The Modern Military Mom

Melba Newsome
Sept. 9, 2011

How do today's military moms differ from those who raised them? Two spouses share their stories.

David, Witt and Will Maxwell are only 10, 8 and 6, respectively. But, as legacies of both Annapolis and West Point, they have already decided on a career in the military. David plans to be a naval pilot. Witt wants to join the army and Will has his eyes set on the Coast Guard. If they follow through on their plans, they will be the family's fifth generation of full-time, active duty military.

Their mom, Babette Maxwell, and grandmom, Joan Gaither, were both military brats who later became military wives. Yet, their experiences are a world apart. Gaither, 68 met her husband, Tom, while in college and, from the moment they married, her identity was that of a military spouse. By the time Maxwell met her husband David, she had already completed college and was working as an engineer for the Navy. She has continued to work full-time and is currently an editor for "Military Spouse" magazine. She identifies as a working mom first.

However, there is no daylight between them on their love for the life of military spouse. When mother and daughter get together or have one of their marathon telephone conversations, they trade military spouse war stories and marvel at how much things have changed in the armed services in recent decades.

"We are light years ahead of where we were 30-40 years ago," says Maxwell. "The Defense Department mentality used to be 'if the government had wanted you to have a family, they would have issued you one!'"

One of the most tangible changes has happened in technology. Advances in communications mean that the at-home spouse is not necessary relegated to being a single parent when the other spouse is deployed. During the Vietnam War, Gaither was a young wife with two small children. It often took weeks to get a letter to her husband, Tom. By the time she heard back, that problem was resolved and replaced by a whole new set of concerns.

Maxwell, on the other hand, is able to maintain almost constant contact with David even when he is at sea for months at a time. She can send an email, a text or set-up a video conference with the click of a mouse to get his input on family matters.

Most of the lifestyle changes that have taken place are the result of reforms within the military culture. They are due, in part, to a sea change in the women who have served over the past four decades. Prior to 1975, pregnant women or women with children were forced to leave the service. Now, they not only remain but can advocate for better policies and procedures that impact families.

"The Defense Department has finally realized that, if you want to retain the recruit or servicemember, you've got to keep the family happy, too," says Gaither. Efforts to address those quality of life issues include focusing on more support, education, employment and better child care services.

For example, in addition to the roughly 800 Child Development Centers on military installations around the world, the Defense Department has partnered with the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies to help military families find and afford appropriate child care. Despite these resources, child care options are very limited for military families.

The Military Spouse Career Advancement Accounts (MyCAA) program provides up to $4,000 of financial assistance over two years for military spouses who are pursuing degree programs, licenses or credentials in portable career fields.

On June 29, the Defense Department launched a joint program with the Chamber of Commerce to expand career opportunities for military spouses worldwide. They are holding job fairs for veterans and military spouses across the country this summer.

Family Readiness Groups or FRG's were established to provide tools, support and outreach to help family members adjust to military deployments and separations which will, in turn, help support the military mission. FRG's did not exist when Gaither was an army spouse.

Gaither points out that the spouses themselves have also changed, particularly in their willingness to voice their opinions. "As an officer's wife, we never spoke up about anything because we worried about costing our husbands their careers," she says. "I recall a Commanding General saying 'I can't even fathom any of you wives having a career except to support your husband.' I believed him. I had to work hard to find my identity besides being my husband's spouse."

Some things have not changed and both mom and daughter hope they never do. When David Maxwell retires from the Navy in 2014, the family will have moved 29 times over 20 years. The Gaithers moved 37 times during their 28 years as an Army family. "By changing houses and towns, we get to reinvent ourselves every couple of years," says Maxwell. "We view the world as our home. It's all part of our nomadic spirit."

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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