On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, Cameron has football practice from 5:30 to 7:30, and on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, Bailey has cheer practice. So immediately after work, Cherise races home to pick up the kids, drops them off at practice, drives back home to start dinner, picks up the kids again, feeds them, and gets them going on their homework. Then it’s bath time and bedtime.
Saturday means football games, one for each kid, up to three hours each, though sometimes in different cities so that Cherise has to choose one and send the other child with another team parent. Sundays are reserved for church, housework, and getting ready for Monday.
All that seems like more than enough, but Cherise is determined to maintain the same lifestyle her children have when their father is home. And so, in addition to everything else on the weekly schedule, she also hosts the occasional precompetition hair party, with 30 girls from Bailey’s cheerleading team, and, during this past cruise, a slumber party with 13 nine-year-old boys for Cameron’s ninth birthday.
Cherise’s comfortable posture and easy laughter belie the military precision she employs in her husband’s absence. Order, she says, is the key to keeping on top of the finances, the housework, the children’s schoolwork and extracurricular activities, and her own job.
“I have a system in place and where I like things,” she says. “While [Donovan] is out at sea, that’s just how I adjust. I have to have things a certain way.”
She wasn’t always like this. She’s had to learn. The first time Donovan went away, the children were six months and three and a half years old. “One on the hip and one in the hand,” she says. She was also in school full-time.
“I didn’t know what to expect. It was hard because you’re used to seeing your spouse all the time, and then all of a sudden, they’re never there, and there’s all these bills. It was completely overwhelming. I cried so many times, I can’t even tell you.”
Cherise’s small, curvy frame and the dainty manner in which she pulls out one Craisin at a time, eating with polite femininity, might give the impression that she is a delicate woman, perhaps even prone to crying. But her voice is strong, clear, and full of laughter as she details the difficulties of her life as a military spouse. Sitting across from her and listening to her story, it’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when she broke down because she couldn’t handle the pressure.
“When I got married, I never thought I’d be a single parent. But what you realize is, when they leave, you are basically a single parent. You do have the benefit of the second income, so that’s good, but other than that everything else is your responsibility. If one of the kids gets sick, you have to take off work and go to the doctor. There’s no one to cover for you,” she says. “You just put one foot in front of the other, and you get it done. I think that’s how it is for a lot of moms when they have everything riding on their shoulders because their partner isn’t there — or if they don’t have a partner.”
On Harbor Drive, at G Street Mole Park, a bronze sailor stands in a frozen embrace with his wife and child. The statue is called Homecoming. A few yards away, a 25-foot-tall sailor kisses an equally gigantic nurse. Though sculpted to replicate a photo taken on V-J Day, at the end of World War II, it, too, has come to represent that blissful moment of homecoming we see on the news when Navy ships sail into port.
All the hoopla is reserved for the reunion, which is the second stage and the part that everyone looks forward to. And though the most energy is directed toward the reunion stage, it comes and goes the fastest. News cameras zoom in on a kiss, a hug, a cheering crowd, and a sailor holding his newborn baby for the first time. Then the cameras shut off, the news blurb ends, and it’s over.
The adjustment phase begins.
On February 9, 2010, in response to a friend’s inquiry about how her own reintegration process was going, Rebekah Sanderlin wrote, “We’re past the honeymoon part, and now we’re in the pushy-houseguest-who-has-outstayed-his-welcome-and-doesn’t-understand-kids part. But that’s just my take on it. If you asked him, he’d probably tell you that we’re at the [email protected] part.”
From the number of comments that each of Sanderlin’s postings receives, it’s clear that others relate to her and appreciate the opportunity to talk candidly about the issues she brings up.
Mary Kirby, of Fleet and Family Services, calls this final phase “the renegotiation of the family contract.” Stanley Beason, in his more plainspoken manner, likens the adjustment phase to a new marriage.
“Everybody looks forward to the wedding,” he says, “but then you wake up the next day and all of a sudden you’re married.”
Both Beason and Kirby agree that this stage is when their work is most critical.
Fleet and Family Services provides Return and Reunion workshops to help couples deal with exactly the kinds of stresses and anxieties that Sanderlin refers to. These are 45- to 60-minute classes with titles such as “Reunion: Returning to Intimacy,” “New Parent: Returning to Your Bundle of Joy,” “Stress & Anger Management,” and “Returning From Combat/Hazardous Duty.”
Each command chooses the workshops it thinks will help its sailors most. The classes are taught on board the ship while it sails from its last port to San Diego. Some command posts make certain classes mandatory; others merely recommend classes.
And not only are special workshops available to Family Readiness Groups, or families awaiting the arrival of a service member, an abundance of comic and activity books, DVDs, pamphlets, and brochures are available to help toddlers, teens, spouses, and other family members cope with the stresses of deployment and homecoming.