Conventional marriage is far from the reality of a military relationship. Military wives have no choice but to be apart from their partner for a long duration of time, days can turn into months and even years. Are the women behind these men forgotten? What happens to them? What type of sacrifices have the women behind the men made?
“It’s difficult when the man you fell in love with has a duty to be there and to protect his family but also has the same obligation to be there and defend his country. Most of my days are just spent surrounded by my children and the telephone. What if it rings and our world comes crashing down?” explains Emily Rose.
Emily, 30, is a military wife; her husband Jack, works for the armed forces, and has done since he left school 13 years ago. Their relationship has never been easy having been married for just over ten years, they are no strangers to hardships and sacrifices. The sacrifices which Emily and Jack have made is no different from thousands of military relationships the past.
“My husband and I have been together for 15 years. We met when we were in high school and have been together since. He is all I have ever known. When we got married ten years ago little did I know we would have been apart for eight of those years. He is a front-line army soldier for his country, often fighting in war-torn countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan,” Emily explains.
When you think of having a family with someone, you don’t expect to be giving up your whole life to almost being a single parent and raising your children on your own. For many relationships in the UK, lack of equality is one of the top five reasons why people get divorced in the UK.Emily and her husband have two children together. A boy named Louis, six years old and Evie who is just about to turn three. “My husband was there for the birth of Louis but was only with us for a week and then got deployed. And Evie, he wasn’t there for the birth as he went back to service during my third trimester of pregnancy but never met her in the flesh till she was four months old,” Emily tells us.
With the Army’s Flexible Engagement System due to begin in April 2019, the Army Families Federation (AFF) invited Army spouses and partners to give their views on their soldier’s work/life balance, and the impact it has on their family. In all, 1,417 spouses and partners took the survey. 59% of them said that in the last two years, their soldier’s work/life balance has worsened with only 7% claiming it has improved. The top three most commonly identified barriers to a good work/life balance were listed as short notice tasks, amount of time away from family and not being able to disconnect from work.
Psychological research has shown that military wives suffer from severe anxiety and stress levels due to the amount of uncertainty in their lives. “I cannot describe the level of anxiety I feel building up whenever I hear the house phone ring. My children, our children, would always run up to the phone, exclaiming the word “daddy!” repeatedly, but I have to stop them just in case, it is the phone call,” explains Emily, as her face drops from glee to sadness at the thought of this conversation.
“Sometimes it does feel like I am a single parent. I do get a lot of support from my parents as well as my in-laws, so I am considered a bit luckier than other women in my situation. However, I can’t be a normal mum as I have to play the role of the dad too. I can’t tell my children that their dad will be picking them up from school today. And they can’t say to their friends that their dad is going to join them for a game of football after school like the other children do,” Emily adds.
One of the questions asked on the survey. was “Has the work/life balance of your soldier made you reconsider whether you will remain as an Army family?” Around 44% of the participants argued ”Yes, sometimes” and 39% argued that they consider leaving an army life all the time. In total that is 81% out of 1,268 participants who have argued that due to the work/life balance of being in the army they have reconsidered remaining as an army family.
“The goodbyes are the hardest. I suppose I can hack it by biting my lip. But when he is gone, the sadness overtakes that happiness”
“Since our children have been born, my husband has not been around much. He hasn’t been there for their first steps, their first words, their first day at school. Pictures and videos can only show so much. He doesn’t know the suffering behind these photos I send him,” Emily tells us.
The army offer counselling and welfare services to help support the mental health surrounded by children. In the conclusion made by the AFF at the end of the survey it highlights their concern over the “significant amount of respondents who felt their soldier’s work/life balance had worsened in the last two years, with families citing a significant impact on the children’s, partner’s and Service person’s wellbeing and family cohesion.”
“But when he is home, life is excellent. Life feels so normal. So relaxed. I forget he is in the army sometimes when he is a child with our children. It feels so functional, and the kids love it. But the goodbyes are the hardest. I suppose I can hack it by biting my lip,” Emily says. “But when he is gone, the sadness overtakes that happiness, the kids always ask questions about why daddy has so many scars, bruises, cuts, and stitches. I’m left to explain this all to them, as they never ask their dad. How do you tell that to two children under the age of six?”
With a disheartened look on her face, Emily goes on to say: “The most significant sacrifice I have made, respectively speaking, would be my career. With Jack at work all the time I haven’t been able to leave our children, and retrospectively you could call me a single parent. 99% of my time is devoted to our children, trying to fill the void of a father while being a mother. I never see my friends anymore; I can just about manage to do grocery shopping. When my husband is home, I want to spend whatever time, all the time, I have with him. Because it always plays in my head that this may even be the final time I see him.”As a result of her husband’s absence, Emily has suffered severe anxiety and panic attacks. Some nights she wakes up in the middle of the night weeping in tears like a child other nights she may go without sleep for days, weeks even.
A number of charities have been set up around the UK to help be a support network for women like Ms. Rose. Military Wives Choirs is a good example of this. They are not just open military wives but will consider any woman with a military connection. However, 1,371 of 2,169 choir members are military wives in the 75 choirs at military bases across the UK and abroad. These choirs aim to bring women like Emily together and create a network of support for each other.
Music played an essential role during World War One, both in the trenches and back at home. It was significant for the troops, who would sing for solidarity and to boost morale. Each choir continues to endorse the themes of solidarity and morale, bringing women in the military community closer together through singing to support Forces families.
“Families of service personnel move around frequently, and it can often be tough to put down roots or make new friends who can leave women feeling isolated, mainly when loved ones are away for long periods of time”, says Emily Fiddy, a coordinator for the Military Wives Choirs.
“Research shows that singing in a choir helps to alleviate stress and contributes to an improvement in isolation, anxiety, and depression. The Military Wives Choirs, therefore, have a vital role to play by bringing women in the military community together to sing,” explains Fiddy.
Since joining her local choir, Emily has found it much easier to open up to other people who are in similar situations. “It has been a really good support network for me, everyone here is amicable and supportive, and for those few hours, I am able to forget my reality,” Emily tells us.
“Whatever the situation, Never give up. On yourself, on your partner or your relationship”
“Arguably, there is a disconnect between the public perception of ‘military wives’ and what our choir members actually represent. There’s this idea that the ladies are dormice waiting for their husbands to come home but actually talking to choir members, you realise that they are so much more than that – they are incredibly strong women who get on with life and live in unpredictable circumstances, but still hold it together for those around them” concludes Fiddy.
Michelle sings in the West of Scotland choir: “It took me a while to take the plunge and step into the rehearsal room as I wasn’t sure I was aligned with the ‘military wives’ identity.’ By that I mean I didn’t really want to be standing around, being soppy and crying into a hanky all the time. My friend who lives nearby convinced me to give it a go, and now, I realise that perception is not true at all!”“I have an extensive network of support from my family. I have support from my husband. It’s not very often but a simple ‘I love you’ is enough support to get me through the month until I hear from him again. So when I am dealing with it alone, when it’s just my thoughts and me, it can get pretty scary and ugly. I overthink the worst possible scenarios, and I anticipate life-changing phone calls,” says Emily.
Allowances have been cut, pensions changed and not for the benefit of the soldier and their families. Emily argues she feels like the “Armed forces see families as a chore and a hindrance, and would prefer to not to have to deal with them – it seems they’d much prefer single soldiers with no baggage.” This is also reflected In this report.
“It is far from easy, but before he leaves, he always lets me know that he is protecting his own life for our children and me. He does his part in looking out for himself, but I wish I can do that for him. I am used to dealing with two children by myself. They do get me through the harder days. Their giggles and their cries are to live for. They make me laugh and keep me busy. I see the world with them by my side. But sometimes I just long for my husband to be there in the frame too,” Emily says.
“If there is any advice which I can give to anyone in my situation it would be to know there are thousands of other women like us. Some have it worse than others, and some have it easier. Well, easier isn’t the correct term, but they may be in better positions. They may see their partners a lot more than I do. Or their partners might have safer roles in the army.
“Whatever the situation, Never give up. On yourself, on your partner or your relationship. Of course, they are fighting in war-torn countries, so they do not want to come home to a war-torn marriage or a relationship as a result of their work. Do not give up the love because our men have chosen to look after this country on our behalf. I know it’s difficult and sometimes so stressful. But remain positive because this will not be forever,” she tells us.
“Look forward to the future, look forward to your partner coming home. Because the one thing I am looking forward to, is my husband being there for the birth of our third child in less than one month. I can only hope that he comes home happy and healthy because it would mean the world,” Emily concludes.
“There is a disconnect between the public perception of ‘military wives’ and what our choir members actually represent”
Some situations do not follow the same pattern as Emily and Jack. When speaking to Ben, an infantryman in the army reserve. The longest he was away from his family was three months: “Nothing compared to when you go on operational tours which can usually be anything between six months and a year, so a month is nothing in hindsight,” he explains.
Army recruitment applications almost doubled at the start of this year after the ‘Snowflake millennial’ ad campaign. The recruitment drive targeted “snowflakes, phone zombies, binge gamers, selfie addicts, and me, me, millennials.” What about the women, mothers/partners behind those recruits, what about the sacrifices they will need to make?Ben initially joined the army in 2014, but due to an injury, he suffered during training it took until 2016 for him to become rehabilitated. “Apart from whatever spare time I get, the sacrifices which I have made to be in the army means that I have to put my civilian job on hold every now and then,” he tells us.
“Sometimes, depending on how busy I am throughout the month. I’m primarily working two jobs, but since I’m self-employed in the civilian world, then it means I can choose my hours which means I get to spend plenty of time with my family. However, it would be difficult finding another job as companies would not be so keen on me having a busy and disruptive schedule,” explains Ben.
“Despite how it feels, you are not alone, and there are many others in the same position. In most cases, a military career doesn’t last forever as many choose to eventually leave and take on a steadier civilian life. Luckily, I have a very supportive family and wife, but I know there are others less fortunate,” he concludes.
From looking at two completely different military stories, the common thread between the two is having a supportive family and wife to come home to. Whether that is a wife/partner or a mother, the women in your lives are your motivation to make sure you come back as safely as possible.
Women are not only wives, mothers, and daughters; they are the rocks holding everything together. The women behind the men in the frontline can be living the most unpredictable lives which can be changed with just one phone call, but yet they manage to find the strength and courage to continue and thrive for the sakes of their families, their children, and husband.
If it were not for the courage and sacrifices which Emily has made, Jack wouldn’t have a happy family to come home to. If there is anything you take away from this article, let it be the determination of never giving up.
Names in this article have been changed to protect identities.