, we will be presenting blogs by esteemed guests and subject matter experts from outside the CDP. This allows us to offer more insight and opinions on a variety of topics of interest to behavioral health providers.
As these blog entries are written by outside authors, one important disclaimer: all of the opinions and ideas expressed in them are strictly those of the author alone and should not be taken as those of the CDP, Uniformed University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), or the Department of Defense (DoD).
That being said, we’re very happy to offer a platform where we can feature these individuals and the information they have to share. We’d like to make this an ongoing dialogue. If you have questions, remarks, or would like more information on a topic, please feel free to leave comments below or on our Facebook page, and we’ll pass them along to the author.
My husband and I joined the military in 2008 as psychology residents with the vague, distant understanding that deployment was a possibility for both of us. Just like anything that seems stressful and perhaps mildly unpleasant, but too far in the future, we paid little attention to our fears and concerns. However, I don’t think either of us anticipated that our experience with deployment would coincide with the birth of our one and only child.
My husband (now Major Jack Reardon) and I were psychologists stationed at Eglin AFB, FL. I was tasked to deploy in 2012—the first of us to receive a deployment tasking—when I became pregnant with our son. (Brief commentary: in my experience it has been a common assumption that women in the military become pregnant to avoid deployment; perhaps it is important to be sensitive to the fact that this conclusion does not take into account the miscarriages, fertility issues, and other pregnancy-related complications experienced by more women than you might think.) Because we were the same job and rank it inevitably occurred that my husband would replace me on my deployment; how romantic, right?
It did not take long for us to do the simple math to recognize Jack would therefore miss the birth of our child. It is at this point, I think, that an important change took place. It would have been easy to get caught up in anxious, negative thoughts about how the internal narrative I had about childbirth, with my husband by my side, would not happen. It would have been easy to focus on what I would miss, what he would miss, what I would not have. But whether consciously or subconsciously, I realized that extolling all of that emotional energy would not change reality, and what I would have to deal with. So, we looked at each other knowingly, shared a few words, and probably sighed a little. There were no tears shed and no sense of doom. In fact, as I recall, I only really cried twice during that period. The first time was the day I said goodbye to Jack at the airport, when I was five months pregnant. The second was one morning late in my pregnancy when my belly was so big I could not tie my boot, and there was no one there to tie it for me, and I was exhausting myself trying to get the job done. But I figured it out.
Increasingly in life (especially now as I consider my son’s development), I am of the mindset that it is a vital interpersonal skill to be comfortable alone. Being something of an introvert I have always enjoyed solitude, perhaps more than the next person, and I guess Jack’s deployment was my continued indoctrination into this lifestyle. Nevertheless, I was still scared at times: fearful of physical sensations of pregnancy that previously signaled problems, and not able to immediately turn to my husband; uncertain about how to manage significant work issues; and often just missing my husband, sad he couldn’t experience the baby’s movement in person. Near my delivery date, my mom flew down. I had not seen her much over the past several years, so we enjoyed reconnecting as we napped, chatted, and went for walks trying to get the baby to come already. When my delivery date finally arrived, I was grateful for the abilities of technology, allowing Jack and I to stay connected via Facetime despite being 12 hours and half a world apart. I had a healthy little baby with my husband on the screen at my side, and my mom and several friends around me.
The following two months prior to Jack’s arrival back home are something of a blur, as I adjusted to motherhood, tried to sleep, and family and friends visited. I reflect back at how generous my family was with their time, alternatively flying from the Northeast to see me. I remember using Facetime to show Jack the baby, secretly afraid the two would never adequately bond because he was not there from the beginning. (For the record, if you have ever seen Jack and Grady together, clearly bonding has not been a problem.)
Reflecting back on this time in my life got me thinking about the concept of what is considered resilience. Resilience is a big buzzword these days, in behavioral health and particularly as it applies to military members and their families. Resilience is variably defined as recovering from or adjusting to misfortune, change, setbacks, or adversity.
Military families sacrifice a lot, experience constant change and adversity. They miss birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, their children’s developmental milestones. Sometimes when I share my experience with others—that my husband was deployed when our son was born—the kneejerk reaction (more commonly from non-military acquaintances…military families are used to these stories) is “aw!” or “oh, how awful!” Perhaps the best lesson learned is that happy memories can be made under the most unique of circumstances. Some might say my husband missed out on a momentous event, the birth of his only child, something that can never be recreated. Ironically, I have fond memories of that time. If anything I am overwhelmed when I reflect on selfless friends, mentors, family, and colleagues that came to visit me, took over my work responsibilities without a pause when I was intermittently and unexpectedly put on bedrest, and just quietly supported me even though my stubborn self sometimes resisted. I have humorous emails from my husband at all hours, and recollections of sitting up in bed nursing, refreshing my email as we had meaningful conversations at a snail’s pace. There are many good thoughts from that time; they are just different from what I might have pictured for this period in my life. My reality, as unexpected as it was, is all I know. The military is, by nature, just different. And I willingly chose to be part of it. How can I complain?
So perhaps resilience is not necessarily overcoming adversity, but cognitively reframing an unusual event as something other than adverse. Acceptance of experience—especially when it might look different than what might be considered the social norm—maybe makes that experience qualitatively the same.
Feeling or being resilient does not mean you don’t struggle with anxiety or sadness, nor necessarily always enjoy the challenge with which you are faced. It does not mean the deployment and adjustments associated with becoming a family of three did not have its stressors for us. I remember distinctly watching Jack adjust to holding his two-month old son for the first time; and the terror in his eyes when he was home on R&R watching our son after his first set of shots, the baby miserable…and Jack too. I had to adjust as well: as much as I looked forward to seeing my husband, Grady and I had developed our own daily schedule, and both my husband’s return and my return to work created some periodic chaos and feelings of being overwhelmed. Even psychologists, well-educated on the stresses of transition, are not immune to its real time effects.
That being said, I wouldn’t change a thing. My memories and reality are what they are, and I accept that. When our life path throws the next “adversity” our way, I will work hard to continue to practice acceptance. Our experiences don’t always turn out the way we expect, but if we can live with that, and even embrace it, we just might realize things are not that adverse after all.
Laura Reardon, Ph.D., ABPP, is a licensed clinical psychologist and Specialty Care Clinical Director for Presbyterian Medical Group in Albuquerque, NM. She has formerly worked as a Spanish teacher and a school psychologist in the Northeast. Subsequently, she completed her graduate training in clinical psychology at the University of Arkansas, including a military pre-doctoral internship at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Lackland AFB, TX. She served for an additional four years as a USAF Captain and psychologist at Eglin AFB, FL, where she worked both in the mental health clinic and as one of the USAF trainers for the integrated behavioral health (BHOP) program. In her current role she oversees 17 providers in the areas of adult and child specialty therapy, as well as therapists integrated into pain clinics, child specialty clinics, women’s health, and the bariatric surgery program. She also works remotely as a contractor supporting research with the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine, Wright-Patterson AFB, OH, studying occupational stress and health related issues in sub-specialty groups (i.e., RPA pilots, intelligence operators, CSAR crew). Grady, her son, is now a happy and healthy 4-and-a-half year-old, who never stops talking.