What is motherhood like in the military? For me, lonely. I feel my husband John’s absence as acutely in our daily routines as in special events—at dinnertime, on the first day of school, and at our children’s birthday parties, when I am their only parent.
One military spouse, as we are known, had to leave her son with a military neighbor she barely knew so that she could drive herself to the hospital to give birth, because her husband had just left for a training exercise. “We all need to feel like we belong and are connected to others, and I struggle with loneliness and detachment in this lifestyle,” says Meghan Moretti, a mother of three, whose husband has served for 17 years. “I know my children do too—they just may not know how to express it in words. My job is to be their constant, keeping them connected to their friends and family regardless of geographic location, so they know they are loved and cared for.”
As a mother of two children myself, I can relate with Moretti’s mission. I live with the threat of my husband’s injury or death and lingering worry about how that would affect my children and me. John was shot in 2007 during the “surge,” when deployments lasted 15 months. It was not until recently that the children were old enough to notice the scar on his right shoulder. “Will Daddy get shot by a sniper again?” my youngest asked.
In my answer, I tried to protect them while being honest about the impact of war, but I can’t help wondering about the second-hand and intergenerational traumas they may inherit. “Daddy is safe at home now,” I simply told her.
I was not a part of the military community during the "surge," but I’ve heard conversations about it when John, his battle buddies, and their spouses would reunite. I have quietly shed tears as I listened to their stories.
Jennifer Herbek is one of the spouses who lived through that time. “We all grew up fast, courtesy of war,” she recently told me. “Mike and I were newlyweds contemplating the possibility of death before his first deployment. It’s such a strange place to be and to maintain hope for the future.”
“That’s when Ethan was born,” Herbek continued. “I sat in so many memorial services that year and cried for the woman sitting in the front row, and also was thankful it wasn’t me.”
I arrived at Fort Irwin, California, in 2013 without knowing much about military life. I started making pictures in order to engage with and learn more about this community. I soon fell into a familiar rhythm of packing and unpacking as we moved from California to Kansas to New Jersey to Georgia. My children were born in between moves and deployments. All along, I have documented this life, sometimes with a baby on my back, and at one point, I realized I was no longer an outsider. (More women than ever are fighting on today's battlefields.)
When John’s unit in Fort Stewart, Georgia, deployed, I decided that my children and I would stay with my mother in New Jersey during this time. In preparation for the move, each night I packed part of the house in silence after the children were asleep. When the movers arrived to take everything to the storage unit, there were still things left unpacked, so I started frantically shoving them into suitcases and boxes. At one point, I realized I had packed all my clothes and didn’t have anything to change into except for a dress. I put it on.
My anxiety and stress rose as I tried to finish packing and cleaning, with the kids running around and needing something every few minutes. The property manager came by to do the final inspection and made a list of everything we needed to repair in the house, as neighbors helped carry out everything I could not fit in my car. I knocked over my favorite plant in the car—another mess to clean up. Back inside the house, I looked in the closet. John’s firearms were lined up in cases against the wall. I had to move them to the storage unit myself because movers are not allowed to handle them. Walking from the car to the storage unit, the guns and this entire move weighing me down, I heard a clap of thunder. Cold, alone, in an impractical dress, getting rain-soaked outside a storage unit in Georgia, I looked up at the sky and thought, What am I doing? (Old-fashioned images evoke the complicated history of Black military service.)
When I finally loaded the children and our belongings into a packed car for the trip to my mother’s house, it felt good to drive away from this loneliness toward my family in New Jersey. That evening, we stopped in North Carolina to visit old neighbors from Fort Leavenworth. When we pulled into the driveway, they ran out and embraced us. Our children played together again. They fed us. I showered. We laughed over drinks.
That night I fell into a deep sleep in a clean, soft, warm bed. This too is military life: a community that is nowhere and everywhere, that catches you when you feel like you are falling. The next morning, I packed the car again and we said goodbye to our friends. In the rearview mirror my gaze met two pairs of toddler eyes. At that moment, I realized we were in this together. And I needed them as much as they needed me.