By virtue of presidential decree, November is National Veterans and Military Families Month. Because of the Veteran’s Day observance, the focus often falls to the veteran aspect of this month. I wanted to take some time to unpack some tangible ways for the military community to honor and celebrate Military Families from within.
Acknowledge That Families are Different and Mean Different Things to Different People
Our society has changed and evolved and so has the military. Though Tricare and DEERS still defines ‘family’ in a very black and white manner (marriage, birth, adoption, guardianship) it is important to realize that family means different things for different people.
For a single Airman, her family may be her parents and siblings but, in a dorm living situation, it may also include roommate, close friends and coworkers. There are many folks who also may not have warm, familial feelings for those who are ‘by definition’ family – estrangement, abandonment and abuse are real.
Given these facts, it is important that the military community embrace and celebrate all manifestations of family. Any military family will tell you, family is NOT defined by blood relation.
Encourage and Facilitate New Parent Supports
This is mainly aimed at those in supervisory positions – you are not a better leader because you never take leave, work 16 hours a day and answer emails on the weekend. All the branches have really stepped up with Parental Leave programs with up to 12 weeks for the primary caregiver and between 14-21 days for secondary caregivers.
As a leader, your everyday discussions with an expecting subordinate should include firm insistence on a plan for taking the full parental leave entitlement. We all hang up the uniform eventually but the assistance given to a new parent cannot be recreated.
Leaders should also familiarize themselves with regulations regarding the pumping and storing of breastmilk. [Personal Pet Peeve: A bathroom is NOT an authorized pumping location.]
Work with your female subordinates to figure out solutions and be at the forefront of the discussion. Even if she doesn’t choose to take advantage of the space, you making sure it is planned for prior to her delivery speaks volumes.
Finally, acknowledge that childcare is a critical need and concern for all parents. Expecting parents should be made aware of the unborn waitlist for the base Child Development Center as well as options for childcare subsidies (as available) through Child Care Aware.
Participate in Family Training, Learning and Togetherness Opportunities
The opportunities abound on any base of any branch – GO!
The financial management class and counseling offered by the Airman and Family Readiness Center – GO!
The Family Resilience Training offered by the FOCUS Project (also available as teleFOCUS online now) – GO!
The Family Campout put on by Outdoor Recreation – GO!
The paintball trip hosted by the Single Marine Program – GO!
As a parent, I know how busy life gets. Between work, school, sports and general survival it can feel like a bridge too far to block out time for purely leisure pursuits. Do it anyway! Make sandwiches for dinner and fold laundry late at night; your family will be strengthened and enriched if you make it a priority.
It’s Not All Sunshine and Rainbows
Military family life is hard. The highlight reels show exuberant homecomings, smiling promotions and well-traveled children. What isn’t shown is the struggle for a new normal during reintegration, the missed meals and solo vacations because “duty called” or the counseling to deal with the anxiety of being the new kid yet again.
The military as a whole has gotten a lot better at asking servicemembers tough questions about suicide and mental health. It’s time we start normalizing those tough conversations within the military family. Moving can be hard. Adjusting can be hard. Extended separations can be hard. Let’s call a spade a spade and speak it aloud.
Instead of “I don’t know how you do it” let’s try “How can I help”
Instead of “I’m sure you’ll make friends soon and adjust to this new home, it’s just a phase” let’s try “Are you thinking about killing yourself? Can I sit with you to make a call for help?”
Instead of “military kids are so resilient” let’s try “sometimes it’s difficult to adjust, what can we do to work through this. It’s ok if you need someone to talk to.”
I speak for myself when I say I am very proud to be part of a military family. My children and I all feel a sense of pride and patriotism when discussing our connection to the military. During this Month of the Military Family, let’s look around at our neighbors, our friends, our fellow military families and acknowledge the fact that, through highs and lows, we are making this life work and our military is better because of our connection to it.