WASHINGTON -- A lot of people not affiliated with the military say "How do you do it? I could never do what you do," said Maria McConville, referring to raising three children while her spouse was gone on multiple combat deployments.
"It takes a certain amount of commitment, but it's not a sacrifice," she said. "If anything, we have had such a rich and exciting life."
She and her husband, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. James C. McConville, spoke here Wednesday about families and military service during the Military Child Education Coalition's 2018 National Training Symposium.
Maria shared some lessons she learned over the years through her own experiences as an Army officer, a military spouse, and through interactions with other military spouses.
For her, she said, the hardest part of raising three kids while her husband deployed was trying to be "everything" to them, noting that her tendency is to be the nurturing parent, not the disciplinarian.
"You are wearing so many different hats with the kids," she said.
Another challenge is deciding how much information to share with her husband when he's deployed, "because when you're on the home front, there are things that seem so monumental when you're dealing with the kids."
But while deployed, Soldiers are also dealing with a combat situation. There's a fine line in knowing what to share, she explained. By nature, Soldiers want to have a solution once a problem is identified. "It's not always that easy."
One of the best ways to support your family during a deployment is to have a positive attitude, she advised.
Deployment is hard on both the Soldier and the Family. If you're focused on the fact that your spouse is gone and how hard things are, then the reintegration can be harder when the Soldier returns home, she remarked.
"But when you shape your thoughts about the deployment like, 'Daddy's off doing something great for us and he'll be back and he loves us,' then that makes it so much better," she said.
Ensuring that the kids have a good education is also important, she said, and that education begins at home, with instilling good morals and values in the children.
She added that getting a good education at school is also essential, noting that she has been a substitute teacher in the past at various schools and has high regard for teachers and administrators.
Maria said she recalls that when her own son was in third grade, she received a note from his teacher saying he'd been acting out in class. In support of that teacher, she asked if she could come to class one day and observe. The teacher agreed, and she was able to show up for class to make sure her son was behaving.
She said he was so embarrassed to have his mother in the classroom that his behavior changed.
Another important tip is allowing kids to fail, she said. "We don't want them to fail, but that's how we learn."
And finally, she said that being a successful military spouse means being fulfilled and having the opportunity to grow as an individual.
"Do what you're passionate about and live your life authentically," Maria advised. "Don't try to be someone you're not. I can't be Jimmy. We have to work this together. And it can work."
Gen. McConville added his own thoughts about family life and the military.
"Supporting Families at home, with all the challenges they go through, is much harder than anything we were doing downrange. Quite frankly, we couldn't do what we do without what the spouses do," he said.
While mission comes first in the military, there needs to be a balance between that and family, he said. Soldiers shouldn't go through their careers missing significant or meaningful events in their children's lives such as recitals, games and graduations.
Unfortunately, some Soldiers miss out on their children's activities and consider it a badge of honor that they are so committed to mission, the general said. "That's not something to be proud of."
As leaders, we need to change that thinking and encourage Soldiers in the strongest possible way to be there for their Families, he added.
"If you tell that Soldier, 'You're going to that game, you're going to that event,' all of a sudden you see a smile on their face going, 'Hey, the senior leaders care about what's important.'"
The general practices what he preaches. When his son, also a Soldier, returned from Afghanistan, McConville cleared his calendar so he could attend the homecoming.
"We have to do those type of things for our kids," he concluded. "And as leaders, we have to set the example."