Single Parents Face Special Difficulties
By Elaine Wilson
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American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON - Army Spc. Sandie De Los Reyes steps over her threshold well after dark - balancing baby in one hand and grocery bags in the other - with her two sons following close behind.
She straps 10-month-old Precious into a highchair, spooning food into her mouth while she chats with her sons, who are perched on stools around the kitchen island. They laugh and plow their way through dinner with De Los Reyes never taking a seat.
The soldier next will embark on a litany of chores - homework, laundry, dishes and ironing, to name a few - that will keep her busy until well after the kids crash out for the night.
This day, she won’t ease her Army boots off until 11 p.m., when she finally sits down to give her husband, who is stationed in Georgia, a quick good-night call.
Bearing the brunt of the home-life burden is customary for De Los Reyes. A single mom until a year ago, the all-wheel vehicle mechanic has been juggling her work with her duties at home for more than a decade. Although married now, she still shoulders the home responsibilities while her husband is stationed elsewhere.
“I try to keep it together,” she said in an interview with American Forces Press Service. “I love being part of the Army, so it’s worth it.”
The active-duty military includes nearly 73,000 single parents, which equates to 5.3 percent of the total force, according to Defense Department statistics from 2008. The Army leads the way with more than 35,000 single parents, followed by the Navy with more than 16,000, and the Air Force with more than 15,000. The Marine Corps, the smallest force, has about 5,000.
Single parents balance heavy military demands with an equally demanding home life, acknowledged Barbara Thompson, director of the Defense Department’s office of family policy, children and youth. The military’s family support system recognizes this double duty, she added.
“The question is, ‘How we can better support them in that challenge of being in the military and a single parent?’” she said. “We have to realize [parenting is] a tough duty, whether single or dual military, because of their commitment to the nation.”
While officials take note of the numbers to shape programs and policies, they bear little relevance to servicemembers like De Los Reyes, who are dealing with the day-to-day challenges of busy jobs, a high deployment rate and a full plate at home.
Busy from sunup to sundown, De Los Reyes said, her work hours are the easiest part of her day. Her bosses at 159th Combat Aviation Brigade’s 563rd Aviation Support Battalion at Fort Campbell, Ky., recently handed her one of the new wreckers to operate, an honor she said was hard-earned.
She has no trouble dealing with work, she noted. It’s the home demands - doctor appointments, forgotten backpacks, missed morning buses - that create a challenge when they creep into her workday.
“That, in itself, is very difficult,” she said. “I have three kids to accommodate, and [my co-workers] sometimes don’t understand. They wonder, ‘Why are you leaving for a parent-teacher conference?’ ‘Because I don’t have a wife who can go,’ I tell them. I show 110 percent at work for those days that I have a sick child or parent-teacher conference.”
As a reminder to stay strong, she recently had a version of the “Serenity Prayer” tattooed on her right arm, an addition to the plethora of tattoos she’s acquired over the years. Her favorite part of her newest tattoo is “God grant me the strength.”
“That’s all I can ask for - just the strength to keep going,” she said.
Halfway around the world, Air Force Maj. Spring Myers, a single mother of two, is dealing with similar single-parent dilemmas. She’s deployed to Basra, Iraq, as the officer-in-charge of the combat stress clinic. Her 17-year-old daughter, Autumn, is back at her home station of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, with Myers’ mother, while her 20-year-old daughter, Summer, is in college in the states.
Myers was divorced from her husband in 2008 after a yearlong separation. He has had no contact with his children since then, she said, leaving the major to bear the brunt of the responsibilities. Single parenting is tough, Myers noted, and it was particularly so when her children were younger.
“I remember when [Autumn] was playing sports, I would have to pick her up or take her across [the] island, and I often made arrangements with other parents,” Myers said. “I had to be very creative. Sometimes she’d have to wait and was the last one to be picked up.
“My daughter would actually be frustrated that I was late a lot of times,” she said. “It was really tough for her to understand.”
The kids are older now, and the daily demands of parenting have eased up a bit, she said. Still, Myers credits the people around her for helping her through the tough times.
“I’ve always found a group of friends, a pseudo family, to help me out,” she said. “Thank God I formed a village. I’d call my friend, ‘There’s a gecko in the house,’ and she’d send her husband over to kill it.”
In Iraq, her latest challenge isn’t work; it’s helping Autumn apply to college. She’s working on obtaining college reference letters for her daughter in the after-hours of a busy workday.
“You just do what you’ve got to do,” Myers said. “I’m still a parent from a distance.”
Autumn is torn between understanding the military’s demands and feeling sad that her mother is missing chunks of her senior year.
“Because it was just my mom and I, life is more difficult now that she is gone,” she said. “Fortunately, I have other ‘families’ from church that help and support us.
“I know she would be here with me if she could,” she added.
Children of single parents can have a tough time dealing with deployments, particularly since they rely so heavily on the primary caregiver, Thompson said, making it all the more important to bolster their support.
“They may wonder, ‘What happens to me if something happens to Mom or Dad?’” she said.
Thompson encourages single parents to rely on military support systems such as child and youth centers, which have expanded support programs in recent years to accommodate the increasing military demands for all parents - single and military. Child development and youth centers, for instance, have extended their hours to accommodate military work schedules, she said. And online resources such as Tutor.com offers free tutoring services to military children, a helping hand to parents who may not have the time to provide extensive homework support.
Still, “I think that the support system, especially if on a military installation, must be made more robust,” Thompson said.
Thompson also pointed out the importance of parent-support networks, which can be useful for everything from babysitting and play groups to some much-needed adult time. “It helps to know you’re not alone,” she said.
The military will maintain its focus on the needs of its families. Whether married, single or dual-military, their quality of life remains a priority for defense officials, Thompson said.
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