These days when I look in the mirror, it’s hard to believe the tired, slightly bedraggled woman staring back at me was ever a trained fighting machine who survived ten weeks of Army Boot Camp. But of all the tools in my wheelhouse, I had always assumed that my military training would be the most effective in preparing me for becoming a mom.
While there are some pretty obvious differences (like the fact that boot camp only lasts a couple months and motherhood is a lifetime commitment), I wasn’t far off in this assumption. Both experiences push you past your physical, mental, and emotional limits. You’re required to function under the most demanding circumstances with minimal preparation and even less sleep. Drill sergeants and babies delight in wreaking havoc on the best-laid plans.
At the same time, few things have ever filled me with as much pride and gratification as becoming a U.S. Army Soldier, or in becoming a mother.
Here are six ways that these two life-changing phenomena are essentially one and the same:
1. You sleep like shit.
When you have a newborn, you don’t expect to catch many z’s. Let me tell you, boot camp isn’t much better. Not only are you rudely awakened every morning at an ungodly hour, but sleep pretty much eludes you anyways, since all 30+ females in your company bunk together in the same room, and chances are good that at least one of them snores, talks in her sleep, or deeply regrets her decision to join the military and spends all night crying.
Not to mention, you have to stand “fire guard” on rotation for an hour in the middle of the night where you get fully dressed in the appropriate uniform, ensure accountability of all personnel and weapons, and keep track of any changes in a log book.
Two weeks postpartum or two weeks into Red Phase, the Sandman is nowhere to be found.
2. You look like shit.
Makeup? Forget it. Contact lenses? Yeah right. Consider yourself lucky if you swab some deodorant on your stubbly pits to start the day. You’re smelly, dirty, and covered in bodily fluids, sometimes not even your own. Am I talking about motherhood or boot camp? Take your pick.
3. Forget doing anything by yourself, ever again.
I wonder what it’s like to go to the bathroom without a tiny human shadow who delights in emptying cabinet drawers and unfurling the entire roll of toilet paper while I’m trying to do my business.
In Army basic training, it’s pretty much the same, since you aren’t allowed to go anywhere or do anything without a “Battle Buddy.” One upside is that your buddy isn’t usually in the same stall with you—just guarding it. But it’s a huge pain in a** to persuade someone else to leave her warm sleeping bag to stand in front of a freezing Porta Potty in the woods when you’re hit with the urge to go during an overnight field exercise. Trust me on this one.
4. You eat fast, or you don’t eat.
After I gave birth to my first child, the pregnancy weight fell off. I can’t take too much credit, though, since it was due to my son’s near-incessant breastfeeding and, well, starvation. When you’re pinned to a couch all day with a newborn attached literally at the hip, it’s a big adjustment learning how to prepare meals and actually feed yourself. Of course, Darwinism eventually prevails when you figure out how to eat one-handed, standing up, hunched over the kitchen sink.
Similarly, in boot camp, you have approximately five minutes to shovel food into your face before it’s time to get up and move on. The only exception is when your platoon arrives to the chow hall first, which usually allows for a little extra time. God help you if you’re late to formation, which consequently means your platoon gets there last—you will never be so hated by so many people ever again.
5. It feels like it lasts forever, but suddenly you blink, and that phase is over.
Boot camp consists of three phases—Red, White, and Blue. At the beginning of Red Phase, you’re treated like a mindless idiot since you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. By Blue Phase, your drill sergeants trust you enough not to embarrass the hell out of yourself when you move on with your Army career, and you’re ready to graduate. Every single day up until this point is an interminable slog, but suddenly it feels like just yesterday you were getting smoked (Army slang for physical punishment, usually in the form of push-ups) for the very first time after stepping off the bus from Reception.
Motherhood follows a similar trajectory. The days and nights are never-ending, but one day you wake up and—what the heck—your newborn has become a baby who is now a toddler. Where does the time go???
6. You can’t make it through alone.
Above all else, the Army emphasizes teamwork and the importance of taking care of each other. You succeed—or fail—as one. This is why, if an individual soldier in your platoon effs up, you ALL get dropped. Boot camp is designed so that you physically cannot complete it by muscling through on your own; you must rely on your teammates and on your ability to communicate, collaborate, and accomplish the mission together.
I firmly believe that motherhood requires the same type of collaborative effort, whether between parents, family, or your own tribe of other moms. No mother is an island, and as humbling as it may be to admit it, we all could use a little help sometimes.
Ultimately, both military service and motherhood are arduous tests of any woman’s mettle. Each is a call to service, a journey rife with obstacles that demand constant sacrifice and unwavering commitment. But the rewards—the deep sense of personal fulfillment, the lifelong camaraderie, the pride in being part of something bigger and greater than yourself—these things make it all worth it.
Now drop and give me fifty.