Mom's at sea; dad's just swamped

SAN DIEGO -- When Schuyler Boyer wakes up asking for his mommy, his father tries to comfort him.

"Mommy's gone bye-bye on the ship," Dan Boyer tells his son, who will celebrate his second birthday in May. "She's thinking about us, just like we're thinking about her."

Angela Boyer, a hospital corpsman 2nd Class in the Navy, shipped out to the Persian Gulf on the aircraft carrier Nimitz in March, leaving her husband with sole responsibility for Schuyler.

"It gives me a whole new appreciation for the women who did this for so long, who stayed behind and took care of the kids while the dads went off to sea," said Boyer, 32, who is a Navy sonar technician 1st Class.

Boyer said he is used to sharing duties with his wife, but it has taken some adjustment to do all the cooking, cleaning and child care. "I am both mommy and daddy for the next however-long," he said. "It's tough."

As increasing numbers of women join the military and are sent on long deployments, more husbands are home changing diapers and taking older children to dance lessons and soccer games. It's a role that is unfamiliar, and uncomfortable, for many of the men.

Nearly 15 percent of U.S. military personnel are women, compared with 11 percent during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to the Department of Defense. There were more than 210,174 women in the military as of September 2002. About 20 percent had husbands also in the military and nearly 23 percent were married to civilians. The rest were unmarried.

With more wives absent, more husbands are participating in base recreation activities, such as picnics at the park or trips to the zoo. And they are joining support groups, long filled with women, to get advice on the practicalities of being single parents and to share concerns about having their wives deployed.

Even though they make up a small portion of the military community, men whose wives are on active duty also are taking advantage of money management services and programs that help them find jobs. And men have volunteered to serve as liaisons between the military and other families, positions traditionally held by women. Family members turn to the liaisons for advice, questions and referrals.

Some men are seeking out counselors for help in learning to cope with daily matters without the support of their wives, said Thomas Heaven, director of Fleet and Family Support Center for Navy Region Southwest. On top of some husbands' discomfort with the role reversal, "they experience the same kind of difficulties with having a spouse gone as the women do," Heaven said.

Another San Diego dad, Jon Johnston, said being at home is much more trying than being at sea. His wife, Jill, is a weather forecaster on the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard. Since his wife left in January, Johnston has been in charge of his daughter, Heather, 15, and his two sons, 4-year-old Jonny and 11-year-old Daniel.

"When you are deployed, you have a mission and you are really focused on doing a job, which makes the time go faster," said Johnston, 45, who is also a Navy weather forecaster. "But when you are home, you feel kind of powerless. There is nothing you can do but wait."

Jill Johnston, 35, spent seven months away last year on a ship. On Christmas Eve, she was told she would be deploying again. The family doesn't know when her tour will end.

Jon Johnston said he has pangs of jealousy, knowing his wife is in the middle of the action. He pictures his grandchildren asking what they did during the war and telling them that he stayed home with the kids. "Grandma will have all the war stories and pictures," he said.

But he knows his wife has been in his shoes before. She stayed home with the children several times while he was at sea. And it was even harder for her, he said, because the family was living in Japan and everything was unfamiliar. "This has given me a whole new respect for the military spouses," Johnston said.

He and the children can't help talking about the war, Johnston said. To distract themselves, they play more card games and watch more videos than they would if Mom were home. They write to her and send pictures and eagerly check e-mail.

Several times in the last few months, Johnston wished his wife had been there to take over. She usually does more of the cooking and laundry, checks Daniel's homework, puts Jonny to bed, pays the bills and does the taxes. With her gone, Johnston rearranged the chore chart; he and the children have taken over her tasks.

Johnston and his daughter take turns cooking dinner. The menu is limited, and takeout is a regular staple. On a recent night, Johnston ordered two pizzas.

At the table, he and the children talked about what to do for spring break. They ruled out the Grand Canyon: Jill Johnston would want to go too. "In a way, it's almost like a holding pattern while Mom's gone," Johnston said. After dinner, he put on a video for Jonny and helped Daniel with homework.

Johnston gets off work around 4:30 p.m., then picks Jonny up from day care and Daniel from the Boys & Girls Club. Often he gets home around 6. Heather usually walks or rides to and from school with a friend. The schedule gets more complicated during band season, when he shuttles Heather to late-night practices and weekend football games.

"It's chaotic," he said. "And it's just continuous -- it never ends." The family lives for weekends, he said. But even then, Johnston said, there is not much time to relax.

In his wife's absence, Johnston has had to become the shoulder to lean on for Heather, who sometimes just wants to talk to her mother. Johnston said it was an adventure taking his daughter bra shopping and talking with her about becoming a woman. "It's a fact of life, but it's just not something dads do," he said.

And Johnston's shopping skills need a little modifying, where Heather is concerned. "They don't have too many clothes at Home Depot," her father joked. Johnston drops Heather off at a store, gives her the cell phone and a price limit and goes to a sporting goods or bookstore. When she calls, he shows up with the credit card.

Dan Boyer's 28-year-old wife is on her first deployment since Schuyler was born. Having been deployed himself, Boyer knows Angela is in good hands. He doesn't worry about her safety, but he wishes he knew exactly where she is, what she's doing and when she will be home.

Boyer said he is proud of his wife, but can't help feeling protective of her -- and envious. "Maybe it's a little macho, but it should be me out there fighting," he said. "That's why I joined the Navy, to serve my country. I would prefer it was me. I mean, that's my wife. I wish she could be the one here."

(Optional add end)

Even though the home duties are somewhat overwhelming, Boyer said he is glad to have time alone with his son to do "guy things together," like watching sports on television and going to baseball games.

Most of the time, father and son live by a routine. It's what keeps them going. Weekdays start at 5 a.m., when Boyer gets ready for work and then helps his son get ready for day care. Evenings are busy with dinner and getting his son to bed.

When he can, Boyer leaves work early. On a recent afternoon, he tossed a miniature basketball back and forth with his son before taking the boy inside and changing his diapers. Boyer then cut up a banana for Schuyler and put on a movie, "The Emperor's New Groove."

Most days, Boyer takes digital photographs of his son and sends them by e-mail to his wife. Already, he has sent her more than 50 pictures. Boyer also sent his wife a care package, with cookies, compact discs, lotion, books and a card.


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