by James G. Bruen, Jr.
In late September, the New York Times continued its series on Women at Arms. Wartime Soldier, Conflicted Mom addressed the issue of mothers at war, which the Times had downplayed in the series’ August installments discussed in the October Culture Wars.
“More than 100,000 female soldiers who have served in the wars are mothers, nearly half the number of women who have been deployed,” the Times now notes. “The vast majority are primary caregivers, and a third are single mothers.”
The military has adapted to women at war by providing contraceptives, ultrasounds, gynecological exams, and, for married couples, trailers. “Motherhood, though, poses a more formidable challenge for the armed forces.” Of course it does: the military has to convince mothers that something else is more important than their children.
“[M]others, whether married or single, say that long periods of time away from their children and then the transition back to domestic life — where they are expected to immediately resume household responsibilities — can be excruciatingly difficult.” Is this a surprise? And, of course, not all women have opportunity to transition back to domestic life. “At least 25 women with children have died” in Iraq or Afghanistan.
What trumps a mother’s responsibility and privilege to raise her children?
Staff Sgt. Connica McFadden of the Army received only two weeks’ notice that she would be deploying and scrambled to find a caretaker for her 6-month-old daughter and 6-year-old son. … Heartbroken, she weaned the baby abruptly and left her with an aunt, while her son stayed elsewhere with his grandmother.
Not obeying orders was not an option. Sergeant McFadden, who holds only an associate’s degree, wanted to hold on to her career. ‘It matters what I do,’ Sergeant McFadden said. ‘I love helping people. It’s for our country. My dad was a Vietnam vet. I feel like I owe it to him.’
Why did McFadden ignore her heartbreak? Because she owed it to her dad to leave her infant daughter? Because “helping people” is more important than helping her own children? Patriotism means abandoning your children to others? Career trumps kids?
When Willa Townes, a single mother in the Army Reserve, was called to Iraq early in the war, her sister agreed to watch her 5-year-old son — then backed out two weeks before Ms. Townes was to deploy. ‘I broke down right there,’ Ms. Townes said. ‘I was devastated.’
Refusing deployment was not an option, she said. She was then the No. 3 person in the chain of command, and it was her 15th year in the military. She needed five more years to retire with a hefty bonus. ‘I wanted to go,’ said Ms. Townes, who retired last year as a lieutenant colonel. ‘I needed to go.’
Frantic, she turned to her son’s first day care provider, who had become a friend and volunteered to take him for the year Ms. Townes was away. ‘We were not related at all,’ Ms. Townes recalled, adding that the arrangement worked wonderfully and that she insisted on sending her friend money for expenses. ‘We were not even of the same race. That didn’t matter. People come together to help you when you are in need.’
Why was Townes so devastated that her sister backed out? After all, Townes owed a greater responsibility to her son than did his aunt. Why was fulfilling her responsibility to her son “not an option”? Townes “wanted to go,” instead of staying to raise her son. Why did she abandon her son to a day care provider? So she could “retire with a hefty bonus”? The idea that people help each other when they are in need seemingly doesn’t apply to her serving her son’s needs.
What’s the military’s position on this? Perhaps unsurprisingly, whatever serves its mission seems to be its mantra. “Hanging on to today’s war-savvy, battle-tested cadre of mothers — and would-be mothers — is both crucial and difficult for the Army, say officers, enlistees and experts.”
The most efficacious approach for the military, apparently, would be to raise the children itself, allowing mothers to focus on war. “Some fixes, though, are relatively straightforward. ‘The one thing the military could do that would have a lasting and immediate impact would be to provide plentiful round-the-clock child care,’ said Lory Manning, who directs the military women’s project for the Women’s Research and Education Institute, a nonprofit group.” Plentiful round-the-clock childcare? Rousseau would be pleased. Perhaps these military orphanages could help prepare the children for future wars by including mandatory drill.
Women warriors cannot avoid the inherent conflict between militarism and maternity. “Technology has helped soften the separation for many parents. Webcams and Skype have allowed them to talk to their children over dinner or before school. They leave teddy bears behind with recorded messages or record themselves reading books that their children love.” But it’s not just about softening the separation for parents: it’s about the kids. And technology is no replacement for mommy; a recorded message from a mother killed in Iraq is slight solace for her child.
Military mothers still “fret most about the consequences that long deployments will have on their children.” And well they should. “Recent surveys indicate that most children, while largely resilient, experience worry and anxiety when a parent deploys, and the military has tried to address this by increasing counseling services. Nevertheless, grades and behavior suffer. Young children cry more. Some start wetting their beds. Nightmares are common, and teenagers can become more reclusive and defiant.”
Mothers know this implicitly, yet our society values motherhood so slightly in comparison to job, career, and militarism that even those who explicitly recognize it remain conflicted, hesitant to abandon their military careers.
Maj. Katherine P. Guttormsen, who has a year-old son, dreads the moment she gets the call to go back to Iraq or Afghanistan …. The thought keeps her up at night, she said.
As a mother in the military, ‘the sacrifice is greater now,’ said Major Guttormsen, a graduate of West Point who served in Iraq as company commander of an engineering unit then switched to public affairs when she decided to have a child. ‘This is a different Army than I entered into in 1996. It was fun. You were doing exercises. You weren’t going to Iraq and getting shot at.’
Major Guttormsen, who was a ‘lioness,’ part of the first team of Army women to search Iraqi women in Ramadi in 2004, said, ‘I don’t know if I get that call, if I would be able to do it, and that would be the end of my Army career.’
Women have something better and more important to do than go off to war: bear and raise children. Our country's laws should recognize that. This view, though, is unpopular today as it also argues against women in the workforce, daycare, contraception, extramarital sex, abortion, and permissive divorce laws, all of which are now ingrained as parts of the American way of life.
In that sense, the military mirrors the attitudes of civilian society. When the Times ran its installment on the conflict felt by military mothers, the Washington Post ran a piece by a women reporter on latchkey kids, middle schoolers left on their own after school, that played off her own experience.
The Post reporter, Brigid Schulte, was “angry” she had had trouble “figur[ing] out what to do with an 11-year-old after school.” Her gripe: “The structure of work and school have yet to catch up with the realities of modern American life.” In other words, no else will care for her son while she’s at work. Her solution? Let him shift for himself: he “is perfectly happy having some time alone for now.” She promises she’ll “try” to work from home more and “cobble something together” for him, which lets her sanctimoniously bemoan the fact that “plenty of his classmates will just go home alone,” ignoring that that is exactly what her eleven year old does now.
Unless we reinstitute respect for motherhood, the most noble human calling, women will continue to search futilely for something else to fulfill them, and their children will continue to suffer, left alone or in day care. Mothers will continue to fight Iraqis, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Afghans, terrorists, Iranians, or whomever else our government designates as the enemy du jour while their children are left to fend for themselves.
James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.
This article was published in the December 2009 issue of Culture Wars.
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