Wendy Howard, a 20-year-old Gaithersburg resident, spends a good part of each day thinking about how Saddam Hussein has made her life miserable.

Howard is expecting her first child this week, and her husband, Robert, a 22-year-old Navy cook, is 7,000 miles away, part of the escalating U.S. presence in the Persian Gulf.

"I feel worse for him than me, because at least I get to hold the baby when he's born," Howard said yesterday at a baby shower at Bethesda Naval Hospital for pregnant women whose husbands were suddenly deployed to the Middle East.

The unexpected departure and unknown return date of increasing numbers of military personnel and reservists have disrupted the lives of thousands of family members left behind at Bethesda and other Washington area military installations.

Since her husband left Fort Belvoir Aug. 22, Pam Morrow spent her 16th wedding anniversary alone, bought mousetraps at a Fairfax County Safeway at 4 a.m., and even patched a leaky bathtub that turned her ceiling into a washrag.

An Army heavy equipment mechanic, Sgt. Donald Morrow was given a few hours' notice before he was gone.

Like others who stayed at home but find their lives dramatically changed because of the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait, Morrow said she often focuses her frustration on Saddam, the Iraqi president. The other night she saw a picture of him on television and blurted out: 'Look what you've done to me!' "

Overnight, Joel Frank, a Naval surface warfare officer from Gaithersburg, discovered the trials of being a single parent.

His wife, Lt. Cmdr. Melanie Frank, is an intensive care nurse aboard the 1,000-bed USNS Comfort, anchored in the Persian Gulf. Frank, who rushes between the grocery store and teacher-parent conferences, said last week, "The kids are doing better than Dad."

At the baby shower yesterday, there was more talk of long-distance phone calls and letters than rattles and tethers.

"The morale is going down on the ship, it's getting more tense over there," said Meggan Rhoads, whose husband, Glenn, is working 12-hour shifts aboard the Comfort. "First we thought maybe they would be gone two or three months, then they said it would be Christmas and now we're hearing nine months or longer. It's disappointing."

Other letters home have painted pictures of rubber-melting heat, 12-hour shifts and a single shower for 700 troops.

"My husband hasn't had a shower since he left," Morrow said.

Karen Bacigalupi's husband, an Army intelligence officer, wrote her that he is sharing a huge tent in the desert with about 500 men, the cots two inches apart and the lights on at all times because of the constant turnover of men sleeping and working.

"We need to boost our morale as much as theirs," Howard said, rearranging the white sheet cake that congratulated her and three other pregnant women whose husbands or boyfriends left the food service division at Bethesda Naval Hospital to work aboard the Comfort.

"It's depressing, but we're all sticking together, calling each other almost every night," said Judy Swank, a 21-year-old Bethesda resident, who is expecting her first child in January.

Dianna Gonzalez, 20, whose baby is due in November, quit the Navy yesterday. Although she signed up for four years, she had the option of leaving because she is pregnant and took it. The Persian Gulf buildup made her realize that both she and her husband could get shipped out at a moment's notice. "After the baby is four months, I could be sent out on a ship, and I couldn't have that," she said.

Thursday is Wendy Howard's due date, but she is more focused on how long it will take to get word to her husband that she has given birth. "We know it's a boy. My husband already picked the name -- Derek. For all we know, he'll be a year old before his Dad comes home."