WHEN WE MOVED LAST* year from Washington, DC, to Anacortes, I spent the first few months cataloging all that was missing from our new home. My parents were gone from our day-to-day lives; back East, in our cozy suburb, they had lived just a few houses away. We missed our community of friends and the proximity to museums and other cultural riches of the city.
But of everything in Anacortes that wasn’t there, one absence in particular stood out.
They were gone.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. We moved to Anacortes because my husband Scott, an active-duty U.S. Navy EA-6B Prowler pilot, transferred from the Pentagon to Naval Air Station Whidbey Island. The town of 16,600 has a significant population of service members whose tours are marked by frequent absences leading to at least one six- to nine-month deployment overseas. Because of a new policy of sending individual Naval personnel to Iraq and Afghanistan on year-long assignments to supplement the ranks of the other services—and an aggressive wartime deployment schedule—many of the Whidbey squadrons are away from home.
It took me a while to get used to being a military wife, learning the alien lingo and culture and rhythms of Planet Navy, but the real challenge began when Scott’s aircraft carrier set off for seven months in the Persian Gulf. I had to learn how to be a married-but-single mother of two kids struggling to make sense of their father’s long absence.
Most of the women I’ve become friendly with are also married to military men shipped overseas for over half a year at a time. Together we take our kids to the library and out to dinner so our own families don’t seem so small. In summer we fill weekends with picnics at the beach and in winter we trek to nearby children’s museums. Year-round we hike the lush, kid-friendly trails that crisscross Anacortes’s forest lands. We are single mothers, Navy-style.
I say “we,” though I resisted the sisterhood of single motherhood for much of my first year here, when Scott was gone every other month as part of his squadron’s preparation for deployment. Despite an avalanche of evidence to the contrary, I was convinced that our family was doing fine. I had my husband’s love and support even though he was far away for long periods of time, so using the term “single mother” to refer to myself, even in jest, felt like a betrayal of all the real single mothers who weren’t counting down the months until their husbands return: divorced women, those whose husbands had vanished in the night, widows with grieving children. Many of the nonmilitary men in Anacortes make their living on the water—salmon fishing in Alaska all summer and crabbing on Puget Sound throughout fall and winter—and I feel nothing but sympathy for the wives left behind.
For myself, though, I resisted the vulnerability telegraphed by the phrase “left behind.” I continually reminded myself that countless women, especially the military wives that came before me, have carried on brilliantly in much harsher circumstances.
So I tried not to complain either—not about our move, not about the family and friends I missed terribly, not about raising two children on my own. I told myself everything was fine.
My self-deception weaved a comfortable web for our entire first year here. Midway through one of Scott’s absences last summer, during a visit from my brother Joshua, it unraveled. Sometime that week—perhaps it was the presence of another man in the house—Ethan had started to realize that Daddy was gone. Gone a long time. Gone forever, probably, in his mind. He started calling my brother “Daddy” in an absentminded, reflexive way, and Joshua kept correcting him. We always reminded him that Scott was coming back, and how much his father loved him.
But Ethan was sad. And mad. Temper tantrum piled upon temper tantrum. Ridiculous requests were followed by vicious anger, topped by howling desolation.
To comfort him one night, my brother and I took him to Village Pizza, his favorite dive. But the greasy slice reminded him of his aborted romance with Dad, and the screaming began. I walked him out to our minivan as he hollered his opposition. I sat him inside. With the door still open I stood on the sidewalk beside him and talked as he screamed. When he finally calmed down, we walked hand in hand back to the restaurant and sat down for a bite.
As I was chewing, I looked up to see a woman standing at the head of our table. She was probably in her late 50s and she wore her hair in a loose, low ponytail. She held a book in front of her.
"I’ve been reading this book," the stranger said, "and I want you to know you’re doing everything right." The book was a dog-training manual. I did a two-second assessment. She didn’t look crazy.
“I just wanted to tell you that I was listening to everything you said outside,” she explained. She was quivery, clearly exerting a tremendous force of will to overcome her shyness. “I’ve been reading this book”—she thrust it out again—“and I want you to know you’re doing everything right.”
The book was The Loved Dog: The Playful, Nonaggressive Way to Teach your Dog Good Behavior. A dog-training manual.
I did a two-second assessment: She didn’t look crazy.
“You’re doing everything right,” she repeated.
I crumpled and began to sob.
She moved toward me, but in my peripheral vision I saw Joshua jump out of his seat and usher her away. When I looked up again, she was standing in the doorway of the restaurant, waving the book in the air, yelling, “You’re doing everything right! You’re doing everything right!” Then she disappeared onto the sidewalk.
I choked out a few more tears, wiped my face with the coarsest of paper napkins, and asked Joshua what he’d said to her.
“I said, ‘You’re going now,’” he answered.
I stared. Such harsh words and behavior were totally out of character for my gentle brother, and it became clear that he was trying to protect me. But I was worried about something else. Anacortes is a small town, and I knew I would run into the woman at the post office or at a coffee shop. I didn’t want to pretend I didn’t know her or cross the street. She had tried to do a good deed. She was trying to be kind.
I went outside and saw that she hadn’t wandered far. She was peering into the window of a store a block away, clutching a wadded-up tissue in her hand.
“I’m so sorry,” I said as I approached her. “You were so nice to reach out.” She held up the book again. That damn book! The dogginess of it all kept intruding on our moment.
“You were kind, you were not threatening, you didn’t intimidate,” she said. “You did everything the book says you should do.”
She gave me a hug. She smelled like a mom, like clean, generic drugstore shampoo. She held me like a mom too. “Your brother told me your husband is away,” she said. “I was a single mom too, for my son’s whole life. He’s 33. He’s a hurricane hunter down south. It kills me to think about it.”
I didn’t know anything about hurricane hunting, except for the obvious. “It must be very dangerous work,” I said.
“It is,” she replied. “I worry about him all the time. It’s just him and me. That’s how it’s always been. Him and me. It was hard, but we did it. And he turned out great.”
That was when I saw it: We weren’t doing great. And the effort to convince myself otherwise was going to prevent us from doing any better. The woman with the dog book saw the signs; she read my life as if it were a rune. As a civilian with no stake in keeping up appearances for the Navy, she didn’t need to pretend her struggle to raise a child alone wasn’t agonizing. She’d been there, she’d done it, and her only interest had been in surviving. On that basis she adopted me into the sisterhood of single mothers everywhere, military and civilian, on principle and in solidarity.
I don’t agree with her belief that I’m doing everything right. Most days I’m convinced I’m doing everything wrong. But as the months of my husband’s deployment roll on, the kids’ lives, and mine, march forward with the same sense of purpose that characterizes our hikes through Anacortes’s forests. And now, when I cross paths with another mother shepherding her kids along the damp, fragrant trails, I greet her with a knowing smile. Sometimes we even walk together a bit.