Domestic draftees

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

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.

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.

Anderson, too, admits to periods of sadness. But she quickly shifts into an upbeat mood, pointing out that a few nurses working with her are separated from their children, too. Other nurses, slightly older, "have weddings coming up and grandchildren, so their life is just as changed as mine is." She adds, "I'm very lucky. I like my work. I'm in a nice hotel. And they're going to come and see me." Last weekend the family reunited in Bethesda for Easter.

Anderson, a reservist for 19 years, is due to retire in November, although her orders are for a year. Abbate hopes she will be home by September.

For now, an electric candle burns night and day in a front window of the family's 200-year-old white colonial. A white service flag with a red border and a blue star also hangs there. "All the relatives have one," Abbate explains. So does the jewelry store.

For Abbate, a cheerful, energetic woman, her new role involves keeping priorities straight. On a spring Saturday, as she and her two young charges stop at a suburban Starbucks before meeting a friend for lunch, she muses about the domestic scene. "I think I did everything this morning. I fed the cats. The house is not as clean as it normally is, but I've been trying. Laundry isn't that difficult to keep up with."

She adds philosophically, "Things get done that have to get done. Those that don't, oh well, there's always tomorrow. And this won't last forever."

Eighteen hundred miles away in Texas, Bill and Jeannine Hirtle reflect on how their lives have changed since their son, Jared, a Blackhawk helicopter pilot, was deployed to Iraq at the beginning of February. Instead of their usual monthly trips to visit Jared, his wife, Jenni, and the couple's three children in Temple, near Fort Hood, they now make the two-hour drive two or three times a week. Sometimes they go separately, other times together, depending on Mrs. Hirtle's schedule at the University of Texas, Arlington, where she is an associate professor of education.

"We have a little blowup mattress that's ours, and I keep my shampoo and toothbrush there," Mrs. Hirtle says. "It's a lot, supporting him. We all do it, and we do it with a very good attitude. His wife is a shining light for us. She has a very positive attitude."

Mrs. Hirtle specializes in "lots of hugging and cuddling" with 4-year-old Joshua, 2-year-old Sophia, and 10-month-old Mara. She brings children's books and crafts. Last week she taught a prekindergarten home-school lesson on Noah's Ark to Joshua and Sophia. She cares for the two younger children while Jenni coaches Joshua's T-ball games.

Mr. Hirtle handles the yard work. A few weeks ago, he built a sandbox and added a roof over the patio. A custom woodworker, he also makes toys and furniture.

Beyond practical help like this, the Hirtles offer emotional support during challenging times. For more than a month, Jenni heard nothing from Jared - no phone calls, no letters. "She was getting emotionally drained," says Mr. Hirtle. "She didn't let on, but it was difficult for her. Imagine being all alone with three kids most of the time unless we're there." When Jared finally called, Jenni's relief was palpable.

"It was a real short call, but she just felt so much better," he says. "He's fine. He hasn't been shot at." Jared, too, has been without mail. "The Red Cross tells them two truckloads of letters are waiting."

This marks the second time the Hirtles have helped the young family during a deployment. Last year, when Jared was sent to Kosovo, Jenni and the children moved in with them.

For Mr. Hirtle, these frequent trips come at a time when his schedule is flexible. Last year he was laid off as a corporate trainer. "If Jennie needs help, I can go up at the drop of a hat," he says. As a former Huey helicopter pilot in Vietnam, he knows the challenges of war and separation.

"From my standpoint, it's very rewarding to be needed," he continues. "Of course I would rather Jared be home to fulfill his role - to be the kids' father and Jenni's husband, so we could do what grandparents do, which is to spoil the kids."

When it comes to discipline, Mr. Hirtle follows his daughter-in-law's lead. "She's a very good mother, and has some very good ways she disciplines," he says. "If she has a rule, such as 'If you misbehave, you go to your room,' I'll follow that."

The Hirtles do not know how long Jared will be away. "We pray a lot, and so do all our friends in their churches," Mrs. Hirtle says. "We can feel those prayers. That really sustains us."

As they wait, she reflects on the bonds the family has developed during the deployments in Kosovo and Iraq.

"We've blended into such a close family that Jenni feels like our daughter," Mrs. Hirtle says, her voice filled with joy. "It's our blessing and privilege to be part of their life."

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