Interview with “Reporting for Doodie” Author J.L. Smith
–by Kristen Tsetsi
J.L. Smith is a freelance writer and author whose book Reporting for Doodie: One Grandmother’s Story of Commitment, Frustration and Unwavering Love shares (in a series of laugh-out-loud anecdotes) her experience as a grandmother suddenly taking full-time care of her grandchild when her daughter deploys. The blurb on her website reads,
WHAT WOULD YOU DO IF YOU WERE A (SUDDENLY) SINGLE GRANDMOTHER AND BOTH YOUR DAUGHTER AND SON-IN-LAW WERE SENT OFF TO WAR AT THE SAME TIME, LEAVING YOU AS PRIMARY CAREGIVER FOR YOUR 2-YEAR OLD GRANDSON??? YOU’D DO EXACTLY WHAT I DID…
REPORT FOR “DOODIE”!
“My daughter is in the Air Force and her husband is in the Army,” Smith says. “So I’m a military mom/mom-in-law/gramma.”
When Smith was married, she and her husband took care of their two grandsons several times for three-month periods. In 2007, after her divorce, Smith alone took care of her younger grandson while her daughter was deployed to Africa and her son in-law was on a fifteen-month deployment in Iraq.
“I recently completed another tour of ‘doodie’ when both my daughter and her husband were deployed to Afghanistan,” Smith says.
LIFT: How did Marcus respond to his parents’ deployment? How did he handle it when they left?
SMITH: Because Marcus and I have such a close bond but don’t see each other nearly enough, he was always happy to come to Gramma’s house. He was fine with the fact that he’d be staying with me for awhile when his mom and dad went to “work.” Thanks to technology he was able to talk to/see his parents on a regular basis on the computer. That helped a lot! When he stayed with me when he was just turning 3, he did have a few episodes where he cried uncontrollably after talking to one of his parents, but overall he handled it pretty well. I think coming to stay with me was a bit of an adventure for him. Changing schools was probably the hardest challenge to overcome.
LIFT: When did you start writing Reporting for Doodie, and what was it that finally made you sit down and say, “Okay. That’s it. This has to be a book”?
SMITH: I started writing it in June of 2007. My grandson, Marcus, did something funny one day, and it was the epiphany to write the book I had always dreamed of. (I won’t divulge what he did here; gotta buy the book!) I wanted to share my story of inspiration with others in similar situations to prove that we are all stronger than we think. I actually lost the use of my (predominant) right arm during my “doodie” and had to change diapers with one hand and my teeth. When you think you just can’t go on…you can!
LIFT: You admit, in your book, to some of the funnier mistakes you made when caring for Marcus – feeding him the wrong foods, forgetting to pick him up from school, etc. – that are, I’m guessing, the mistakes most people make when caring for children, whether their own or someone else’s. But what were your real concerns as it pertained to caring for Marcus while his parents were overseas?
SMITH: Just whether I could be “enough” for him. After all, I was a suddenly-single grandmother trying to fill the shoes of both his mom and his dad. I was just getting through a very unexpected divorce, trying to hold onto my home, changing careers and dealing with suddenly being a single woman again. I had to become a single mother virtually overnight! Then when my right arm was temporarily paralyzed, I had real fears about being able to take proper care of him. But when I would cry tears of frustration because I couldn’t physically do something for him – like assembling toys – he always made me feel better.
LIFT: There’s a lot of focus on the children and the spouses of deployed soldiers, but rarely is there a look at what it might be like to be the parent. How would you describe your experience?
SMITH: It’s very stressful, particularly when she is deployed to places like Afghanistan where she is constantly in danger. You never get over the fear of getting “the phone call.” I try not to watch the news too much while she’s gone, but I just can’t help it. I try to keep my fear to myself, so those around me don’t really know how I feel. Talking about it makes the danger feel so much more real. That fear is magnified by the huge responsibility of caring for her son, both physically and emotionally, while she is gone. A strong support group is of the utmost importance.
LIFT: Your daughter has been sent overseas several times. Has it gotten any easier for you?
SMITH: NO! It never gets easier; in fact, it gets more difficult.
LIFT: Were you prepared, initially, to do so much childrearing at this time in your life? That is, when you learned your daughter was pregnant, did you immediately recognize that you would become a long-term caregiver, or was it something that came as a bit of a surprise?
SMITH: A bit of both! When I was still married, my husband and I had taken care of both Marcus and his older brother Charles for a couple of months, numerous times. But it was very different then because there were two of us; we were a tag-team. When she became pregnant with Marcus I was still married, but by the time she was deployed, I was going through a very painful divorce. I was unprepared for the changes it would make in my life. I lost some “friends” who got tired of asking me to do things because I often had to say “no” because I had Marcus. But I also found true friends in the most unexpected places…right on my street…and they’ve become my closest companions. Having to care for Marcus took me out of my self-imposed broken woman syndrome and put his happiness in the #1 spot on my priority list. My focus completely shifted from feeling sorry for myself to making sure he had the love and attention he needed. He saved me from myself.
LIFT: Did you worry at all about how Marcus would relate to his parents when they returned?
SMITH: Not really. He did struggle with having to leave me because we had become so close, but as you read in my book, when one of them returned, I became virtually invisible. That hurt. And I knew it would happen, but nothing eases the pain of returning to reality when for so long we only had each other. He returned to his parent and I was suddenly alone. The last time I had him in 2009/2010, his dad came to pick him up and we both cried and hugged a lot when the day came for him to leave my home and return to Colorado. It’s very hard for him…he wants to go home with his mom and dad, but he also doesn’t want to leave Gramma.
LIFT: What was the adjustment period like for Marcus after your daughter returned from her latest deployment?
SMITH: Actually his dad came back first and he returned to Colorado with him, then welcomed my daughter back a few months later. So, for a short time he had both parents in his life. My daughter, however, was recently deployed again – this time for a year – so he’s back to one parent again. It’s a lot for a small child to handle…one or both parents constantly coming in and out of his life.
LIFT: Based on what you see in the media and happening around you, what perception do you think people generally have of the military family experience?
SMITH: I don’t think anyone can realize the magnitude of the situation until they’re in it. I’m glad that famous leaders such as Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden and Oprah Winfrey are helping bring the topic to light.
LIFT: What do you wish more people understood about the experience of having a loved one go to war?
SMITH: That it completely impacts every area of your life – large and small. The worrying begins the moment you hear the words that they are being deployed and doesn’t end until they’re back on American soil. And that it affects every member of the family, not just the soldiers going off to war.
As the title of my book implies, we’re all in this together. Loved ones are going into a dangerous war – reporting for duty – and family members are reporting for “doodie” in ways of their own. It’s a life-changing experience in so many ways.
LIFT:Is Reporting for Doodie something people who aren’t grandparents caring for grandchildren during a deployment will relate to?
SMITH: Absolutely! Anyone who is a grandparent, parent, caregiver, military member, or military family member will enjoy it. I’ve gotten fabulous reviews from people in all walks of life – young, old, military, civilians. My writing has actually been compared to that of Erma Bombeck…the ultimate compliment!
LIFT: What do you most enjoy about being part of a military family?
SMITH: The pride.