By Danielle DeSimone
Liz Stone was new to married life and military life when she arrived in Grafenwoehr, Germany, her first duty station overseas as a military spouse.
Packing up her family’s belongings, traveling for days and landing in an unknown country were all new experiences for Stone, who had lived in the same Virginia city almost her entire life prior to the move.
As if all this change wasn’t already enough for Stone, there was one other major life change she and her husband were expecting in just a few months: the birth of their first child. When in a foreign country, far from everything familiar, the prospect of having a child overseas can be overwhelming for some military spouses.
“It was just a really eye-opening experience,” Stone said.
But luckily, Stone, who was four months pregnant at the time, had her local military community to lean back on, including the USO, which was there every step of the way.
The Challenges of Pregnancy in the Military
“Pregnancy overseas [and in the military] is really hard,” Stone said, who delivered both of her children overseas.
Many military spouses like Stone face the difficulties of being a military spouse – and a pregnant woman – in another country, stationed on a military base. These spouses are far from their traditional support networks of friends and family who would have otherwise supported them throughout their pregnancy.
“[Grafenwoehr is] out in the middle of nowhere, so you don’t have that support system. You have a lot of young people over there and it’s their first time being away from their family, it’s their first pregnancy,” Stone said. “Their husband is gone a lot because there’s a lot of training that happens over there, and so they’re feeling isolated and alone.”
Many of the same challenges that faced Stone during her two pregnancies in Germany also face pregnant military spouses and pregnant service members who are stationed stateside as well, as they are often stationed across the country, away from their loved ones. Because of this geographical separation, traditional celebrations such as baby showers often fall by the wayside for many expecting military mothers, with too many miles separating them from their family and friends.
Instead, expecting military moms often turn to each other for support and to share in the joyous moments of their pregnancies.
“I think that military spouses make their own family,” Stone said. “We were fortunate enough to have such a great military community [in Germany], but it’s not the same as having your family there.”
A unique challenge for military spouses stationed abroad while pregnant is adjusting to life in their host country. Stone noted that there were also quite a few cultural differences between the U.S. and Germany in their respective approaches toward pregnancy and birth. For example, in Germany, there is sometimes no air conditioning in the hospital, mothers often share hospital rooms with other mothers and husbands are not allowed to stay overnight in the hospital with mom and baby.
For expecting military spouses in Grafenwoehr, Germany, this is especially important to prepare for, as they must deliver their babies off-base at the local German hospital. Given these cultural differences, coupled with the fact that they are isolated from their loved ones back home, many pregnant military spouses find being stationed abroad especially challenging.
Those stationed stateside can also struggle with the realities of being pregnant while navigating military life, particularly now as the COVID-19 pandemic makes it even more difficult to build an in-person network of support in a time when social distancing is the norm.
But for all of these expecting military mothers, stateside or abroad, there is always a welcoming community waiting to support them through the USO Special Delivery program.
How USO Special Delivery Supports Expecting Military Parents
USO Special Delivery presented by Johnson & Johnson is a program designed specifically for expecting parents, whether they are military spouses or service members themselves. The program delivers baby showers to military communities all around the globe.
The baby showers include games, local guest speakers and drawings for “big ticket” baby shower gifts, like strollers or a pack-and-play. These moments in the shower help provide a touch of home and normalcy for moms-to-be who are often separated from their families, friends and traditional support networks during their pregnancies. With baby showers geared toward moms or dads-to-be, these military parents also have the opportunity to chat with one another, sharing tips and insights into their own pregnancies with others who will understand exactly what they’re going through.
Johnson & Johnson, the USO’s Official Healthcare Partner and the presenting sponsor of USO Special Delivery, also donates baby products for the program, which are included in a gift bag for each participant, emphasizing the importance of setting the stage for healthier military families from the very beginning.
Stone, who went on to both work and volunteer for the USO for several years, notes that the USO Special Delivery program holds a special place in her heart. After all, she participated in the program herself as a mom-to-be and she even co-hosted a baby shower alongside Heidi Murkoff, the best-selling author of the “What to Expect” book series.
“It’s really cool … that the USO is able to bring some love, in a sense, to those mamas and give them that support,” Stone said.
For nearly 10 years, USO Special Delivery has reached military mothers, fathers and babies stationed all around the world, from Japan and Spain to California and Kentucky, and everywhere in between. Normally, these USO Special Delivery events are hosted in-person on or near military installations, but in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything. Due to health and safety regulations, USO Special Delivery baby showers went virtual, but this actually expanded the program’s reach even further.
Now, thanks to its virtual format, USO Special Delivery is able to reach remote military communities located far from a USO center where a traditional, in-person baby shower might not be possible.
Adapting USO Special Delivery to the COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020
Since going virtual, USO Special Delivery has delivered a total of 36 baby showers to moms-to-be around the world, reaching more than 1,000 military spouses and service members digitally.
Despite being a virtual event, the support and heart behind these baby showers is still the same.
Expecting mothers meet on live video chats and are mailed gift bags directly to their homes, so that there is still a physical element of the baby showers that they can engage with. Within the virtual USO Special Delivery events, participants go into breakout video chat rooms, or “tables,” for brief periods, much like participants would have otherwise chatted with those at their physical tables at an in-person event. At these tables, they get to speak with a smaller group of spouses or expectant service members who are located in the same region, or in some cases, in the same units. That way, they can get to know others who they could potentially meet in-person, from a safe social distance.
In these breakout groups, new and expectant moms are also able to ask questions to both one another and the guest speakers, turning to the group for support.
“You see that relief wash over them when that answer comes and they realized it’s going to be okay,” Stone said. “So that connectivity is still happening, even though you’re not [physically] in the same room.”
“The entire point of the program has always been to celebrate this milestone in people’s lives, but also to help them connect with their community,” said USO Programs Manager Jessica Robertson. “The main goal of these showers is to connect people and to strengthen their relationships within their military community.”
On one occasion, a military spouse dialed into a USO Special Delivery baby shower from the hospital, just two days after giving birth. She was still recovering in the hospital, but she was alone, as her husband could not be with her due to COVID-19 – and so she was able to reach out to her fellow moms and moms-to-be through her screen, still connected to those around her through the program.
That connectivity is important. Whether these baby showers are hosted in-person or virtually, the true benefit of USO Special Delivery is that it helps build a community, providing military spouses and service members with the chance to meet one another and find comfort in the fact that they are not alone on this journey. Having that support and community to lean on can make all the difference in a mom-to-be’s pregnancy experience.
“I’m just truly grateful to USO … for putting this together and taking it on the road all over the world,” Stone said. “I think it makes such a huge impact on moms. It’s made a huge impact on my life, and I’m an older mom, so I know how much those brand new, younger moms appreciate it.”
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