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Domestic draftees

When Mom or Dad goes off to war, grandparents and other relatives step in to help care for the children.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 23, 2003

Saturday has become one of the busiest days of the week for Patti Abbate. Until recently, it was a time for errands, shopping, cleaning - all the mundane tasks that never get done during the week.

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But last month Ms. Abbate, who owns Sunrise Public Relations in Needham, Mass., began devoting Saturdays to her two young nieces. She serves waffles for breakfast. She chauffeurs them to ballet and gymnastics classes. She also arranges play dates and ferries them to birthday parties.

It's all part of her new domestic role as a stand-in for the girls' mother, Kathleen Anderson, who is Abbate's sister. Mrs. Anderson, a nurse in the Naval Reserve, has been called up for active duty in Bethesda, Md.

"It's a family affair," says Abbate, explaining that a team of relatives helps her sister's husband, Kurt, care for 7-year-old Molly and 4-year-old Martha.

Call them stand-in parents, or domestic draftees, or family conscripts.

Whatever their unofficial title, they are grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins who have been recruited on the home front to care for children whose parents have been deployed for military duty. Largely invisible and unheralded, they form a growing cadre of caregivers across the country. As they rearrange schedules at work and home, they play an essential role in keeping family life running smoothly. Whatever their sacrifices, many find satisfaction in these roles. Some also say the arrangements are strengthening family bonds.

"We look at this as a wonderful opportunity to be with our grandchildren," says Jeannine Hirtle of Arlington, Texas, referring to the time she and her husband, Bill, are spending with their son's young family while he is in Iraq.

No statistics track the number of these stand-in parents. But as more women serve in the military - currently 212,000 out of a total force of 1.4 million - more families face situations like the Andersons'. The growing ranks of single custodial parents and families in which both parents are deployed also increase the need for help from relatives.

Even before the current military call-ups, nearly 2-1/2 million grandparents were responsible for most of the basic needs of grandchildren living with them, according to the AARP Grandparent Information Center. Spokeswoman Amy Goyer expects those numbers to grow because of military duty.

These increases show the ripple effects of deployment. To paraphrase John Donne, "No family is an island."

For the Andersons of Medway, Mass., the care- giving drama began on New Year's Day, when Anderson, a lieutenant commander in the Reserve, received a call with an unsettling message: Be prepared to be mobilized. "It was a shock," she says. "I didn't want to tell the girls until I knew it was definite." On March 4, she received orders to report for duty three days later. She is stationed at Bethesda Naval Hospital, helping to care for Iraqi soldiers and civilians.

Abbate had moved in with the Andersons temporarily following her divorce last year, so she quickly put a caregiving plan in place. Mr. Anderson gets his daughters ready for school and prepares breakfast. "He's a great cook," Abbate says. After school, relatives take turns picking up the girls and caring for them until 6:30 p.m., when their father returns from Anderson's Jewelers, which he co-owns, in nearby Wellesley. Abbate and her brother-in-law cook dinner, and she oversees baths and bedtime.

"They go from loving arms to loving arms throughout the day," Abbate observes. On Tuesday afternoons, the girls' grandmother, Evelyn Anderson - "Grammie" - cares for them. On Wednesdays, an aunt takes over. Thursday afternoons belong to Dad, who leaves work early. On Fridays, a great-aunt, Mary Nastopolous, known as Aunt Mimi, does the honors.

"They miss their mother like crazy," Mrs. Nastopolous says. Even so, notes Mrs. Anderson, "They've really accepted all of this pretty well."

For Mom, living in a hotel room in Bethesda, mail and telephones provide vital links, keeping the family connected. She calls home every day, saying, "I'm using my savings on my phone, but it's worth it." She writes letters, a favorite for Molly, who can read. And she mails a package of small gifts every week.

The girls reciprocate by sending a weekly care package of their own, complete with a handwritten journal. One recent Saturday, during a visit to a mall, they bought a mug and a key chain with space for pictures of themselves. They also added a bag of Red Sox peanuts to mark opening day.

Still, there are moments of sadness. Both girls have had minor physical ailments. "They really miss a mother's comfort at those times," Abbate says.