Child-care issues are an impossible challenge for Army moms and dads

On Nov. 6, Specialist Alexis Hutchinson was arrested. Hutchinson, 21, had arrived back on her military base in Savannah, Ga., just a week earlier with her 10-month-old son, Kamani, in tow. This was not a happy trip. She'd been home in Oakland, Calif., on leave, where her mother, Angelique Hughes, broke the bad news: It wasn't working out.

Kamani's dad isn't involved in the child's life, and Hughes had agreed to keep the baby for a year while Hutchinson joined her unit, headed toward Afghanistan. But Hughes is already caring for an ailing mother and sister, a special-needs daughter, and up to 14 children during the day in an in-home day care. Kamani was one responsibility too many.
Facing Prison

Like 85,000 other single parents in the U.S. Army, Hutchinson had a dependent-care plan -- in her mother -- and now the plan had fallen apart. She told her commanding officer of her problem and was given 30 days to develop a new plan. But five days later, she was told that her deployment to Afghanistan would take place the next day, on Nov. 5. If she couldn't find a solution, her son would be placed in foster care. Hutchinson freaked out, certain she'd lose her son if she reported with him to the base the next day. So she stayed home.

An Army publicist tells the Associated Press that Hutchinson would not have been deployed, had she arrived at the airfield with her son. But that's hard to believe -- and I say that not just because of my own experience of the stark difference between Army protocol and Army bluster. Hutchinson saw two choices: hide while the plane takes off, or give up her child. And as a young soldier on her first deployment, probably not blessed with wisdom beyond her years, how could she have known different?

Within a day, she'd turned herself in and was arrested for failing to deploy. Her son was taken from her for the night. Her mother arrived the next day from Oakland to take him back to California. Now Alexis is facing prison time and may be court-martialed, although for now, the deployment is on hold until the military sorts it out.

Combat and Child Care

This story is terrible not just because of war's toll on this young mother and her toddler, but because 85,000 other single parents and their children -- and probably many other families with both parents in the military, or with tenuous support systems -- view the terms "working parent" and "child care" entirely differently.

Single working parents have it hard enough. Child care is either expensive or of uncertain quality (as in Angelique Hughes's home). But even the most pulled-together civilian single mom would draw a blank if she had five days to find someone to watch her child for a year. Add in stress, financial difficulty, dysfunctional relationships and day-to-day child care, and you can see how easy it is for even best-laid plans to crumble. My husband is in the Army Reserves, and as one of the oldest sergeants in his unit, he often hears other soldiers' harrowing stories -- not about combat but child care.

Tales from the War

There's Sgt. P., who's in Iraq on his second deployment. His two preschool-aged daughters are adorable; their mother, not so much. She left the family a year ago and moved several hours away. Sgt. P.'s mother had to sell her business and move to a new home, where she could care for her two granddaughters while her son was away.

Sgt. M.'s Facebook page shows a glowing, happy woman -- beautiful even in her flak helmet and Kevlar vest -- but she gets swept into relationships with other soldiers. Two military men each fathered one of her sons, and neither relationship lasted through the boys' infancies. In the Facebook photo, she was in Iraq, and her two-year-old son, then an only child, was living at home with her parents.

Another friend is a sniper who's still shaken by his 2007 deployment to Iraq. He couldn't wait to get home to his four-year-old daughter, but when he did, his relationship fell apart, and he now shares custody with his ex-wife. One recent reservist drill weekend, he brought his daughter to play with Sgt. M.'s son while he took classes about safety and procedure, and stood at attention. Their dependent-care plans for the weekend had fallen through.

Spc. B. stayed with our family while she was on duty at the reserve unit in August; her two children were at home several hours away, staying with friends for two weeks while she worked. The next month, she packed up and moved across the country, attaching to a unit in the South near her brother's home. If she gets deployed -- which seems a virtual certainty -- her son and daughter would at least be comfortable in their uncle's family, although her son's behavioral challenges would be a strain.

Acting Out in Anger

These soldiers are not unusual in my husband's unit. Rather, they represent the majority of the enlisted parents he knows. In fact, we're the only family he can think of in which two parents are in the home. Broken relationships, struggling families, young people without much of a plan for their lives -- these are the rule here, the lifeblood of the U.S. Army.

So many single parents in the Army are too young and ignorant of their rights and duties to rationally evaluate their options, or to negotiate ironclad agreements with families and friends who must care for their children. And those families' and friends' responsibilities are immense.

Even the children of happy, stable relationships act out in anger and loss when a parent is deployed. A friend who writes about her experience as a soldier's wife, with two deployments during her children's babyhood, tells me her son is "angry...questioning...blaming his mother." She writes of her daughter's fits of violent anger toward her in her husband's absence.

I Cannot Swim

But the alternatives are slim and all fall short. For Kamani, his grandmother's home is obviously too busy and demanding. Can the primary caregiver devote even a tenth of the attention and energy that an infant needs? Alexis Hutchinson, a young single mom far from home and with only a few years' experience in the Army, most likely has no friends with enough space in their lives and homes to care for such a small child. And would a friend feel burdened? Would her son be resented, neglected, insufficiently loved?

With an Army already made up of many young people who didn't grow up under stable parenting partnerships, it's easy to see why there are so many single parents. And it's easy to identify Spc. Hutchinson's action as one small cry for help in a sea of soldiers whose heads are barely above water, who are gasping too hard to say, "I am in too deep, and I cannot swim."

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