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Motherhood Through the Decades: 1970s and the Vietnam War

In honor of Mother’s Day, we interviewed a military mom from each of the past eight decades. We enjoyed hearing what has changed and what has stayed the same. From fads to parenting techniques to timeless advice, moms have an opinion on it all. In addition, each interviewee holds a special place in the interviewer’s heart.

For more from this series, check out Motherhood Through the Decades: 1940s and 1950s, here. And the 1960s, here.

Pictured below is my aunt Dyan. Each summer, she and her husband (my uncle Gene) would pay for us to fly from our hot urban home in Phoenix to their home in the green cornfields of northern Illinois. To this day, nothing says summer to me like wide open fields of corn and fireflies putting on a show in the evening yard. My mom was a single mom throughout my childhood, so instead of having to find some childcare for us, my aunt brought us back to Illinois, so we could know our cousins and spend time where my mom grew up.

Once we were older and my mom had remarried, she told Aunt Dyan we were probably old enough to stay home alone during the day. My aunt replied, “That is exactly when they need to be watched even more!” No boys sneaking into her house in the summer at least. They’d have had to walk literally miles from town through deserted country roads to find her house.

Dyan, 67 years old, Northern Illinois

Relationship to interviewer: Aunt

Two children: Heather (1969) and Heidi (1970)

Wife of a Vietnam Air Force Veteran (illustrator)

Aunt Dyan and Uncle Gene in September 1968 at Uncle Gene’s graduation from Boot Camp. She is 6 months pregnant here.

What I didn’t know I’d have in common with Aunt Dyan growing up is that she was a military spouse, and one day I would also share in this honor. She married my uncle Gene when she was 17 and he was 19. It was 1968. The Vietnam War was raging on the other side of the world, and my Uncle Gene had A1 orders. They knew he was going to get called. It was just a matter of time. So, instead of risking the chance of being sent to Vietnam, he enlisted in the Air Force. As a volunteer enlistment, he got to choose his job. He chose illustrator. They moved to George AFB near Victorville, CA. It must have felt like the moon to these two young lovebirds who grew up in a small Illinois town. Once they got there, she quickly gave birth to their oldest daughter. Then, 1.5 years later, their second daughter joined them. My aunt did the majority of her parenting of small children in the 1970s, and then she had teenagers in the 1980s. I wanted to know what being a military spouse was like for her. Here are some of the most interesting stories she told me.

WHAT DID UNCLE GENE DO AS AN ILLUSTRATOR IN THE VIETNAM WAR?

He drew charts, maps, weaponry stuff … anything that needed illustrating. He’d even paint names on the F-4s. They also had classified drawings that I was never allowed to see.

HOW DID LIFE CHANGE FOR YOU ONCE YOU HAD KIDS?

We didn’t change our lifestyle. We were homebodies before we had children. One thing is we stopped riding around on motorcycles. If we wanted to do something fun, we’d go to the movies. It cost 30 cents on base. Since we couldn’t afford a babysitter, we’d bring the kids, and they’d sleep on a pillow in the theater.

WHAT WAS THE MOST CHALLENGING THING ABOUT BEING A MOM?

The hardest thing for me was that I didn’t know how to drive. The base was 7 miles away from our trailer in base housing, so I’d either have to walk to the commissary or hitchhike. In fact, I hitchhiked to the hospital in labor on the day I had Heather!

*WHAT!?!?*

Well, it sounds daring, but no one drove on those roads unless they were military. It was the middle of nowhere. So only military people picked me up.

WERE THERE THINGS THAT KEPT YOU FROM FOCUSING ON YOUR KIDS? AS MODERN MOTHERS, WE OFTEN GET DISTRACTED WITH OUR PHONES OR COMPUTERS AND NEED TO REFOCUS OUR PRIORITIES. DO YOU HAVE ANYTHING LIKE THIS? 

We had a black and white television, but there was no cable up the Cajon Pass. Sometimes we could get a station from Los Angeles through the antenna. I didn’t have a phone. Not even a rotary phone. So… no. Nothing distracted me.

(Here I am, thinking that sounds awful.)

WHAT WAS THE NORMAL SIZE FOR A FAMILY?

I’d say 2 children was normal. But we weren’t really influenced so much by what other people thought was normal but by money. We’d think of what it would cost to raise our girls, send them to college … after the war, Uncle Gene found a job quickly at the local news station as an illustrator, but it was still not a huge salary. Money decided how many kids we had.

WHAT ABOUT BREASTFEEDING VERSUS BOTTLE FEEDING?

Bottle. But it wasn’t such a huge controversy. They just came out with the powdered formula when Heather was born. Before that we had to make homemade baby formula with Karo syrup, canned milk, and hot water. The powder was so new. In fact, when Heidi was born, they told me the formula was the best for her because she was born premature. They thought it was easier for her to eat and gain weight eating formula. And you know, I was young. And military doctors then just told you what to do. They said I should feed my babies formula, so I did. They said I should take birth control, so I did. I didn’t push back. I just did what they said.

WHAT PARENTING ASPECT OF YOUR TIME MAKES NO SENSE NOW? WHAT ADVICE HAS CHANGED?

If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about how clean my house was. I would have spent more time sitting with my kids and just reading books or playing. I see moms now at the store and their kids are in pajamas with no shoes, and that is normal and fine. But when my girls were babies, we were judged harshly for taking a baby out without a proper outfit and shoes.

SHOES? WHAT IF THEY AREN’T EVEN CLOSE TO WALKING?

Oh yes. They had to have shoes. But I think looking back I shouldn’t have cared so much. I should have read the girls more books.

Aunt Dyan in 1974.

WHAT WAS YOUR LEAST FAVORITE CHORE?

Same as today. Dusting.

DID YOUR HUSBAND HELP WITH THE KIDS?

No. Not until they were older. If I specifically asked him to do something, he would jump to do it. But he hated changing diapers. We had cloth diapers with pins. He was so afraid of stabbing his own finger. I’d tell him, “Gene! Put your hand between the baby and the diaper so you don’t stab the baby!”

He’d look at me like, “But then I might stab myself…” But when they were older, they had a lot of adventures.

WHAT WAS THE HARDEST PART OF PARENTING?

Going out to eat.

WHAT?!?! I THOUGHT YOU WOULD SAY HITCHHIKING THROUGH THE DESERT TO GIVE BIRTH OR BARELY BEING ABLE TO AFFORD FOOD? WHY DID YOU SAY GOING OUT TO EAT?

Well, when Heidi was about 1.5 years old, we went out to eat. She said she wanted a hamburger. We ordered the hamburger, it came, but she changed her mind. She didn’t want a hamburger. She wanted something else. We told her she asked for a hamburger and that was what she was going to eat. She started screaming and threw the hamburger patty backwards over her head and it landed right on top of a bald man’s head at the next table! I got up to rush over to apologize and retrieve the patty, and Heidi threw her cup of milk off the table. Luckily, the waitress was walking by and caught the cup without spilling a single drop. We got out of there as quick as we could. Your Uncle Gene said, “Never. Again.” And we didn’t go out to eat for years after that.

IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE YOU’D LIKE TO ADD?

Well, now that I’ve seen your life in as a military spouse, I think the modern-day military cares a lot more about families than during Vietnam. I am always surprised at the resources you have available to you. And another thing is that you have technology. That makes being apart so much better. We had long distance phone calls when we were apart. But a 30-minute call could cost us $30-$40. And that used to be a lot of money! We could also write letters, but those would take 3-4 days to get there. So once he got that, I’d have already sent another letter. He’d reply to the older one, and I’d get it back, but it wasn’t answers to my most recent questions. It was like having 2 or 3 running conversations between the same people. Now email, cell phones, and FaceTime help. It is so much better.

There is a sad story about our neighbor at George AFB. Her name was Jane, her husband worked with Uncle Gene, and her brother was over fighting in Vietnam. Jane’s brother’s wife had their first child while he was fighting in Vietnam. She got pictures made and sent him a letter letting him know the baby was born. A little bit later, they found out that Jane’s brother had died. His wife was holding onto hope that the letter had reached him before he was killed. Hoping that he at least knew he was a father. But when they returned his personal items, the letter was amongst them unopened. He never got to know if his baby was a boy or a girl or that they were all healthy. He died before the letter arrived. It was just sad.

This is why people my age think technology is so cool. People watch their babies being born over FaceTime. It isn’t perfect, but it isn’t the worst thing. Technology helps so much.

WHAT IS YOUR BEST ADVICE FOR A NEW MOM?

My theory on tiny babies is to do whatever it takes to keep them happy. Don’t worry about a schedule. Let the baby lead you. Eventually you will learn their schedule. Eventually their schedule will change into a more normal schedule. If the baby is happy, we are all happy. Hold your babies.

The Girls in 1973

 

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One Response to Motherhood Through the Decades: 1970s and the Vietnam War

  1. Heidi Toepfer Brown May 11, 2018 at 8:42 am #

    Love this story! Great job Brittany!

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