#1 Taking Command
I recently hit a milestone in my military career- another year anniversary. I started reminiscing about some of the most cherished moment thus far, and even though I didn’t have children until almost a decade after joining the military, my mind immediately went to the first major event in the military after I had my daughter: the day I took command. My daughter was only 8 weeks old at the time and looking back at that moment brings back so much emotion. Ten years ago if someone would have predicted I would be in the military for as long as I have been, I would have thought the comment outrageous. I also have to admit, I never imagined having children while serving in the military. I still remember how a few days prior to taking command I went through a rollercoaster ride of emotions and confusion.
Women who serve in the military are afforded only 6 weeks of maternity leave, thus my daughter was enrolled and began daycare at 6 weeks old. And even though the daycare center on base was just across the street from my office, I cried in my car every day for more than a month after dropping off my precious infant. Knowing that no one will ever look after my child as well as a I would, launched a whirlwind of grief and sadness inside my soul. During this time my newborn daughter was in and out of the hospital because she refused to eat due to a severe case of acid reflux. As a new mother, I was exhausted from sleepless nights dealing with a colicky child, and to add to the madness, my husband was preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan. A week prior to taking command it all came to a head as I began doubting myself, questioning my priorities and even my capabilities. This was the first time in my career that the military and the mission were no longer my priority, and frankly I had no idea how to deal with it. I didn’t want to sacrifice my career but I didn’t know how I would cope with the competing demands of my newborn.
So on one nervous day in September, I collected the necessary documents and bravely walked into my Brigade Commander’s office to resign my commission. I explained to him that I was torn between the decision to care for my daughter and family and the demands of my career, specifically the burdens of a command. I expressed that I thought the soldiers deserved a commander that would be more focused on the mission and not so much on the homefront. I asked him to support my resignation and expressed that I did not think I was fit to take command, as I couldn’t make the company a priority over my daughter. I explained to him that just that morning I was late to his formation because on my drive into work my daughter began to cry for a bottle, and given that we were struggling to get her to eat, I pulled over and fed her but was late to formation as a result. I expected this new brigade commander, with whom I had only worked with a few weeks, to concur and sign my resignation. I would have never guessed that he would respond the way he did. His answer to what I thought was a compelling argument to leave the military was the most surprising thing that I had heard up to this point in my career. He said that my daughter and family should be my priority; pulling over and feeding my child was the right thing to do. He said he wanted to support me in my command and in being a new mother and that he felt that I was more than capable of balancing both requirements. He assured me with a little time I would get into a rhythm and things will work out. He guaranteed me I had his complete support. He cautioned me about making choices that would set precedence for my daughter’s future and he encouraged me to be an example that she would consider when she makes her life choices about career and family. I was shocked and for once speechless. This commander’s support for me and my family made me want to work harder and ensure the mission was accomplished.
Knowing that I had my boss’ support to not sacrifice my daughter’s needs for the company’s needs, I implemented some very unconventional command practices. I put a baby swing in my office, and utilized it when my daughter was ill and could not be at daycare (which would normally have required me to take the day off of work). She would swing next to me, sitting through training meetings, maintenance meetings, and Tuesday night court. There were baby bottles and sippy cups in the company refrigerator and a box of toys in the entranceway. When we had company maintenance issues that had to be resolved after normal work hours, I would pick her up from daycare at the end of the day and she would accompany me to the motorpool and play in her stroller. During my 18 months as a commander my daughter became well known at the military police station, as she accompanied me on numerous trips to recover soldiers in trouble. My battery of soldiers watched her grow up from a little infant to a 2 years old toddler. My having such a young child also forced me to rely on the kindness and advice of the ladies in my Family Readiness Group. I referred to them as my FRG Angels, as they were always ready to assist in any task no matter the sacrifice. They were always welcomed to the orderly room with their own children to talk about a new initiative to support soldiers, their children playing with the same toys my daughter kept busy with. Halfway through my command I gained a young sergeant who was a single mother with several children one of which was an infant. I followed in my commander’s footsteps and bestowed the same opportunities and understanding that were offered to me. The result: an extremely dedicated woman ready to support in any mission and a ridiculously organized orderly room that was tightly ran.
Being a new mother changed me as a leader. In a prior life as a woman with no children this is how I would have responded to a Soldier’s request such as this (ladies, I’m sorry to report that unfortunately most leaders with no children think along the same lines):
Soldier: Ma’am, I need to come into the office late because my daughter has a doctor’s appointment.
Me in a prior life: Why can’t your wife just deal with it?
Soldier: She would like me there.
Me in a prior life: Well I need you here, tell her to figure it out!
So…there I was at my daughter’s first well-baby appointment from hell. I was alone, trying to fill out what seemed like dozens of pages of paperwork about bowel movements and medical history (how can an 8 week old baby have a medical history?!?) All this as I was simultaneously cleaning up spit, removing my daughter’s clothes and trying to keep her warm. She’s crying, I’m trying to listen for my number, and she is screaming for a bottle but the doctors want her in a dry diaper. I’m trying to keep my cool, wiping off the vomit and the lovely aroma it left behind off my uniform. At the end of that appointment as I was seriously considering crawling into the fetal position and calling out for my mommy, I thought…ok Karma, you’ve made your point…I hear you loud and clear!!!
I don’t know if taking command shortly after having my first child and deciding to remain in the military was the best decision. I don’t even know that continuing to serve after my second child was any better of a decision, but I do know that being a parent and enduring the challenges of motherhood has made me a more understanding and compassionate leader and has forced me to think of unconventional solutions to many military problems.