“I would like to … but I don’t have childcare.”
We all love our children and are glad we have them. But sometimes being their caretaker is the thing standing between us and the things we want or, often, actually need to do.
Of course, this isn’t an issue unique to military life. Everyone has childcare problems. But the civilian world has a few extra tricks up their sleeves – like proximity to helpful family members and living long enough in one place to develop a network of trusted, lifelong friends – that we often don’t. They also are more likely to have the consistent and reliable presence of a spouse who can pitch-in with daycare pick-up or taking a shift at swim team practice.
Military spouse-hood, on the other hand, is more often like a solo-parenting. We are on point for everything because, even if he’s home, our spouse’s schedule may not allow him or her to be very reliable. I know that pick-ups, drop-offs, parent-teacher conferences, sports practices, play dates and at-home time are all, by default, on me. If I want to be sure someone else is going to have a turn, that someone probably has to be hired help.
And that is why childcare is such a huge, huge issue in the military spouse community. So huge, in fact, that the subject permeates the new annual Blue Star Families military life report, released late last month. Even in the spots that childcare isn’t specifically mentioned like the transition section, said Cristin Orr Shiffer, the deputy director of research and policy for Blue Star Families, there is an undertone of kid-care woes and concerns.
“Childcare is one of those subjects that goes horizontally across all the sections,” she said. “In qualitative responses, child care came into play.”
Where the issue makes the biggest difference is, predictably, in the subject of military spouse employment and education, the report shows. Thirty-five percent of those who took the survey said childcare has a “significant impact” on their pursuit of employment and education, while 18 percent said they don’t pursue either because of childcare problems.
And of those not working who wished to be employed, 49 percent said child-related factors are what are stopping them.
That childcare issues are such a headache for spouses makes DoD’s and the services’ attitudes towards it something of a mystery. Spouses are asked to volunteer for their units, show up at transition briefings and be generally available – often without acknowledgement that they are solo parenting and may simply not be able to swing it without back-up from their spouse or available childcare. “Free” isn’t even necessarily a top issue, but affordable and easy-to-find certainly are.
So why do childcare concerns so often seem like an afterthought? It could be because they just don’t think about it, Shiffer said. Like spouse employment problems in the past where solutions were only developed after leaders stopped thinking about spouses as people who wanted to stay home, leaders now need to shift their thinking towards childcare solutions.
“Their eyes haven’t been open to the issue yet – it just doesn’t occur to them,” she said. “You can’t compare the civilian population and their childcare needs to military families and their childcare needs. Military families have a very different and acute need for childcare, even if the spouse isn’t working.”