For one North Carolina mother, being in the military was a challenge for her and her children.
Military mom Romaine Barnett and her daughter Shaina
Romaine Barnett joined the Navy in 1988 immediately after high school. To her, it was the perfect way to pay for college. But joining the military also meant being separated from her two-year-old daughter Shaina. “My idea was that I was going to go to college and I was going to get my daughter so that I could be her mom,” she said. “I didn’t want to leave her with my mother.”
The Goldsboro, N.C., native was initially sent to Orlando, Fla., for boot camp. She could not bring Shaina with her, and, in fact, had to sign over custody rights to her mother. “I don’t know if it’s different now, but back then in order to join you couldn’t have dependents if you were a single parent,” she said.
From there, she went to air traffic control school in Tennessee. Shaina joined her a few months later. But throughout her 11-year military career, Barnett was forced to leave Shaina and her younger brothers with family members as her assignments and duties changed.
Barnett sat down with One Voice to discuss the challenges that she faced as a military mom, as well as the strength that it took for Shaina (who now works as an editorial specialist at National PTA) and her younger brothers to handle the life being military children.
One Voice: How did your service in the military affect your children?
Romaine Barnett: Shaina was always a pretty resilient little girl, and you know, she was big. She was a big girl. But it wasn’t until I had my second baby, her brother Corey. By that time, I was on a ship. So I had already left aviation and had gone onto a ship. That’s called Black Shoe Navy at that point. That means you’re going over to the Naval side where you’re actually out to sea…I actually had to wean him. I was breastfeeding him and I had to wean him at like – was he four months? He might have been three months. Because I had to go out to sea…My baby was four months old. It was devastating…
One Voice: How did it affect you as a mother?
Romaine Barnett: I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of how it affected them until recent years…I remember when I was in Malaga, Spain, for Thanksgiving. Oh, I’m going to cry. I don’t want to talk about it too much, but I was standing on the street corner back then at a pay phone because they had – every time you pull into port if you’re on a ship, there’s a huge pay phone like depot thing. Okay? So you pull in and as soon as you get off the ship there’s this whole row of payphones. But I remember I couldn’t get a payphone, and it was the holidays, because everybody there was calling home. There was one phone in the middle of the street. There was nobody there. So I get on the phone and I call my family. They were on the phone excited, and I literally – I just fell right there on the corner. I melted. It was devastating for me because they were just growing up and laughing and having Thanksgiving and I’m on a pier in Malaga, Spain.
One Voice: So was it easier for you to try not to think about what was happening back at home?
Romaine Barnett: When they’re really little they don’t really get it. But when they get older, they’re like, “Well, when is mommy going to be home?” And it was always really hard for me to think about what their life was like without me, because I wanted to be the person that saw them do the walking and helped them with everything that was happening in their lives. So it was challenging for me. It was always hard, always hard.
One Voice: How did you cope with being away?
Romaine Barnett: Sometimes, it would take a few days to kind of refocus. But then, after you’ve done it once or twice, you just see this as your life. You start wearing masks, and that’s how you function. That’s what I did. I learned how to compartmentalize. I had to or I wouldn’t make it. I was in a man’s world, and that’s what they’re good at. So I learned how to do what they did. I was over there and I’d focus on that. So it’s kind of masculine, I was told. I knew how to do it, because in order to get something done, sometimes you have to kind of cut all of that off so you can focus on getting it done.
One Voice: What can PTA parents and teachers do to help children, who have a mom or dad in the military, to better cope? What can be done?
Romaine Barnett: Well, I would say, number one, again, that other factor of knowing that little Timmy or Jana has a parent away. Have a specific board or things in the office or in the classrooms that represent a military mom or dad. Maybe have a poster and the children whose moms and dads are in the military. There’s a pride thing that goes with the kids. It would build their esteem to say, “My mommy is one of them. My daddy is one of them.” So it’s not that my mom or dad is not at home. They’re out on mission in the military. That kind of gives the child a boost.
One Voice: Should counselors be available to be able to talk to military children if they’re going through issues?
Romaine Barnett: Having counselors available is always a good idea. I think for the kids, it’s just a matter of identifying what the need is, what the real issue is. That would be with any kid, and then you can kind of pinpoint it. Being able to communicate with them as a counselor to say that it’s okay that you feel bad because mommy’s not here is helpful. They have to be taught how to process their emotions. A lot of times they don’t even know what they’re processing. They just know that I’m sad because mom is not here. So you say, “Okay, you’re sad. It’s okay to be sad, but know that mommy is good. Mommy is going to be okay.” And even make it a celebration periodically. Write a letter to that person’s mom or dad, and the teacher actually takes the responsibility to send that letter off. And, even if the parent may or may not respond, request that they send something back to the classroom.