By Danielle DeSimone
At the end of a long, stressful workday, after a long, stressful week, the first thing you want to do is just … sit down. Breathe. Steady yourself.
But when you’re a military spouse, mother of two children, working a full-time job and solo parenting while your husband is deployed overseas for nine months, there’s rarely any time to steady yourself.
All those things your spouse used to do in partnership with you – picking up the kids from school when your meeting ran late, cooking dinner when you weren’t feeling well – are suddenly gone. You’re on your own, juggling your own feelings about missing your spouse while trying to be there for your children, who also desperately miss their father.
So, when you’re separated by several time zones, thousands of miles and a military deployment, what do you do to stay connected as a family?
For Tessa, her children and her husband, the answer was simple: they turned to the USO, and opened a book.
Life as a Solo Parent During Deployment
Tessa Michaelson Schmidt was born and raised in Minnesota, but then moved to Wisconsin for her undergraduate education and never left. It has been her home – and her family’s home – for many years now.
That is, the family that she has built with her husband Brett, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve. Tessa and Brett have been married for 13 years now, and were together two years before that. But today, they are more than 6,000 miles apart.
Before Brett joined the Army Reserve, Tessa did not have much experience with military life. Although her father and uncle had both served during the Vietnam War, she herself had not grown up in an active-duty household, and her family rarely talked about their time in service. So, when she and Brett first started dating, Tessa began to learn about an all-new lifestyle.
“I came to really appreciate the commitment and the service that goes into it,” Tessa said. “I really have appreciated how Brett has managed to have two careers, and that’s something not a lot of people can do.”
Because, as a member of the Army Reserve, Brett must balance both his daily, civilian life – a job at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, two children, his wife Tessa, friends, family – and his military life, which can often require him to leave all of that behind.
“And he is really doing it from a very humble place – it’s all about service and giving back,” Tessa said.
Service and giving back, it seems, is a theme in their household. After all, as a former librarian and in her current role as director of the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Education, Tessa has dedicated her career to supporting children’s literacy. And of course, there is the fact that although they do not wear a uniform, military family members “serve” in their own way too.
“Brett would be the first to say it – if one person is serving in the military, everybody in the family is serving,” Tessa said.
Military spouses and military children must make sacrifices of their own while their military family member is in service, which often includes family separation. This can become especially apparent during deployments, when military family members must struggle to find a new normal when their family member in the military suddenly leaves for nine months to a year.
This is not Brett’s first deployment. He was previously deployed three other times, before their children were born, in addition to being mobilized for a stateside mission during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“When he was mobilized during the pandemic, that was just the extreme of extremes,” Tessa said. “The pandemic was just so hard in general, and then add two small children and working full-time jobs … it was intense. And then he was suddenly not here.”
Tessa explained that when Brett was mobilized and left for Staten Island, New York, to support COVID-19 relief efforts, it was fall of 2020, when vaccines were still not available and the world felt uncertain. When Brett walked out the door, Tessa wasn’t sure when they’d be able to see him next, as traveling to see each other could be a health risk.
“And I thought, if I get sick, what happens? I can’t ask someone to take care of the kids,” Tessa said, highlighting the challenges that many military spouses face when suddenly being required to solo parent while their spouse is deployed – but especially so during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So that just felt really hard and isolating.”
But on the upside, throughout that mobilization, Tessa and her children were not completely disconnected from Brett. He had access to strong Wi-Fi and cell phones while still in the continental United States, through which they were able to regularly speak via video calls. Their time zones were not too far apart. And after a few months, Tessa was able to travel with their children to visit Brett, so that the family could briefly be together again.
But this current deployment is different. Now, Brett is in Kuwait – with an eight-hour time difference, limited and unreliable Wi-Fi on base and the added pressure of being deployed near the front lines.
Tessa and Brett’s children are also now old enough to recognize their father’s absence. And all of this has made this particular deployment far more challenging – especially when trying to explain the distance to their kids.
“They know a year is a long time, but they don’t know. They don’t understand the time difference. They don’t understand a lot of these things. So that is harder,” Tessa said. “They also, for better worse, do understand what this deployment is. And they’re a little older now and they don’t like it.”
Every military child deals with their family member’s deployment in different ways. Tessa’s daughter, for example, is taking this deployment very hard and simply wants her father to return home. Tessa’s son, however, seems to have accepted his father’s absence and has grown used to it.
“Sometimes it feels really sad that he just is used to daddy not being here,” Tessa said.
So, to help bridge the distance, Tessa, Brett and their children turned to what they love: reading.
Connecting During Deployment Through Books and the USO
Reading is a constant in Tessa’s house. All four family members have an incredible passion for reading – from Brett’s love of the New York Times to Tessa previously being named the Wisconsin Librarian of the Year, to their daughter’s love for any book with dragons and their son’s enthusiasm for vehicle-themed books. Literature is a shared love within their family, and a big part of their daily routines.
So when Brett arrived in Kuwait and found out about the USO Reading Program, which he could use at USO Camp Arifjan, the USO Center on base in Kuwait, he was immediately interested.
Through this program, service members can record themselves reading a book to their child; the recording and a copy of the book are then sent to that service member’s family, so that, in a way, they can be present for story time back home.
Tessa was generally familiar with the USO because of USO Airport Centers or USO Entertainment tours, however before this deployment, she had not heard of USO programs such as the USO Reading Program, which are designed specifically to support the people who serve and their family members.
Through the simple act of reading a book, the people who serve can stay connected to their loved ones waiting for them at home. This connection is everything – because service members and their military family members should be able to not just survive, but thrive – and by supporting them through difficult times such as deployments, they can do just that.
“The [USO Reading] Program has helped a lot because they’re hearing his voice,” Tessa said. “And then we get the books in the mail, and they know they’re books from daddy.”
Tessa has set aside a shelf on their bookcase entirely for these books read by Brett.
“My son in particular – our four, almost five, year-old – he knows which books are ‘daddy books,’” Tessa said, recounting how her son will see one of the books in his classroom, or at a bookstore, and will immediately identify it as “a daddy book” – and a reminder of Brett.
Tessa explained that her children will often watch the videos of their father reading books just before going to bed, when she’ll tell them “Daddy is going to read to you.”
But Tessa will also use Brett’s videos whenever she just needs a moment to catch her breath.
Or, as Tessa explained, “Whenever I think, ‘This would be a situation where I need two adults.’”
This can be anything from when the kids are brushing their teeth to when one of them becomes upset and fussy. After all, solo parenting is difficult – especially when you’re used to having your spouse around to step in and pick up the slack, but are suddenly doing it all on your own.
“I’ll just have the videos on [in the background] and they just calm down hearing them,” Tessa said. “They have a real response when they hear his voice, and they love hearing books.”
The children will also turn to these book-reading videos when they’re especially missing their dad.
“But mostly we’re doing it during a time of when we just want daddy’s presence or there’s an opportunity to make sure we’re having some book time with Daddy.”
Their daughter has struggled somewhat to break out into independent reading, but having these books and videos from her dad has inspired her to work harder at her reading.
“She sees us reading, she sees us writing and that books are so important. So, I think that’s just an additional motivator,” Tessa said.
Through it all, Tessa has worked hard to balance both her full-time career and caring for her children, as she has been solo parenting for more than nine months.
The balancing act can be hard. On the outside, friends, family and coworkers might see Tessa handling the deployment with an incredible amount of grace. But, as Tessa pointed out, they’re not always able to see the whole picture of what it’s like to be a military spouse during a deployment and the daily stressors that come with it.
An added challenge is that Brett is a member of the Army Reserve, and because of this, their family is not living within an established, military community, next to a base or installation. Without military neighbors and friends, Tessa is left living military life in a civilian community that is not necessarily equipped to support her, simply because those around her might not fully understand the realities of life as a military spouse.
“I just think a lot of people don’t have a connection to the military,” Tessa explained of the civilians in her community.
She recalled how, when she informed one person of her husband’s deployment, they responded by simply stating that if their employer asked them to move to Kuwait for a year, they would simply quit that job.
“And that’s just not helpful,” Tessa said. “And it just will then feel like … well, are you suggesting my husband doesn’t care about me or our kids because he’s actually willing to go for his job to do this?”
It’s notable that the Blue Star Military Families’ 2023 Military Family Lifestyle Survey found that 67% of active-duty military family members do not feel a sense of belonging to their local, civilian community. This is in part due to the military-civilian divide, in which military spouses such as Tessa struggle to feel understood by those who are not dealing with the daily stressors of military life.
“I think people just sometimes don’t realize how their words come across when they say things, or observations about your family.”
But Tessa credits her ability to push through others’ observations and the stress of deployment to her thick skin and that she takes after her “stoic Norwegian mother.” She also has committed to set routines and systems to help herself and her children navigate these nine months apart from Brett.
“I also just had to let go of any issues of asking for help,” Tessa said.
Although her civilian neighbors and friends might not fully understand what it’s like to be in a military family during a deployment, they are ready and willing to help. And Tessa has learned, as she says, to not be shy about asking for support in anything from moving a heavy piece of furniture to even more recently, when she was home sick and needed help simply picking up her son from daycare.
“We’ve made it work,” Tessa said. “We’ve had some people really step up and I’m really grateful for that.”
The stressors of military life are not limited to the people who serve – life in the military affects all members of a military family. This is especially apparent during deployments, when these families are split apart for months at a time and they must learn to navigate life without one another. For military spouses like Tessa, having programs such as the USO Reading Program can help her and her family stay connected to Brett throughout his deployment, making the distance and time apart just a little less difficult.
On a normal night in their home in Wisconsin, Tessa and Brett would be working as a team to get their daughter and son ready for bed. After all teeth had been brushed, pajamas pulled on and beds tucked in, these two parents would each take turns reading multiple books to their children and softly lull their kids to sleep with the sound of their voices reading each line.
And tonight, thanks to the USO Reading Program, Tessa and Brett are still working as a team. Even with Brett deployed more than 6,000 miles away, Tessa is still reading books to their children with Brett, their voices echoing through the halls of their home in tandem as their kids slowly go to sleep to the sound of their parents and their favorite bedtime stories.
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