Military Fathers Can't Win

daughter and father

Three weeks ago, I wrote that society's new expectations of fathers mean that military men who leave their children from months at a time are sacrificing in new and different ways than did their predecessors. 

Readers said I was complaining about being a military wife. This is what you signed up for and military families always want sympathy were common sentiments.

That surprised me because the column wasn't particularly supportive of the military. What I wrote was that it is more commonplace for all fathers to be at every parent-teacher conference, Little League game and school play. Consequently, men considering a career in the military will have more to consider before they enlist. Fatherhood is becoming a new hurdle for recruitment and retention.

Men who aren't fully and physically present in their children's lives are now looked upon with the same disdain as working mothers of a generation ago. The whole parenting thing has flip-flopped.

Women have, for the most part, come to terms with their dual home-work lives. For men, it is a new concept. It's not enough just to bring home the bacon; a dad has to be there to cook it, eat it and clean up afterward, too. And if you can't do it all, well then, you pretty much stink. (PS: Welcome to our world, Dads.)

This is a new and unbeatable challenge for military dads in particular because they have no choice (aside from enlisting in the first place) about whether they are home for tonight's dinner or the next 365 family dinners.

Several generations ago, men enlisted to protect the women and children they loved back home. Now, they may enlist to do the same thing, but people view them as deadbeat dads because of it. (Sound familiar, moms?)

A week after that column was published, I wrote a separate one about my oldest son's last year of Little League and how he did not make the All Star team.

My husband has not been physically present for most of Ford's Little League career. He has, however, provided much encouragement and lessons through email and the telephone. In fact, while Dustin was deployed overseas, he watched Ford pitch for the first time through Skype on my iPhone.

But you can't play catch through the phone or the computer. I realize that. Everyone knows that. Still, some readers wasted no time reinforcing the point: If Dustin hadn't been away, maybe his son would have made All Stars.

Except someone did play catch with Ford: Me! His brothers and anyone else in the community who accepted Ford's invitation also played catch with him.So I'm not sure the blame can be placed squarely on Dustin.          

Ford didn't make All Stars because he can't hit the ball very far. Maybe that's because his dad wasn't here. Maybe it's because his mom was helping him. Maybe it's because he hasn't hit his growth spurt. Maybe he hadn't had his Wheaties that morning.

But does it really even matter why? These are Ford's life circumstances. Everyone has some.

Yet after the second column, a reader wrote me and asked, "Why does a father join the military and do that to his kids?"

I'm not sure what "that" is, but my answer is this: A father joins the military today for the same reason fathers always have -- to protect the ones they love. The only thing that has changed is society's idea of what a father should be, which is moving closer to what a mother always has been expected to be.

So shouldn't it have been enough that I was out there playing catch with Ford? Or should I have been folding laundry and making beds instead?

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Navy wife Sarah Smiley is a syndicated newspaper columnist and the author of Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife (2005) and I'm Just Saying (2008). She has been featured in the New York Times and Newsweek, and on Nightline, The Early Show, CNN, Fox News and other local and national news outlets. Her liferights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet, and Paramount Television to be made into a half-hour sitcom. Visit www.SarahSmiley.com for more details. To contact Sarah, you can also visit her Facebook page.

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