For Cyndi Mills, her breaking point was losing the cat. In 1996, she found herself cooped up in an Edmonton Holiday Inn, co-ordinating her first military posting in a new city. She didn’t know anyone, and she was away from her family for the first time. She had a two-year-old daughter, a five-week-old baby, one dog and two grey tabbies to take care of while her husband Scott, a corporal, was working at the base.
Despite all this, she thought she had the situation under control – until the cat disappeared.
“I called Scott’s work, and I was bawling,” she recalls sheepishly now, “And whoever answered the phone went and found him, and said, “I think you need to call your wife right now!”
Since then, Mills has organized two moves, managed her husband’s long absences during training as well as one six-month stint in Afghanistan. She has learned to be cheerful in e-mails to Kandahar, sharing broken-furnace stories only when they were solved and she could joke about it. Sometimes, there was no joke at the end of a story: Two years ago, she comforted a close friend whose husband was killed in combat, serving alongside Scott. When that happens, families carry on, avoiding the news and tuning out gossip, staying sane when the kids get sick, and counting the days until a mission ends. “You can’t have the ‘poor me’s,’” she says. “That’s not an option. Every day life just happens.”
And yet, military life, the reality for more than 45,000 Canadian families, is a different kind of everyday – one defined by random postings, long deployments and awkward reunions. Remembrance Day tends to focus on the sacrifices soldiers make, but there’s always a family keeping watch at home. As Mills observes, year-long separations add an extra layer to the who-takes-out-the-garbage debate, when husbands and wives return to new household practices – and even, in some cases, an entirely new house, if the family was posted during deployment. Those stresses are multiplied for many families, due to mental-health issues such as post-traumatic stress syndrome, anxiety and depression.
Many families move every few years, often to remote locations, where jobs for civilian spouses may be hard to find, or housing costs may be high. According to new statistics compiled by the Vanier Institute of the Family, 75 per cent of couples in the military have children. Canadian and U.S. studies have found that children with parents who are deployed into combat zones experience higher rates of stress and anxiety. These families, however, remain remarkably resilient – in Canadian surveys, the majority say their personal relationships are strong, even while they recognize the negative ways that military life affects their family.
“I remember the feeling of utter despair,” says Megan Egerton, while she waved goodbye to her husband, an army major, as he stepped into a taxi to return to Bosnia one day after the birth of their son, and with their daughter only 13 months old. The family lived in the countryside halfway between Ottawa and CFB Petawawa, leaving Egerton without friends or family nearby. “I’m not going to make it,” she thought at the time.
An hour after he left, she tearfully called a friend. “Within a week, all these people I barely knew were driving out to help me with dinner, or bathe the kids,” she says. Egerton, an Ottawa elementary-school principal, who has since written several books for military families and created the website whileyouwereaway.org, says she soon learned it’s important to ask for help when you need it, take family re-integrations one day at a time and not expect the household to find a new rhythm for at least three months.
“Deployment is very much a grieving process,” she says. “You both lose something.” The spouse contends with worry for the soldier in deployment while juggling their family solo; the soldier returns to children who have celebrated birthdays without him and has to find a way to fit back into the family routine. When her husband was away, Egerton took pictures every day, so her husband could stay in touch with the kids and also understand what was happening in her life.
A combat-zone deployment isn’t a business trip to Toronto: It’s also a mental exercise in optimism, and trying not to dwell too much on the danger facing your partner. When her husband was deployed to Iraq, Leslie Natynczyk, the wife of former chief of defence staff General Walter Natynczyk, says she would spend the day with the kids, and then lie awake worrying from 1 a.m to 5 a.m. when it was daylight in the Middle East. “I couldn’t keep going on that way,” she says. Eventually, “there’s just a kind of reaching into yourself, and figuring out you can do this.”
For Candace Thorne, marrying into military life in 2006 meant giving up her career as a policy analyst – and her salary which was higher than her husband’s. But it can be hard for spouses to find work – especially in places such as British Columbia’s CFB Comox, where they are now stationed. Her husband, a sergeant in the air force who works as a flight engineer, often deploys suddenly on search-and-rescue missions, complicating child care. Her advice: Talk those decisions through before you get married. Over the years, she says, she has learned two important lessons: To accept change and to trust her neighbours. “If there’s an emergency and he’s away, he’s away,” says Thorne, who now has three kids under the age of four. “It doesn’t really matter that I can’t reach him. He’s rescuing someone else.”
Eventually, as moms like Cyndi Mills point out, their families also learn to rescue themselves. Mills, who nows edits an online magazine for military families, is a single parent once again; her husband is studying to become an officer in Ottawa. “Now if I lose a cat in a hotel, you know what? I know it will come back.”