Combat Boots to Keds

Combat Boots to Keds

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

Combat Boots to Keds

When you least expect it, someone may actually listen to what you have to say.

Maggie Kuhn

This is the story of my almost guilt-free transformation to professional mom.

In 1997, I moved from Andrews Air Force Base to the home my husband and I owned near Pope Air Force Base. My husband had been living there for months, and we were relieved that the long weekend commutes to see each other were finally over.

Shortly after getting settled, I was chatting on the porch with a neighbor. “Oh, you’re definitely a candidate for postpartum depression,” she said. “I had it for a whole year after my first kid was born. If you end up crying all day, go see a doctor.” Ignoring hormonal factors, her prediction was based solely on the fact that I was “making too many changes.” Moving, giving up my military career, having a baby: by her calculations, it all added up to doom.

But I was excited about my new life. Finally living with my husband and pregnant with our first child—I had long looked forward to this. I was proud to have served my country, but, truth be told, I’d lost my enthusiasm for my job. So, while I respected my active-duty-mom friends, I harbored few doubts about my decision to resign. Besides, I assured myself, I wasn’t giving up on having a profession; this was simply a career change. I’d teach at a local college—part-time at first—and increase my hours as the baby became more independent. It was a perfect arrangement.

I was right, in part. I didn’t suffer a bit of depression after the baby was born. I relished every minute with him. In fact, my biggest struggle was leaving him even for a few hours with a trusted neighbor. While I enjoyed teaching, I loved being home even more. Gradually, I cut back my hours until I’d given up teaching entirely.

Still, I struggled with guilt. Despite my husband’s support and assurances that his paycheck alone was sufficient, I wanted to contribute. So, on to Plan B: join the ranks of military wives with successful home businesses. I sold children’s books; I sold educational toys; I sold scrapbooking supplies. With each venture, my product discount was more than I could resist. I was my own best customer. Eventually, I had to accept that my business losses were excessive and that, as a salesperson, I stunk.

By the time our daughter was born in 2000, I was halfheartedly pondering a Plan C. Finally, I relented. My career would be on hold until the children were older. The most compelling vindication for this new plan came to me as I sat at our kitchen table completing a life-insurance application. What would it cost to replace me? Never before had I tried to equate my role at home with a monetary value. Enumerating my many and varied duties was indeed a sobering exercise. In fact, I concluded that I couldn’t be replaced by a single hired hand. On a piece of scratch paper, I thoughtfully assembled and priced out my team of professional replacements: a caregiver who could work lots and lots of overtime, a cook, a tutor, a housekeeper, a driver, a secretary, a gardener, a bookkeeper . . . Soon, I felt like Wonder Mom, a wonderfully underpaid Wonder Mom. And I prayed that my family would never need that insurance.

Then, picking up my son at preschool one day, I noticed he was more animated than usual. “Mom!” he exclaimed breathlessly. “Kate’s mother was in the army!”

In fact, I knew that Kate’s mom had been in the service. So had Nicolas’s mom, a former helicopter pilot; and Eugenie’s mom, a former army surgeon; and Olivia’s mom, a former army nurse. At preschool, I’ve also met civilian moms who’ve given up or scaled back their careers—an accountant, a teacher, a speech pathologist. There are also working moms, incredibly talented women who somehow manage that seemingly impossible balance between family and career. And, of course, there are those fortunate ones who’ve always known that being a mom was all they really wanted.

Kate’s mom had been invited to school to talk about being a jumpmaster. She’d shown the kids a video of herself and others parachuting from a plane. Then, she arranged the chairs in the classroom to represent a miniature version of the inside of a C-130, and the kids pretended to jump as she called the commands. My son was starstruck!

Then it dawned on me—my own kids didn’t even know that I had a life before they did. I’d been an air force personnel officer and an army intelligence analyst. Yikes! Suddenly, nine years of dedicated service in the world’s greatest military seemed like pretty ho-hum stuff. No doubt, my preschooler would rate my story as comparatively lacking in hooah. But he should know the truth: His mother had never felt compelled to jump out of a plane— for fun or any other reason.

That afternoon, with some trepidation, I dusted off my old scrapbook. The time had come to show my children that their mother (yes, I’m going to say it) wore combat boots. But that scrapbook! To me, it represented a life so distant, it seemed that somebody else had lived it.

As I opened it, I thought of the years I’d spent cultivating a new role for myself: professional mom. Sure, it isn’t for everyone, but for me, the job satisfaction is unbeatable and the benefits too numerous to quantify—and, often, too deeply personal to express. So I don’t try. Let’s just say that I’m grateful to finally have found a job that I love.

Seeing my children’s faces as they gazed over photos of a younger me, wearing a uniform (“Hey, like Dad’s!”) was a revelation. That was me: a “chair-born stranger.” But my kids were impressed . . . and proud. My son said I was cool.

And, at that moment, it was clear to me that my life hadn’t become just a series of interrupted careers. Now, I see a defined route that led me to who I am today. Sure, I’ve made a lot of changes in my life, but with these I’ve gained fascinating experiences and learned invaluable lessons. I have so much to teach my children—about the world, about people, about what’s important in life.

“Did you like being a soldier?” my son wanted to know. It was a test question.

“Yes, but I like being home with you now.”

He looked up at me with a reassuring smile, revealing an understanding that belied his young age.

“I like being home with you, too,” he said. My son has his father’s knack for finding a few simple words that can melt my heart.

The children didn’t dwell on the photos long. As their interest waned, they began turning the pages more quickly. Caring for little ones doesn’t allow much time for personal indulgences, like peaceful recollections of one’s youth. I sat back and watched the remnants of my former life fly by until the book was closed, and my kids proclaimed it lunchtime.

Then I returned my scrapbook to the top of the bookcase where tiny fingers would find it out of reach. Out of sight. Out of mind. Right where it belongs.

Debbie Koharik

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