Parenting during a military deployment is something you can't truly understand unless you've experienced it. I imagine it's the same for single parenting. They're both such unique experiences that, in my opinion, comparisons are unfair. I was raised by a single mother, and I think that equating the two is inappropriate at best and offensive at worst. I don't want to diminish the struggles of childrearing through a deployment. I'm a proud Army spouse, but I won't call myself a single mom.
My parents were separated before I was born and divorced shortly after. As a result, caring for my sister and me fell exclusively on my mom. The three of us moved in with my grandparents, and in exchange for room and board, my mom took on all the household maintenance duties. During those early years she also did administrative work for the local teachers' union and, in addition to her job and household responsibilities, took community college classes. When mom started working as a secretary for a Certified Public Accountant, we were able to secure our own apartment. My sister and I wore secondhand clothes, had one pair of shoes each, and the one time my sister dropped the gallon of milk as a joke? Well, we didn't have milk that week. Nevertheless, I recall my childhood with great fondness. We were poor, sure, but we were also incredibly happy, and I give my mom all the credit.
My experience with motherhood has been wholly different from my mom's. I married an officer in the U.S. Army, and when I had our daughter nine months later, my husband's salary and benefits allowed me to leave my full-time teaching job to be a stay-at-home mom. When my daughter was 15-months-old, my husband left for a 12-month deployment in Afghanistan. It was an incredibly challenging time for our family. I learned a great deal of self-reliance, as I managed two new part-time jobs, childcare, and my role as Household 6. Shortly upon his return, I found out I was pregnant and he took command of a large company. With him working 12 or more hours a day, I find myself in the trenches of solo parenting, yet again. Still, I won't refer to myself as a single mom.
But when drawing comparisons becomes anything more than an exercise in empathy, it's problematic, because the differences are significant.
It's not that parenting during deployment and single motherhood don't have their similarities. In both situations, we're familiar with the loneliness of raising children on our own while simultaneously enjoying their undivided attention and the special bond that develops. We know how to handle literally everything, including finances, household and car maintenance, and, you know, nurturing tiny humans. We'll open our own peanut butter jars, thank you very much. But when drawing comparisons becomes anything more than an exercise in empathy, it's problematic, because the differences are significant.
I believe that the greatest disparity is income. Although some single moms receive child support, many are the sole providers for their family. Acccording to the National Women's Law Center, 41 percent of single moms live below the poverty line. Exclusive financial responsibility for a family is a tremendous burden, and single moms have to familiarize themselves with how to pay down debt, develop and follow a budget, manage credit, and take advantage of tax breaks. I'm lucky in that my husband makes enough that my supplemental income is just that — a bonus. It's important to note that not all soldiers' wages are enough to support a family, but family separation and combat pay do make a difference.
Single moms have to make choices I can't possibly imagine, like risking job security to take care of a sick child.
Benefits are another perk guaranteed to military moms but not single parents. The ease with which we access healthcare is something military spouses often take for granted. I complain about Tricare, sure. Nobody likes being on the phone with an insurance company, but the fact remains that my child and I can be seen for routine and emergency care and get testing and medications at little to no cost to us. When I received my bill from the hospital after the birth of my child, my balance was zero. At one point, I looked at what it would cost to add my child to my insurance plan as a teacher, and it was literally the balance of my paycheck. I honestly don't know how single moms have money left for rent or house payment, utilities, and groceries.
Single moms don't have the option of staying home with their children, either. Lots of military moms navigate full- and part-time jobs, side hustles, and childcare outside the home. For some families, it's a necessity, but for many, like mine, it's a choice. I don't know that I would call it a luxury, but I do have the ability to stay at home with my kids. I can take my daughter to parent and child swimming lessons or dance classes, story time at the library, and playdates at the park... and I don't have to work horrendous hours or sacrifice my own health to do so. Single moms have to make choices I can't possibly imagine, like risking job security to take care of a sick child.
When people found out my husband was deployed, they not only thanked him for his service, they thanked me for mine.
Although I assume most single mothers can't understand the stress of constant worry over a partner's safety (my husband was at Bagram Air Force Base when a bombing killed five people), we milspouses do have a reasonable expectation that our solo situation will end in six, nine, or 12 months. For me, there's light at the end of the tunnel. Single moms are in it for the long haul, unless they find a long-term parenting partner and/or get married again (assuming that's something they even want and they meet someone who's compatible and likes children).
Finally, there's a stigma around single motherhood that military moms just don't experience. On the contrary, we're widely respected for our sacrifices in a way that single moms aren't. When people found out my husband was deployed, they not only thanked him for his service, they thanked me for mine. As a spouse of a deployed soldier, you have access to free hourly childcare, a stipend for kids' activities like swimming, and counseling and support services. I mean, how many single moms can say that a national organization hosts baby showers in their honor?
At the end of the day, it's not about who has it harder than who (although I expect it's pretty clear how I feel about that). What's most important is that we recognize and appreciate each other's respective journeys. Your battle may be co-parenting while mine is reintegration, but we moms need to stick together. Whatever your situation, I won't pretend I understand what you're going through, but I will have your back.
Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.