Military fathers face challenges balancing home/uniformed life.

  • Published
  • By Capt. Jerry Novack
  • 96th Medical Group
Fathering can start with a paradox--fathering a child is so simple and easy it frequently happens "by accident," and yet being a dad can prove one of the most daunting, intimidating, and difficult tasks a man ever faces.

While there are millions of involved, nurturing fathers in the world, realities such as poverty and incarceration can contribute to a sense of impossibility about fathering for some men. Additionally, conflicting social expectations (e.g. good fathers provide for their families, and good fathers are regularly home spending time with their children) worsen the situation by making "good" fathering a lose-lose proposition.

Studies reveal even highly motivated fathers feel confused and uncertain about their role. Specific family situations, too, can create even greater barriers to involved fathering. Military fathers frequently experience the confounding effects of general/social obstacles, and specific difficulties related to their service.

Military service provides several benefits for families, but there are also costs: frequent moves, periodic absence (due to deployment), the potential for injury or death of the father, and a rigid structure. These challenges can interact with the aforementioned situations and expectations to create frustration and discourage involved parenting for some military men.

The Generative Fathering approach argues that fathering is work--a job to be done. According to the authors of GF, "fatherwork" is the most challenging and the most meaningful job a man can have. In this approach, fathers identify their children's various biological, psychological, and social needs and help those children address their needs by maximizing the father's individual strengths and abilities.

Also central in GF is the assumption that each family's situation is unique and has an impact on children and fathers. This attention to context becomes extremely valuable when considering men who need to integrate fathering with serving in the armed forces.

Researchers working with military families have identified factors that have the potential to either ease or exacerbate the stress and difficulty that accompanies deployment.

First, the relationship quality between fathers and their children is a powerful predictor of family adjustment to the deployment and post-deployment reintegration. By maintaining a loving, involved relationship with his children, a military father can help ensure family success during and after deployment. Also, an important predictor of family cohesion and adaptability with regards to deployment is gender expression.

Families with more rigid roles and expectations tend to struggle more with deployment and post-deployment reintegration. When roles are less rigid, a female partner or child can take over some of the family duties and household responsibilities typically expected of men (e.g. automobile maintenance), thus easing some of the stress resulting from his absence. Similarly, a service member willing to participate in some of the more "female" household chores (e.g. washing dishes) can help smooth his transition home.
Flexibility of this sort helps combat the perception that while she is expected to help with his jobs during his absence, he is somehow above helping with her jobs when he returns home.

Finally, finding meaning in military service seems to predict more successful family outcomes during and after deployment. Families who consider military service meaningful and important work tend to cope with stressors related to deployment and reintegration better than those who join the military for pragmatic reasons, but do not find the work meaningful.

Another potential threat to functioning in military families is the frequency with which they tend to move. Military children are often moved away from their friends and forced to change schools, sometimes mid-term.

While moving can be challenging, military psychiatrist, Kay Tooley, observes, "moving seems to improve family adjustment or individual adjustment almost as often as it disturbs it."

In fact, military children tend to realize better academic performance, higher scores on IQ and achievement tests, and lower rates of delinquency and incarceration when compared to civilian children. Family attitudes about diversity and long-distance relationships seem the most important factor in predicting adjustment to frequent moves.

Families who enjoy new foods and customs tend to thrive from frequent moves, seeing them as an opportunity for adventure and instead of a disruption of the status quo. Families that enjoy maintaining cross-national and international relationships with friends and relatives do even better.

Fathering can be elusive and intimidating for many men. Fathers serving in the armed forces must contend with the challenges of fathering within the context of a service member's life, which contains its own struggles and difficulties. By helping military fathers understand and address their children's various needs, relaxing family roles, developing an appreciation for diversity and adventure, and finding meaning and value in their work, friends and clinicians can help foster resilience, health and happiness for military families. Happy Father's Day.