By Maj Gen Somnath Jha (Retd)
Military life is one of constant movement, uncertainties and hardships. On the face of it, family life and raising ones children appear to be quite a challenge. And it is!
There are essentially three ‘modus operandi’ under which children are raised in military families. First, and still the most common, is that the children keep moving with their parents, every one to three years; moving into and adjusting to a new environment and school each time. And that is not all; each alternate transfer of the father is to an ‘operational’ or ‘field’ station, which means that the children stay with their mother, away from the father. And the father gets to play father for two to three months in a year, when he comes home on leave. When the father is posted in a ‘peace’ station (for one to three years), then only do the children get the benefit of having both parents with them.
Second, and becoming more common in these times, is that the children stay with their mother in one place (which may, or may not be the grandparents’ place), for the sake of ‘stability’ of education and life, and the father serves in different stations in India or abroad, whether in ‘field’ or ‘peace’ stations. When this system is adopted by a family, it is essentially the mother who brings up the children virtually single-handedly, except for short spells when the father comes home to them on leave.
Third, and least common, is that the children are sent away (at an appropriate age) to a boarding school, again for the sake of ‘stability’ in schooling. In this case, the direct role of parents in raising their children is vastly reduced. And the children get to be with the mother or both the parents when they come home on school vacations.
While none of the above appears anywhere near ‘ideal’ parenting models, the following essentials emerge clearly:
1. Military mothers play the most vital role in raising their children; the burden of parenting responsibility on them is virtually unparalleled. While the father’s direct parenting time is reduced or minimal chronologically, it still has to be brought to bear in the reduced time or even remotely.
2. Most military children end up studying in five to eight different schools in different parts of the country. This inculcates in them the ability to accept and adapt to change, keen social skills and a sense of innate discipline.
3. Military children get to live in the clean, orderly and well-organised military stations or cantonments. This affords them the benefit of community living and many sports, recreational and adventure facilities. Furthermore, they grow up in a responsible and a secular society. This helps build character, in being socially adept and develop an overall high self-esteem.
4. Growing up in a military environment, experiencing the military ethos and challenges, military children are more easily given to patriotism and developing traits of responsible citizens.
Our two boys were born less than a year and a half apart, and had their share of challenges and privileges growing up as Army kids. Their mother was their rock. My profession kept me away from my family for almost half of the years that my boys were growing up. But staying away didn’t mean I wasn’t connected to my family. There were regular exchanges of letters. The boys made cute cards saying how much they loved me, and would welcome me with so much glee when I would come home.
Distance, they say, makes the heart grow fonder. And so it is with Army families. When I was home on leave, there would be lots of family fun and outings, and some serious talk too. Distance parenting does pose its challenges and anxious moments, but it also provides many experiences of unbounded joy. When you do not have the privilege of being with your children all their growing up years, time passes very slowly when you are away, and very fast when you are together. But overall, time seems to just rush by, and in no time your children have finished school and go away to colleges and onward to their independent lives. Sigh!
In the end, if analysed in the right perspective, the ‘challenges’ and travails of raising military kids actually turn out in their favour. If I had to live it all over again, I wouldn’t want it any other way. And so it is with our boys.