“You never see a female sailor hugging a teenager goodbye,” mused the chief’s wife. We were chatting in Target about a deployment picture we had both seen in The Virginian Pilot. The photographer caught the sailor in the moment she knelt on the pier to kiss her preschooler goodbye. Her son was so little that when he bent his head to cry, it exactly reached her shoulder.
“I could never do it,” the two of us said at exactly the same time. We both had a good idea of exactly what it must have cost that sailor to stand up and walk away. That’s what brave looks like.
“But I could leave a 14-year-old,” I mused.
“Or a 16-year-old,” agreed the chief’s wife.
And that’s when I came up with my most brilliant idea of all time. We need to start recruiting females for the military at 40. We need to go out there and collect them when all their children talk. We need to hustle them into the recruiter’s office when the patterns of family life are on automatic pilot. We need them when the idea of a cruise -- even a cruise upon which you work 18-hour days folding laundry or working the mess deck -- seems like a vacation compared to shepherding your own teenagers.
I could go for that.
The Navy never will. The military is a profession for the young and supple.
Yet the Navy already recognizes that it has a problem retaining women at midcareer. While it has been demonstrated that military females perform on par with their male counterparts during their early careers, women are less likely to stay Navy.
Plenty of people will hear that and jump on the military-life-is-incompatible-with-pregnancy/childbirth/breastfeeding bandwagon. I won’t. That stuff is mostly just plumbing.
Instead, I look at that female sailor on the pier and I am so aware of all the cultural factors around family building that contribute to that woman’s decision. In her recent book, For The Family, sociologist Sarah Damaske studied the way women make decisions about paid employment and family life. She was surprised that all the women in her study -- regardless of class or race or education -- framed their employment decisions the same way. Whether they were home with their kids, working part time or working full time, the women all gave the same reason: I’m doing it for the family. Each woman looked at her personal constellation of factors and made a choice based on what was best for her family.
I wonder if Big Navy realizes that this is what women need to be able to say to be at peace with their careers? Moms in particular need to be able to say:
Putting this uniform on today is the best thing I can do for my family.
Earning this particular package of pay and benefits is the best thing I can do for my family.
Being deployed for eight months right now at this point in my marriage and at this point in my son’s life is the best thing I can do for my family.
I can see how a three-year-old with his head bent to your shoulder makes a powerful argument against military life. A 14-year-old chillin’ with his dad in front of the ballgame might possibly be easier to leave. But I don’t know. Recruit me at 40 and find out.