I was born soon after my dad left for his first six-month deployment on board the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Mom was alone in the delivery room, which wasn’t unusual in the 1970s. Dad received word of my arrival through a Red Cross telegram while he was in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and, relatively speaking, that wasn’t normal for new dads, even in 1976. It would be seven months before I met Dad.
Twenty-two years later, when I was about to leave home, Dad’s Leave and Earnings Statement — the military’s equivalent of a pay stub — reported that he had accumulated 11 years of sea duty. He had been gone for half my life. That’s a lot of missed piano recitals and first days of school. Because of this, when I was little, I said I would not marry someone in the military.
Enter fate and his good friend irony.
During that first deployment, there was another new family in the squadron. They had a 1-year-old son named Dustin. Dustin and his mom, Robin, flew overseas to meet the ship when it pulled into port in Europe. There they met my dad.
“When you get back to the States, you should look up my daughter who was just born,” Dad told Robin and Dustin.
A few months later, Robin attended a belated baby shower held for my mom, which means my future husband met my dad before I did, and I met my future husband before I met my dad.
Dustin and I were married in 1999, despite the fact that he had just graduated from the Naval Academy and was headed down to Pensacola, Fla., for flight school and a career in the military. I overlooked those small details. In 2000, our first son, Ford, was born in the middle of Dustin’s new squadron’s “work-ups.”
See, when military people say they will deploy on a ship for “six months,” what they mean is, “I will deploy on a ship for six months, but first I will spend a year doing training exercises that will have me out on the ship for two weeks, home for one, back out again for a month, home for three days …” By the time Dustin left for the actual deployment, when our new baby was 6 months old, he already had missed most of Ford’s short life. In fact, by the time Ford celebrated his second birthday, I would guess that Dustin had been home for maybe only six months total and not consecutively.
In the middle of the chaos, why not have a second child? Owen was born, and six weeks later, Dustin left for another deployment.
I’m preaching to the choir with military families. This is all standard stuff. Indeed, many families have had it much worse. But I think it’s important for other people not familiar with the military lifestyle to see just how much these families sacrifice, and how most of it cannot be measured in dollars. When we look at family scrapbooks, Dustin is absent from a good portion of the pictures. If Ford wants to know what he was like as a baby, his dad can’t always answer.
And yet, I think it was easier for my dad’s generation to miss these things because society as a whole did not expect as much from fathers then. Even dads who weren’t on deployment didn’t always make it to every recital. In today’s world, however, fathers are expected to be just as involved as mothers, which makes leaving on a ship for six months more difficult, if only because of all the unknowing but well-meaning relatives and friends who will say, “How can you leave and miss your child’s birth?” and, “Can’t the military send you back in time for your daughter’s first birthday party?”
At a spouse group meeting when Ford was almost a year old and the ship was supposed to return any day, Ford unexpectedly stood and took his first steps. Twenty military wives stuck out their foot to trip him. “No, wait for your dad,” they yelled. Ford got up again and walked across the room. Kids, of course, grow up whether Dad is there or not.
Funny, my dad missed my birth in 1976, but it was considered “all part of the job.” My husband now has the same job, but it seemed unthinkable for him to miss even Ford’s first steps.
A dad, however, is more than a collection of shared recitals and first words. And this Father’s Day, when both Dustin and my dad are home, all of the moments they’ve missed don’t seem to matter. That was true then, and it’s true now. Once a dad is present, it doesn’t really matter how long he was gone.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. Her new book, “I’m Just Saying …”, is available wherever books are sold. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.