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Just the Two of Us: Child-Free Couples and Military Culture

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I still remember the first Family Readiness Group dinner that I attended after getting engaged to my husband.  Most of the women in attendance were either pregnant, shepherding fairly young children, or both, and I barely lasted five minutes before a complete stranger hit me with the apparently inevitable (and apparently actually well-intended) question:  “So, when are y’all going to have babies?”

When I answered politely, “Actually, we’re not,” there was not so much as a cricket chirping in that room.  Fortunately, the friend who had dragged me along quickly rescued me by asking one of the pilots’ wives something about her husband, and I escaped to awkwardly focus on the dinner menu.

I really wanted to be involved and connected; I wanted to get to know these women who were theoretically experiencing the same unusual circumstances that I was experiencing, make friends, and enjoy being part of a mutual support network.  Over the following weeks, I tactfully endured far too much conversation about poop and spit-up, and I tried to be discreet about rolling my eyes at yet another pile of kid-centric arts-and-crafts projects in the weekly e-mail newsletter (which I quickly began to ignore entirely).  I began to wonder if I was just a demographic misfit, so I did some research.

About a third of active-duty couples (including dual-military couples) have no children (according to Demographics 2009: Profile of the Military Community).  Surprisingly, given the popular perception of military culture as more conservative than average, this is actually a higher rate of childlessness than in the civilian population, where 19.4% of all women ages 15-44 who have ever been married have no children (according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey).  Couples with no children remain a minority, but they represent a much larger minority in the military than in the civilian community.  31.2% is a demographic minority to be reckoned with.

Despite these shifting demographics, the culture surrounding military spouses remains focused on children in ways that often make non-parent spouses feel excluded.  During my husband’s last deployment, I noticed that most Family Readiness Group activities seemed to be overwhelmingly either for or about children; several other child-free spouses, including some I know personally and some whose blogs I follow, have made the same observation.  The feeling most of us are left with is that without children, we do not count and most FRGs are not interested in including us, supporting us, or offering us relevant, interesting activities.  Especially in the middle of a deployment, this can leave non-parent spouses feeling isolated when they most need involvement and support- and when the other spouses in the unit can most benefit from their involvement and support.

Counting single service members (including the 5.3 percent of the total active-duty force who are single parents), 17.5% of the active-duty military still consists of married soldiers with no children.  That makes married service members without children a smaller minority than female active-duty service members, who make up 14.3% of the active-duty force.  Commendably, military-wide efforts have been made in the last few decades to integrate female service members into the military, involve them in the military community, and make them feel like welcome members of the organization.  Unfortunately, the military has yet to motivate or equip its Family Readiness programs to make a similar effort on behalf of an even larger minority in the military- married service members without children.

If any branch of the U.S. military wants a more cohesive force supported by active, engaged Family Readiness programs, those programs need to welcome, include, and provide relevant activities and information to all families regardless of size.  Children and parenting concerns cannot and should not be overlooked, but programs and activities can and should be added to address topics relevant to all military spouses.  Examples could include scheduling more adult-only social gatherings, outings, or activities; workshops or seminars on topics like employment, educational benefits, or mental health issues faced by service members; or even programs designed specifically to address the needs and interests of couples without children.

The culture and attitudes of the military and its associated social circles have to catch up with demographic realities.  As a society, we are past the period when all marriages must produce children and all women must want babies.  The decision to raise children is an admirable and rewarding one, but it is not the only admirable or rewarding decision a person or a couple can make.  A culture which acknowledges and respects that will lead to stronger families, stronger friendships, and a stronger military.