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Parenting Is the Ultimate Leadership Challenge

What I learned as a soldier mom

I waved goodbye to my son, Isaac, as I stood in the airport security line fighting the inevitable. He was exactly five months old that day, and I didn't want him to see me cry. I thought that if I cried, he might too. The elderly lady behind me in line was observing the goodbyes and my fight against the tears. She tried to say something comforting, but her words had no effect.

I made it through security before the emotions overwhelmed me. My husband held me close as we sat waiting for our flight back home to Fort Drum, NY. In a week, we would be deploying with the Army's 10th Mountain Division to Iraq. Our son would be staying with his grandparents for about 15 months.

Our Experience

For 15 months, I watched my son grow up through pictures. His grandmother was faithful in sending them frequently. When we could call, she let him listen to us on the phone, and eventually he talked to us too. Every day she showed him a picture of us and told him that we were his mommy and daddy, and that we were coming back for him one day. Somehow, even though we weren't there, his first word was "dada."

Like his first word, we missed a lot of things: crawling, learning to walk, the transition from bottles to table food, and so many other things. Isaac spent his first Christmas and first Thanksgiving without us, but by the grace of God, we were blessed to be able to visit for his first birthday during our two weeks of R&R (rest and relaxation).

When we finally returned home from the deployment, we felt out of place. People mentioned news stories, movies, TV shows, and books that we had never heard of before, and the radio was full of unfamiliar songs. Isaac felt unfamiliar too. He was 20 months old and he had changed from a cooing, squirming infant into a running, talking toddler. Grandma told lots of stories about him that we had never heard before either. Those first few months seemed like a constant revelation of things we had missed. When we reflect back, we often feel like those months are missing from our life, like a photo album that lost a few pages or a movie with an important scene cut out. It's an odd sensation because we can remember all of our deployment experiences so well, but the rest of life moved on without us.

We were worried about our transition back to normal family life. We knew that Isaac would miss his grandparents after living with them for so long. We were also worried about all the other changes: a new house, a new daycare, new friends, and a new church. Most important, he would have to adjust to our parenting style and rules. One of God's blessings was that he adjusted far better than we could have imagined. We had to be patient and ease him into things, but he was a happy-go-lucky child who was mostly unaffected by the wholesale changes in his life. We dealt with some separation anxiety and a few behavior adjustments in daycare, but on the whole things went smoothly.

Today, Isaac doesn't even remember when we were in the Army or that he lived with his grandparents for over a year. He has seen the pictures and heard the stories, but he has no personal memories of it. We are proud that we served our country and we don't regret it at all, but we are also happy now to be able to spend more time as a family.

Parenting in the Military

Unfortunately, life in the military is rarely stable. There are local weeklong training exercises, month-long training exercises at national training centers, required schools, temporary duties, deployments, and all sorts of other things that can disrupt the stability of a family. And these things can be changed, cancelled, or added on short notice. Also, service members are on call 24 hours a day. In addition to all that, the average Army soldier is moved to a new base every three years. Ultimately, those conditions are why we decided to leave the military at the end of our contract. It's hard to be a fully dedicated soldier and a fully dedicated parent at the same time.

But the reality of parenting in the military wasn't all bad. In fact, many lessons we learned about leadership in the military are quite useful in parenting as well. These are just a few of the military lessons that prepared us for parental leadership:

• In the military, we always referred to standard operating procedures (SOPs) for instructions on how to do things and to operations orders for guidance on upcoming tasks and missions. As parents, we always refer to God's SOP, the Bible, for instructions, and we receive his operations orders through prayer.

• Soldiers learn how to operate well and make decisions with little or no sleep. Every parent knows how handy that skill is.

• Soldiers resent leaders who "flaunt their authority over those under them" (Matthew 20:25). This leadership style is never effective and sometimes leads to rebellion. Soldiers work better when authority is wielded fairly. Kids do too.

• The military taught us that setting the example is the best way to lead. This is just as true with kids. Any parent whose child has repeated an embarrassing joke or who has heard "but mommy does that all the time!" can relate.

• As officers, we were held accountable for the success or failure of our soldiers, and we had to hold our soldiers accountable for their actions. Children also need accountability. It might be just in making their beds or in doing chores, but they need to begin learning responsibility from a young age.

• Military leaders plan everything, and they are quite adept at it. We always have a plan and a backup plan for every mission or operation. If you've ever gone grocery shopping or taken a road trip with young kids in tow, you know just how important planning is for parents too.

• Just as important as planning is being able to adjust when the plan fails. The Army requires a lot of that flexibility: in your schedule, where you live, and in your job or what tasks you do. Soldiers call it "adjusting fire." Parents have to adjust fire a lot; you just never know what is going to happen.

Lessons Learned

When we left the Army, one of our reasons was that we wanted to take greater care of our son. If we had stayed in the military, we would have moved frequently, continued to deploy, and been separated many more times. In fact, the two years after our deployment would have required us to separate for at least eight months, move twice, and deploy again. There was no doubt in our minds that by staying in the Army we would be prioritizing our careers over our son. We learned that we could not "serve two masters" (Matthew 6:24).We chose instead to be fully dedicated to training and caring for our son. Our choice and our circumstances are not the same as everyone else's; there are plenty of families with soldiers who continue to serve their country despite the challenges. They are wonderful soldiers, leaders, and parents. For us, the timing was simply right for moving on.

We also learned that parenting is the ultimate leadership challenge. And our years of military leadership training and experience prepared us in many ways. The Army entrusted soldiers to us and we were expected to teach them, train them, build them up, hold them accountable, and care for them. That isn't much different from what God expects of us as parents. The Bible tells us that "when someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required" (Luke 12:48). Spider-Man's Uncle Ben may have said it more succinctly: "With great power comes great responsibility." God has entrusted us with the training and care of his children. And he expects a lot from us. Namely, he expects us to use our power as parents in a responsible and God-honoring way. In the end, there is one meaningful difference in military leadership and parental leadership. Military leaders prepare their soldiers for a physical fight. Parents prepare their children for a spiritual fight. We may go about leading them in similar ways, but parental leadership has eternal outcomes.

DeAnna Acker is a wife, a mother, and a freelance writer. She graduated from West Point in 2005 with her future husband, Daryl, and they served in the U.S. Army for five years together. They were deployed to Iraq from 2007 to 2008. They currently live in Tennessee with their son, Isaac, who is now 6 years old.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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