Editor’s Note: Middle names of the children and some family members featured in this story have been used due to safety and privacy concerns.
Linda Albi looks at her phone, trying to make out her daughter’s face as she tilts the screen toward her 2-year-old grandson, Michael, as he sits in her lap. The sun still isn’t up where Sarah is, but she’s already putting on her flight suit. Michael watches his mommy as she sings to him softly so she won’t disturb her flight crew as she gets ready to walk across the tarmac to her plane.
This is how Michael often starts his bedtime routine on the West Coast while his mom, a pilot in the Navy, begins her day on the other side of the world. Every free moment Sarah has, she calls her son to check in. Her husband, also a naval pilot, usually answers the phone. He staggers his deployments with Sarah’s to avoid being away from Michael at the same time. But even on shore duty he can work long hours or overnight, so Michael’s grandmothers pitch in to fill the gaps. This day, Linda is holding down the house.
As she helps facilitate the video call between mother and child, she puts her own motherly instincts on hold.
“I am anxious to ask how is she really doing, but I know she needs to start her day with focusing on my grandson’s face, not mine,” Linda writes. “As her mom, I ache to talk to her, but as part of his nightly bedtime routine I am resigned to just being the resting perch for her squirmy toddler as he sings with his mom.”
Today, women represent 16 percent of enlisted service members and 18 percent of the officer corps, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. That’s increased since the end of the draft in 1973, up from 2 percent and 8 percent, respectively.
The Air Force has traditionally had the highest percentage of women but the Navy nearly caught up in 2016. In both branches, about one in five enlisted members and officers are women.
Bashir Jahan smiles mischievously and shows me the Valentine’s Day card he has just given to his wife. “I’m So Blessed to Have You for My Husband,” it says. Bashir is a full-time stay-at-home dad while his wife, A.J., serves in the Navy as a surface warfare officer. Most military spouses are women and he finds humor in the role reversal.
Bashir retired from the Navy in 2013 after 22 years of service. He and A.J. hoped to stay in the Navy together but after their first child, a boy, was born in 2012, they were unable to “co-locate,” a military term for being stationed in the same place as your spouse.
Until their son was 7 months old, A.J. was stationed in Monterey, California, for graduate school, taking care of the baby by herself during the week. Bashir was stationed in San Diego, commuting hundreds of miles on the weekends to see his family.
“I’d see him cooing or sitting up and doing little things I wanted to be a part of,” he tells me, describing video calls during the week. “I love my wife. I love the idea of having a family.”
The distance wasn’t working for the couple so they considered their options. Bashir was eligible for retirement. His wife, nine years his junior, was not and her career was on an uphill trajectory. She stayed in the Navy and he retired the following year.
Bashir got a crash course in solo parenting with his son in Japan, where they lived while A.J. went on frequent deployments.
“Underprepared and overwhelmed” is how he describes that time period. “Overwhelmed is probably a gentle way to put it.”
After the arrival of their second child, a girl, life at home became much more hectic.
“In Japan the dryers don’t work,” Bashir laments as he recalls his frustration hanging clothes outside to dry. “Do you know the maddening process of putting out small underwears — eight, 10, 15 of them — and then socks that are this big?” he gestures, illustrating very small socks.
“Big clothes, not a problem, but little people clothes,” Bashir shudders.
Parenting while deployed
Parenting when you’re deployed means shifting the provision of stability and support for a child to a spouse or other caregiver and trying to preserve the parent-child bond by seeing your child as often as possible.
For Sarah that can mean a FaceTime check-in with her son both morning and night.
“She gets up way early so she can call on our time zone,” Linda says. “And I’ve been on the way to daycare and I have to pull over and get in the back seat so he can talk to her. When she calls me, I drop everything.”
Michael surprises his grandma, “Oma” he calls her, by his ability to adapt with ease to his mom being deployed.
“He realizes his mom is in the phone sometimes.”
On a ship, communication is more difficult. A.J. can go a week at a time without access to email.
She has recorded herself reading children’s books, so her kids can see her often.
“I think you recorded 25 books. You actually did one twice you were so sleep-deprived,” Bashir says to his wife, laughing. “I thought, this book sounds familiar.”
A.J. relies on Bashir to make her a constant presence in their kids’ lives while she is deployed.
He begins the day with their children, giving mommy’s photo on the fridge a good morning kiss, then watching the videos of her reading during the day and ending each night with another kiss.
Leaving a 6-week-old
Bashir and A.J. have three children now, a 6-year-old boy, a 3-year-old girl and a 10-month-old boy. A.J.’s current shore duty assignment allows her to spend a lot of time with her family, and they are enjoying being together.
A.J. is soaking up the time with her 10-month-old son that she never had with her middle child.
In 2015, when her daughter was just 6 weeks old, A.J. left her family to complete several weeks of training, followed by a rapid succession of deployments.
A.J. waived her operational deferment, the year without deployments the Navy provides for mothers after they give birth.
“From a personal standpoint I was thinking … it’s hard but it’s going to be harder later,” she says. “My thought was, (our eldest child) at 2 years old would see my car and would have his dad take him to it to look for me.”
“I didn’t want to leave (him) when he was 6 or 7 and (her) when she was 2 or 3.”
A.J. pushed for an assignment in Japan and received it. It meant she would deploy often but for shorter periods of time, allowing her to come home to her kids more frequently, usually for about a month.
By the time her daughter was 2 1/2, A.J.’s longest stretch of time with her was six weeks.
“What I didn’t take into account: that also means saying goodbye more often. I think it was actually harder than doing a longer, single deployment than it was doing all those little ones,” A.J. says.
“It’s confusing for a kid to … get warmed up to you and then all of a sudden have to leave.”
But many children are doing just that. There are 960,300 children of active duty members, according to a 2017 United States Military Demographics Report.
For deployed service members who are married, almost four in five had a child at home during their most recent deployment.
“You know that special time when you watch your child sleep,” Linda Albi says with tears in her eyes. “She’s across the world and I’m watching her son sleep.”
Albi was a military spouse herself. Her husband is a former Navy SEAL, but he got out of the service before the couple had children.
Linda doesn’t know how her daughter is able to cope with wanting to hold her child and not being able.
“I just can’t imagine what it’s like to have your arms ache and your heart hurt like that. To see him and press that little ‘x’ on your phone and he’s gone.”
For A.J., who estimates she sleeps about four hours a night on average while at sea, the pace of deployed life and her focus on her mission helps distract her.
“You’re just so busy,” she says. “It’s not like you get a day off. So you are working 14 … 20 hours a day sometimes.”
“You almost don’t have time to think about it.”
Her daughter ate solid food, sat up and crawled for the first time with her dad. She also said her first word — bus — while her mom was at sea.
Some missed moments still sting.
“I know she walked before (I saw),” A.J. says pointedly to her husband. “I know he was trying to make me feel better like, ‘oh, this is the first time she’s done that.’”
A.J. wasn’t fooled.
“I know he lied to me!”
Bashir, years later, still keeps up the charade.
During one of A.J.’s deployments, her ship was making a port call in the Philippines.
Bashir flew to Manila from their home in Yokosuka, Japan, with their eldest son, then 3 years old and their daughter, who was several months old at the time.
A.J.’s son was so excited to see her but her daughter was not.
“(She) was standoffish,” says A.J. “She didn’t want me to hug her.”
“I expected her to be like that,” A.J. adds stoically.
But Bashir remembers it differently.
“I could see the hurt and she was crying, like ‘my own daughter doesn’t want to come to me.’”
On day three, their daughter warmed up to her mom.
“But that’s what all the guys face too,” insists A.J. During our discussion she repeatedly makes a point of saying her experience isn’t special because she’s a woman.
Bashir isn’t buying it.
“A mom’s bond is different than a father’s” he says, stressing that while he is a very active father he is no substitute for his wife’s warm and nurturing parenting style.
The last time Sarah returned from a deployment, Linda wasn’t there to watch her daughter reunite with her grandson.
She studied the video her son-in-law took of the moment.
“He kind of hesitated,” she said, describing Michael’s reaction to his mom’s return.
“He was excited to see her but at the same time he’s not sure that it’s really her, that this person is now here and not in the phone.”
When Sarah returns from a deployment she spends a lot of time just holding Michael.
“She told me, ‘I don’t want to put him down. I want to carry him. I want to always have him in my arms,’” Linda recounts her daughter saying.
Alone in their roles
In Eugene, Oregon, where Linda Albi lives, she has friends who are also grandmothers, but none have a connection to the military.
Linda has four children — two sets of twins. Sarah is one of the older twins. Like Sarah, her sister is also married to a service member.
“I almost won’t even bring it up,” she says. “I almost don’t want to tell people I have a daughter and two sons-in-law in the military.”
When Linda does mention to a friend or acquaintance that her daughter is a Navy pilot, she says the conversation often turns to military spending and questions about why the nation’s defense budget is so large.
These are not the issues on Linda’s mind.
When her daughter is deployed she is preoccupied with other concerns: Is Sarah’s location secure? Where exactly is she flying? What happens if an engine fails? Would her daughter still be able to safely fly her plane?
And then there’s the immense pride she feels.
“I have a hard time explaining to people what it feels like to be walking with my daughter (on base) when someone salutes her. I almost want to cry. It’s such an intense feeling.”
Bashir fervently supports his wife’s military career. For him, it’s an extension of his own calling to join the Navy.
His family was granted asylum in the United States in 1982 when he was 9 years old. They fled Afghanistan after his father was jailed for his vocal opposition to the Soviet occupation.
“There wasn’t really anything else that I could think of doing that would give back to this country the way it gave to us,” he says of his decision to join the Navy.
As proud as he is of his wife, his role as a stay-at-home dad makes him the odd man out among his closest male friends.
“We have nothing in common,” he says, smiling.
Bashir remembers talking to his friends who were still in the Navy after he retired to be a full-time father.
“I was like, ‘Dude, you cannot understand the complexity of what your wives have to go through to raise your children. The crying, the whining, the nonstop attention-seeking, the pulling at your pants where you have to shuffle like an old man. My hips hurt, my shoulders hurt, my back hurt.”
“My guy friends know that I’m a feminist,” he says.
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