With her husband deployed, Jenny Munoz finds war is far from overby Jessica Mador, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Francis, Minn. — "Momma, I wanna go upstairs now!"
It's just before dinner, and Emma gets a time out.
But the 8-year-old's recent tantrum is an improvement over how things have been in the Munoz household. She's been acting out a lot since her father, Freddy Munoz, left for the Middle East.
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Munoz, 31, is one of the roughly 2,400 members of the Minnesota National Guard's 1st Brigade Combat Team, 34th Infantry Division — the Red Bulls — stationed in in Kuwait and helping the U.S. military leave Iraq. He won't return to Minnesota until May.
Until then, his wife Jenny will be a single parent to Emma and her six-year-old sister, Ezsie, their two foster daughters.
"It's really hard to be the mom and the dad," Jenny Munoz says. "It really is."
With Freddy gone, Jenny must raise the two girls, work and navigate the complicated process of adopting them on her own. The effort was delayed recently after the girl's maternal grandmother filed a last-minute petition for custody. It was another hurdle for the Munoz family's adoption, which has been hung up in the courts for the last year and a half.
Emma and Eszie arrived suddenly after being removed from a troubled home. Their presence was a gift for Jenny and Freddy Munoz, who have been married since 2003.
The couple first considered adopting after trying for three years to have a baby. Jenny became pregnant through in-vitro fertilization during Freddy's first deployment to Iraq, from 2005 to 2007, but Jenny miscarried. Both Freddy and Jenny have relatives who were adopted, so they were open to the idea.
Once they decided to become foster parents, things moved quickly.
The day after they dropped off their application in Anoka County, social workers called to say Emma and Eszie needed a home. In less than a week, the girls were staying with the couple on weekends and visiting during the week. Within three weeks they were living with them.
Jenny Munoz, 29, says she and her husband slowly learned more about the girls they'd come to love, and their birth mother. A county report on the girls given to the couple details a history of mental illness and addiction in their biological mother's family. Before the girls entered foster care, police raided the home.
"She was a heavy drug user and by the time the girls were taken away in 2010 she had a known dealer living in her home with the five kids," Munoz says. "They raided the house and they found loaded weapons, they found drugs everywhere, it was really, really scary."
Emma and Eszie were moved in and out of their mother's home several times before ending up with Jenny and Freddy. A judge terminated her parental rights last year. The girls' other siblings, two brothers and a sister, have a different father and live with him.
After months of intensive therapy, the girls began to open up about what they experienced, Munoz says. Jenny and Freddy say the girls are particularly afraid of their older brother, who physically abused them.
Given the trauma in the girls' lives, Jenny thinks it's more important than ever to give them a stable, loving home, especially during her husband's deployment to the Middle East "Emma is the most neurotic kid I've ever met in my life and she is 8-years old and has seen more crap than most kids will ever see," Munoz says.
Taking on two vulnerable children with so many scars is daunting. Munoz says learning to be a parent is harder with her husband overseas.
"It's so difficult to not have that partner here with me," she says. "It's okay. But it's really hard just to not have him here to co-parent."
Despite the stress, she says being so busy working and taking care of Emma and Eszie helps keep her going when she misses Freddy.
"I can't be a wreck," she says tearfully. "If I got really depressed about it, I have two little kids depending on me. I have to be as strong as possible because of them."
After Freddy Munoz left for Kuwait last summer, his wife and the girls eased into their new routine. Emma and Eszie kept in touch with him over the computer and sent him letters and packages.
Eszie made a poster with her therapist about her feelings. It's clear she worries about his safety.
"That's me," she says, pointing to the drawing. "That's Freddy. That's someone bad shooting my daddy."
Eszie says she doesn't tell Freddy how afraid she is for him because she doesn't want him to "be scared." Jenny Munoz says the girls get upset whenever they talk about him being there.
But it's not all bad news. Since Freddy Munoz left, the family has experienced another big change.
"They both just started calling me 'Mommy,' " Jenny Munoz says. "It was just out of the blue; it just happened. It's nice."
Emma is thankful to be living with new parents.
"We are lucky that we got picked because if it would take too long we'd be separated and we wouldn't want that to happen," she says.
By the fall, life in the Munoz home becomes much more hectic. Emma and Eszie are back in school and Jenny's part-time job at a photo studio had ballooned into a 60-hour a week job.
"It kills me how little I see the girls," she said in November, her voice hoarse from exhaustion.
Working long hours during the week and every weekend, Jenny relies on her parents and neighbor for help with the girls. Most weekdays, her parents pick Emma and Eszie up from school, take them home, make them dinner and get them ready for bed. They're usually asleep by the time Jenny gets home from work.
Sometimes, Jenny says, it seems like Freddy forgets how busy she is.
"I've got Freddy saying 'why haven't you done this, why haven't you done this,' " she says. "[It's] Because I don't have a second to breathe! I can't do anything right now."
Freddy encourages Jenny to ask for help. But like many military spouses left behind, Jenny is so busy she usually waits until she's pulling her hair out with stress before reaching out.
In November, Jenny is running late to pick up the girls from school when her car wouldn't start. She dashes across the street to borrow her neighbor's truck. Fixing her car is another chore Jenny will have to handle alone.
Back at home after school that day, the dining room table is covered with the girls' backpacks and school supplies. Laundry piles up on the basement stairs. While Jenny is a blur in the kitchen making tacos for dinner, the girls settle in to do homework.
Eszie has a lot of catching up to do. She wasn't ready for kindergarten when she first went to school.
Her older sister also struggles to adjust to family life. Before coming to Freddy and Jenny's, the girls were mostly left to fend for themselves. Emma is used to looking out for her little sister. It's been hard for her to let go of that role. Freddy's departure for Kuwait triggered her fears — and the tantrum that landed Emma in a time out, his wife said.
"This, I can handle," Jenny Munoz says. "They were horribly violent, just kicking and screaming. Fun. Super fun."
Just before Thanksgiving, the family has a chance to reconnect when Freddy arrived on leave, dressed in light khaki fatigues and sporting a deep tan, fresh military buzzcut and new mustache.
The next day he and Jenny return to court for a hearing on the petition for custody filed by the girls' grandmother. They didn't expect much, but were hopeful.
"They are with us for a reason, because Eszie is just like me," Freddy says. "She hates to read, hates to do anything educational but playing and colorful stuff? It's game on. But Emma, she wants to read, wants to learn, which is what Jen does."
Dealing with the uncertainty of the adoption while also learning how to be a family hasn't been easy on Freddy and Jenny's relationship. They agree the lessons they learned during Freddy's last tour of duty are helping them communicate better this time around. They've also learned to better manage their finances. They are saving more and spending less.
Jenny sees other positive changes in her husband since they became foster parents.
"Having kids for the past couple years has made him a much more patient person," she says.
Freddy admits his temper gets short overseas. Perhaps that's why his last visit home was rocky at times. He says he's was still preoccupied with what's going on over in Kuwait and Iraq.
"It's an up and down thing," he says. "I don't like being around people that much. I like my time. I like sitting around doing nothing, reading the news."
But even when home on leave, Freddy Munoz feels disconnected from life in Minnesota. The closer he is to going back to the Middle East, the more distracted he becomes. He thinks about all the work it will take to move his battalion back to the United States next year.
In early December, when Freddy and Jenny Munoz head to court, something unexpected happens. The girls' grandmother drops her petition challenging the adoption. Without warning, the judge finalizes the adoption on the spot.
Freddy, Jenny, Emma and Eszie are officially a family. But there wasn't much time to enjoy it.
The next day, the family makes an early morning trip to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to drop Freddy off for his return flight to Kuwait. Freddy is in uniform and carrying six-year old Eszie in her favorite knitted owl hat. Emma holds Jenny's hand up the escalator wearing a pink hat with white horns.
Jenny says the events of the day before are still sinking in, for all of them.
"Signed the paperwork and then they got to go behind the bench and pick out stuffed animals and take pictures with Judge Gibbs."
The girls are beaming. Everyone looks relieved.
Bouncing between Freddy and Jenny, Eszie can hardly contain her joy.
"Happy!" she says. "And my name is Esperanza Marie Munoz!"
Freddy is grinning, too. He is thrilled he got to be home for the adoption after all.
"I couldn't believe it," he says. "I honestly couldn't. So I'm happy right now. I'm just happy."
Freddy encourages his girls to read lots of books and to be good for Jenny while he's gone.
Jenny recently quit her job and is looking forward to having more time at home. But she worries about how Emma and Eszie will react now that Freddy is leaving again.
At the airport, Freddy embraces his family one by one and then together. Their faces are wet with tears. He struggles to maintain composure as he gathers his belongings to go through security.
"Bye Daddy," say the girls. "Bye Daddy."
"Bye bye girls," he answers.
Finally the father he has long wanted to be, Freddy Munoz waves to his wife and daughters one last time before disappearing from view.
It will be at least five months before they're together again.
- All Things Considered, 12/19/2011, 3:35 p.m.