With Valentine’s Day upon us, I can’t help but reflect on how my husband and I have managed to spend so much time apart, yet remain so strong together. In our 12 years as a couple, this year will only be the 5th time we are together for Valentine’s Day – if just barely, since my husband leaves for a weekend trip on the 15th. One year, my husband actually left for a 4-month deployment ON Valentine’s Day!

Being a military family unfortunately means spending a lot of time apart. It can be lonely and frustrating. Evenings are too quiet and the bed that always seemed a bit small (especially when kids crawled in) is now too big, and I find myself hoping to hear that little pitter patter of someone also craving company. The heater/washing machine/fill-in-the-blank always seems to break the minute he leaves. Holidays are lacking their magic. But it can also be a time of personal growth and introspection. Multiple deployments and underways taught me how strong I really am, for myself and for my children, but also that it’s okay to ask for and accept help. They’ve allowed me to remember that my husband is my partner and best friend, and helped keep the little things (like not replacing the darn toilet paper roll) in perspective.

Back in 2009, my husband left the day before Thanksgiving for a year-long GSA to Iraq. (What IS it with the military and coming or going on holidays?!?) We had been married for 4 years, had a 16 month old son, and I was 3 months pregnant. As we were “in between” duty stations, I had the choice to stay in Pennsylvania or move somewhere else. I decided to ask my in-laws in Chicago if we could live with them; a choice that seemed strange to some, and definitely hurt the feelings of my own mother, who lived about 45 minutes away from their house. But while I was certainly seeking help and company, the decision was actually much deeper than that. I wanted a positive male presence for my son as he grew into a toddler. I didn’t want to scramble for childcare if I had a problem with the pregnancy, or be alone in the hospital if I delivered before my husband’s R&R. But most of all, I wanted a connection to my husband while he was away. A place where his pictures were on the wall, I could hear his childhood stories, and we could be part of a family who loved and missed him, too.

I wanted something tangible to help us count the days, so we made a “Daddy Chain”. It was something I would be able to depend on everyday, since email, Skype, and even phone calls can be spotty out there. I wanted a guaranteed daily link to my husband, and one my toddler could understand. Not knowing exactly how many days he would be gone, we counted up instead of down. I bought a pack of colored cardstock and cut 13 months’ worth of one-inch strips, a different color scheme for each month. Every evening, I sat down and wrote a sentence or two about what made us think of him that day. Milestone moments in our lives like birthdays and firsts, but also little things like a new TV show I thought he’d love (Modern Family), how I missed his foot rubs (especially while pregnant!), and how it felt passing up “his” items in the grocery store (shaving gel, peanut butter). I started in one corner of my bedroom and hung it in swags by month along the wall, all around the room as it got longer. As my son got older, I included him by asking him what he would like to tell Daddy. His contributions were mostly food and potty related.

As the chain grew longer, it actually became a great comfort. Advice to take the year “one day at a time” was vastly more helpful when I did it literally! Seeing each month hung ‘separately’ helped as a visual break up of time. But it was nice to lie in bed at night, looking at how much time had passed, remembering moments that made the chain, and seeing how far we’d come. My son connected to his dad everyday, even if he couldn’t see him or hear his voice. I believe the consistent (not constant) conversations about Daddy helped at the midway point and the end, when our son ran up to my husband at the airport like he’d never left. My husband could see the chain in the background when we Skyped, talked to our son about it, and looked forward to reading all the links when he returned. And as many of you know, going to work or chasing kids around all day doesn’t afford many moments for self-pity, but it was helpful to have a set “time” each day to process my own emotions and just be sad or quiet for a minute. It was easy to get lost in the idea that one half of our parenting team was missing, but the Daddy Chain gave me an opportunity to really focus on us as a couple.

Now the chain is unlinked and rubber-banded together. A total of 366 days of our lives bundled up and packed in a box with other treasured objects. It remains a symbol of our commitment to each other, our marriage, our kids, and our country. That chain helped keep our family as whole as possible, and in turn served to strengthen our bond instead of letting distance erode it. We’re grateful to spend this Valentine’s Day together, catching up on our DVR with some wine and store-bought cupcakes, but still thinking of dear friends spending it apart.

Lydia DiCola Call Dibs Ambassador DC

Lydia DiCola
Call Dibs Ambassador DC

Written By: Lydia
Lydia is our Call Dibs DC Ambassador, full time mom of three and Navy Wife of eight years. Lydia married her high school sweetheart, and has been stationed with her family at Gulfport, MS; Corpus Christi, TX; Mechanicsburg, PA; Iraq/Illinois (GSA); Monterey, CA; Washington, DC. She has a background in Elementary Education and additional certifications in 8-12 English and Physical Education. Lydia enjoys theme parties, cardigan sweaters, coffee, wine, Jane Austen novels, colored office supplies, and Friends trivia.