Finding a balance between family and military life

By an anonymous military wife.

Last month, I began my blog with a series of statistics to help demonstrate the challenges that military life presents to the job prospects of a military wife.

This month, I want to try and make that challenge a little bit more real by relaying the story of Sophie, a military wife I spoke to whilst researching this blog. Sophie – a university graduate – worked in design in the city, where her career went from strength to strength. Despite a busy-working like, during this time she maintained a relationship with a military engineer. After they married, like most ordinary couples, they wanted to set up home together and, given he had little choice about his geography, Sophie moved to the military base and they began to build their life.

As family responsibilities increased, the long 3 hour commute each day from the base to her job in the city began to take its toll on Sophie and her career. Undeterred and determined to stay economically active, she set up her own business, offering a domestic cleaning service in the local area. Once again, this career went from strength to strength and within a year, she had already taken on her first employees.

However, a year earlier than expected and with little consultation about Sophie’s business and her wishes, Sophie’s husband was reposted. The family were expected to move to the new base and away from the business Sophie had built with just eight weeks notice.

Of course, this example highlights only the obvious disruption to the career of one woman. What it fails to shed light on is the complex myriad of challenges this constant movement presents to thousands of military families up and down the country. Like the mum, who, over time, has managed to negotiate job flexibility and build a delicate network of childcare and support, which enables her to work at the moment – but who will have to start again from scratch at the next base.

Like the teenager facing the prospect of GCSEs next year, but who simultaneously has to deal with the challenge of starting a new school and making new friends.

Like the dad, who can currently go to work with peace of mind because he knows his toddler has a high-quality nursery place, but who is worried about finding a place of the same standard, at short notice, in a new town.

I am no expert, but on average, it seems clear to me that many soldiers and NCOs can be expect to be posted every five years or so, with many Officers facing moves every 2-3 years. What is less clear to me is, why this is still necessary? I am told that moving around keeps people ‘fresh’ and ‘on their toes’, which may be true. But do these advantages outweigh the disruption and pressures to family life, which must surely also have a professional impact on military personnel?

I’m not sure what the solution to this conundrum is.

But one way forward could be to build on the Executive Branch structure, which currently sees high fliers propelled to the senior ranks more quickly that would normally be expected. If a similar scheme were expanded to all personnel, those who chose to opt-in to the nomadic military way of life – moving around to new posts and building a wide range of different experiences – could expect to quickly rise through the ranks. Others could choose to opt out of the scheme, knowing that the trade off for a slower pace of promotion is a more stable and predictable family life.

Alternatively, the right to request a ‘time out’ once or twice over the course a military career could be explored. This would mean that at key stages in family life – perhaps when children are very young, or when older children are going through key examination periods in school – military families could ask to ‘skip a turn’ and be passed over during the period when they would usually be expected to move.

As for me, we’ve now been at our current base for 16 months. This is the longest we’ve ever managed to stay in one place and a move is probably on the cards at the end of the year. Like many military wives, I have no idea where we’ll end up or what it will mean for my job.

So, whatever the solution to the conundrum is, I hope that Labour can lead the debate. I hope that we can become the champions, not just of the armed forces themselves, but also of forces’ families. Because, when defence headlines focus on the big issues, like Argentina or aircraft carriers, it is all too easy to overlook the less-newsworthy pressures many ordinary military families still face.

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