While most soldiers spend their days dreaming of the time when they can return home to family and friends, reentry into everyday life is often a stressful event. For mothers who have served, it can be even more difficult. They are expected to immediately take over as the primary parent, with few resources to help them adapt to life at home.
Military Mothers: The Forgotten Warriors
As women’s roles in the military have changed, more mothers are experiencing extended deployments in combat zones. Women have gone from barred from the infantry to serving in heavy combat areas and have engaged in firefights in Afghanistan and Iraq. Despite their growing role in the military, the effects of deployment on women and mothers have been largely unstudied since the early 1990s.
Project ADAPT (After Deployment: Adaptive Parenting Tools) is a long-term study conducted by the University of Minnesota CEHD with the National Guard (for more, read my previous blog). It examines the effects of military deployment on families and what types of counseling programs can help make the transition easier. From July 2011 through March 2014, we recruited 336 families to be a part of a two-year study that helps observe and quantify their experiences in reintegrating a family member who had served in combat. Of the deployed military parents in the study, 57 were mothers, making this one of the first major studies to examine the effects of combat service on mothers and their families.
The Challenges of Home
Mothers often face greater challenges than fathers during deployment, especially when faced with a traditional military culture that may place stringent limits on emotional expression. Mothers are typically seen as (and provide) key nurturing and caretaking roles in the home, even in a society where fathers now spend more time with their children. The role of warrior is diametrically opposite from that of caregiver. And so, many female soldiers report concerns about sharing their lives as mothers in the military context.
The road home can also be a bumpy one for military mothers who have served. Looking at the data we have collected so far, we find that what deployed mothers report about their parenting and their children’s adjustment is pretty similar to what their non-deployed counterparts report (i.e. non-deployed wives of deployed men). However, when asked about their personal feelings, deployed mothers reported much higher levels of stress and distress compared with non-deployed mothers.
It is possible that the stressors faced by deployed mothers are related to different attitudes to reintegrating men and women. What military mothers tell us is that they are expected to immediately assume their duties as the primary parental caregiver after returning home. For men, the reintegration to fatherhood is often a more gradual process. Mothers who deploy overseas may also feel stigmatized; they are seen as abandoning their children while fathers are commended for their bravery and sacrifice.
By studying and recording the experiences of deployed military mothers, we hope that ADAPT will help play a role in helping create new resources for military families. In fact, we are pleased to announce that we have received funding from the Department of Defense for a new study, which will examine three versions of the ADAPT program to see if an entirely online program, or a “tele-health” approach where families meet with a facilitator via Skype are as effective as the current parenting groups in helping improve observed parenting and relationships.
Building a Better Future For Military Moms
It’s been an honor and a privilege to work with the military families we have met during the course of the ADAPT study. We’ve learned a lot, but much still needs to be done to serve a segment of our veteran population that has been overlooked for too long.
We’re starting to see some signs of progress in serving military families. Recently, the Veterans Administration changed some of its policies in order to better serve not just soldiers, but the entire military family, including children. An ADAPT group recently started at the Minneapolis VA; onsite childcare is provided for children of participants. This is just one example of the small steps that can be taken to better serve the needs of military mothers. As we continue to learn about the experiences of military families, we hope those findings can be translated into practice and policy changes to support our families who serve.[sc:abigail-gewirtz]
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