Army 101 / Autobiography / Cry for help / Family

On being a childless military wife

When I was growing up, having kids was never the big thing on my mind. Career. Art. Excellence. Success. Those were the things that kept my eyes on the future. Had you asked me at age 16, I’d have told you that even one baby was absolutely not a part of my plan. My mom assured me I would change my mind. I rolled my eyes. Heavily.

My mom was, of course, right. (Don’t tell her I said that.) As I grew out of my teenage angst, the idea of eventually having a family bumped its way steadily up my priority list. By the time I married Jonathan, raising kids held a common core in our future plans. But I was unprepared for how much being a childless military wife, in the meantime, would weigh on the decision.

My first taste of real military life was when I attended Jonathan’s first welcome home ceremony. Until that day, the most camo I’d seen in one place was when Cady Heron wore army pants and flip flops to school, so all the other girls started wearing army pants and flip flops too.

That welcome home ceremony, above and beyond the camo explosion, was at least seven kinds of terrifying for me. Six of which had to do with how foreign I was to the military lifestyle. (The seventh was using crudely drawn maps to find my way around Fort Campbell, which turned out to be a completely justified fear.) I went into that day with few expectations, simply because I had no frame of reference from which to…expect. A flying saucer could have landed in the airfield, from which a fleet of one-eyed martians could have led the post-war soldiers into the hangar by bedazzled leashes hooked to their kevlars, and that probably wouldn’t have surprised me much.

Welcome home ceremony

No martians. Sorry.

And although I didn’t have to adjust to anything quite so alien, the day still passed with an other-worldly feel. When I arrived on Fort Campbell, I found myself immediately doggy-paddling through a sea of wives and children. There were matching family t-shirts; there were big, handmade, sparkling posters; there were babies in diaper covers decorated to look like the American flag. Nobody else, it seemed, had come alone. And I’d never felt so out of place to be a 23-year-old without a big pregnant belly.

It dawned on me that, in this military world I was preparing to enter, the women were younger than I was, with two or three more children than I had, and still somehow had much, much better hair.

After that welcome home ceremony, however, I got in my car and drove back to my life in my trendy city, filled with trendy fellow 20-somethings who were also spending more money on happy hours than they were on breast pumps. But that city never felt quite the same afterward; I had officially entered a new, dichotomous stage in my life, in which I’d spend the next few years feeling young and unburdened, but simultaneously old and barren.

Not that I ever resented either lifestyle; I was just as happy at a family barbecue in Fort Campbell as I was bar crawling through Dupont Circle (minus the hangover and cab fare). But transitioning between the two so rapidly was making me a little sea sick, and a lot confused. By the time Jonathan and I were engaged, half my friends were taking bets on how soon I’d be pregnant, and the other half were taking bets on how soon I’d be able to shoot straight bourbon. (So far I’ve disappointed everybody equally.)

Deciding if and when to have kids, if you have the luxury to choose, is a very personal choice for couples. For Jonathan and me, the main reason for waiting has simply been time, and how little of it we’ve had together. We are only now figuring out how we live together, just the two of us, as a family. It took me the better part of a year to feel confident about the shade of nail polish I was leaning towards for my wedding; chances are it will take some time for me to feel confident and stable enough in the high-stress military lifestyle to bring a child into it with me. Because–in all honesty–being a mother when you’re a military wife means that, at some point, you’ll likely also have to function as a single mother. And, when my head is on straight, I’ve never felt the need to rush the decision.

But now that I’ve been a childless military wife for more than a year and we’re living in our first real military neighborhood, my head is rarely on straight about the subject. Which stems from a grown-up version of peer pressure that for some reason I’m not shaking off as easily as I did the teenage temptations. When I think about our timeline for having a family, I look around and sort of go…All the cool kids are already doing it.

Which sounds really, really stupid. I know. But when you’re surrounded by happy families and their screeching children every way you turn, the parts of your life that felt unburdened suddenly feel more…unfulfilled. I look around at my new peers, and the sweeping majority of them have brought life into the world; they teach, love, and care for growing human beings. It’s their job and their purpose. And it’s something I already know I want too–it’s just a question of when. So what, right now, is my job and my purpose? What am I doing with my life? Why not now?

And it’s sometimes a daily battle between what my surroundings suggest I should be, and what I realistically am right now. For example: I take my dog for two walks every day (because he’s still in that asshole puppy stage where he refuses to settle down until he’s too tired to function). And two times every day I exchange smiles and waves with a fleet of young mothers pushing strollers or chatting energetically with their toddlers. Then my dog rolls around in the same dead raccoon for the third time this month. And I wonder, as I shove my dog into the bathtub and try to avoid getting kicked in the face, how a woman two years younger than me with three children under the age of five maintains her perfect blond highlights.

Childless military wife life

He’s cute, all right. But he sure is an asshole.

Don’t get me wrong–I would never blame my uneasiness on these mothers, nor would I judge them for being confident human caretakers before I’m even able to keep my dog away from roadkill. In my experience so far, military wives are some of the strongest women out there, and some of the most loving, competent mothers I’ve met, regardless of their age. It’s my own self-deprecating comparison that screws with my psyche, and keeps me wondering on a daily basis if I’ll ever be able to squeeze myself into the mold of a military wife, childless or not.

Of course this comparison exists everywhere; the feeling of falling behind is practically universal, and I’m sure there are half a dozen self-help books for each of my specific anxieties. At the end of the day, when I can screw my head back on and lift it above expectations, I see it like this: If I want to do something mostly out of external pressures, then the time is not right to do it. I know that if I wait for all my uneasiness and insecurities to disappear, I’ll be waiting forever. But if I’ve learned anything about time from my most recent struggles with waiting, it’s that the right time will happen (it could be next month, or it could be in five years), and it will have nothing to do with what anybody else thinks or says. Except for Jonathan. Whose cooperation will make things a whole lot easier.

Do you struggle with fitting into your peer group? Do you ever feel like you should do or have something you don’t?

19 thoughts on “On being a childless military wife

  1. I can relate to what you are saying! While I’m not a military wife, and instead single and living in my hometown, everyone has kids and most are married. The dichotomy of being young/single and old/barren at the exact same time is so strange! (I totally regurgitated your sentence, hope you don’t mind!) Anyways, I find that hanging out with friends who have kids is a great way of experiencing the family life without committing to it. Maybe you could join one of those mothers for a walk some day, I bet the kids would love a hyper puppy to play with!

    • You’re completely right. Luckily my dog sees any child on the sidewalk as an excuse to not listen to me, so I get the daily cute factor of watching him frolic around with little kids. Which is a little counterproductive to our distractions training, but…win some/lose some.

  2. YES! I love you reference to Mean Girls! I love that movie so much haha. I feel you though. It feels like everyone here has kids. I have made one friend who isn’t pregnant or have at least one kid already, and I’m almost guaranteeing it’s because they’re really new to Military life, and are newlyweds. It’s hard making friends that aren’t carrying a baby on their hip. AND, it’s really pressuring. Since moving here I’ve had baby fever countless times, but I don’t want our life of just us to end yet. I want to enjoy it just being us for a while.

    Just A Girl

    • I think life for a lot of military families starts on the fast track. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does create that lag factor for those of us who didn’t follow the same timeline. It’s not their job to make us feel better about not having children; it just creates a dynamic that can make us feel out of place. Which is silly, because some of my best friends from back home are also mothers, and I never feel awkward about those relationships. I don’t think children or lack of children should ever get in the way of a friendship, old or new. I just have to keep reminding myself that when I’m in a new environment.

  3. Aileen, I love your blog so much. You’re just super.

    I can definitely relate. I got married laaate — in my mid-thirties, and now the decision has been sort of made for us. It’s now or never! The problem is, babies don’t just happen when you blink your eyes. Ok, my “problem” is a bit different than yours, but I definitely feel the kid pressure. I understand your dilemma, is what I’m saying. Not as well as you. <3

    • I totally get you. Worrying about infertility down the road is one of the things that also weighs heavily on this topic; some of my doctors have suggested I may want to have kids early, based on my current health and family history. It’s such a tricky decision to make, for everybody who has the decision to make, with so many “what ifs.” Being an adult is hard.

  4. This was scarily accurate! There is definitely a whole lot of peer pressure, and even though it shouldn’t separate friend groups, it often seems to. The base we are at is a pilot training base, which means it’s largely composed of newly comissioned recent college grads in their early to mid twenties. So there are a lot with no kids. But there is a definite moms/non-moms divide among the wives. And even a wanting kids soon/not divide. It can be so easy to rationalize giving in to the peer pressure, especially when you want kids someday.

    • Isn’t it strange? Motherhood is such a typical part of human existence; you wouldn’t think something so…normal…could cause this big gap. I’ve never really thought about how it differs from duty station to duty station, but you bring up a great point. I have no idea what this dynamic will be like in the half-a-dozen places we’ll end up in the future, so learning to adjust to it would definitely be in my favor.

  5. I swear you somehow sneak a peek in my brain before you write posts.

    I feel the EXACT same way. The majority of people on Ted’s boat have multiple children, while he and I are perfectly happy (for now) with our childless ways. Our plan is to try to time a pregnancy with shore duty (when he’d actually have a relatively normal 9-5 job vs. the shenanigans that are a part of being on a fast attack submarine) but being around all of these families and cute children gives me a slight baby fever every now and then. And then I think about how hard it would be to be on my own with kids while Ted is deployed, and miraculously the fever goes down.

    Another fun/weird aspect of military life: everyone asks about your plan to have kids. Like I’m used to those weird questions from family/friends, but from wives I’ve never met whose husbands work with my husband? I was not expecting that.

    • Plan: from now on when we walk into a room, just shout “NO KIDS. NOT PREGNANT.” Then just proceed normally.

      You bring up another great point about planning a pregnancy when you’re in the military–I feel like there’s always a timing issue, like the possibility of a deployment, or a string of rapid PCSes, etc. Having a baby while my husband is deployed is one of my biggest fears, but I know it’s pretty run of the mill for military. Gonna have to have a little talk with the Commander in Chief about springing any new wars on us in the next five to ten years.

      • LOVE that plan. We could create a fantastic trend among the young, new wives. I’m all for it.

        You hit the nail on the head; there is always going to be a timing issue with military life. I guess at some point, the desire for kids will outweigh the fear of timing issues and that’s when we’ll know that we’re as ready as we’re ever going to be. But I do love your idea about talking to Numero Uno about war planning. Good luck with that.

  6. So I found your blog through Pintrosity and couldn’t stop reading it. My husband and I are Latter Day Saints and there is a similar peer pressure to have kids in the church. Well, it started out with “when are you getting married?” when we were dating followed by disbelief at our 21 month engagement. Then we got the “when are you going to have kids?” question frequently. You know it’s bad when your parents start asking! We actually had a baby last November (5 and 1/2 years after getting married) because we wanted to have time to be just a married couple first and enjoy being a family of two.

    • Thanks so much, Kait! For what it’s worth, I have no plans for ever attempting those chocolate candy cane hearts again. Battle flashbacks.

      I’d never thought about the comparison, but you’re spot on. Good for you and your husband for taking things slow despite those pressures. They can be especially strong in a religious group, and even within families. My mom didn’t have any kids until she was 35, and I feel very lucky that I have her as a good example of waiting for the right time.

    • I actually grew up non-LDS in an LDS community and can really relate to this. Most of my girlfriends from high school had 1 or 2 kids before I finished college. Everyone thought I was crazy for having a 2+ year engagement and going to grad school. Now that I’m finally out of school for the first time since I was in kindergarten, it feels like there’s more pressure to have kids, despite the fact that my husband is now back in school. It’s crazy to be in my late 20s and still feel like there’s pressure to try to be at the same point in my life as everyone back home, despite taking a very different path in life. Right now I can barely take care of myself and my puppy. I don’t know how my high school friends take care of 3 or 4 kids!

      • RIGHT? Age is such a relative thing. Mid-late 20s is still so young, but it’s when time starts to speed up a little. Some days I feel like getting all the dishes washed is life’s biggest hurdle; how on earth could I keep a child alive? I think the consensus from my mom friends is that you learn as you go, and that motherhood becomes a second-nature part of your routine very quickly.

        • I almost wish there were a way that I could comment here anonymously, but still get the benefit of your replies. I FREQUENTLY feel old/barren and never really the young/unburdened because I’ve been waiting for ~years~. I’m 27 and I have a 9 year old niece. I come from a family of young mothers so it feels like I’m almost 10 years behind! Every time we talk about having a family, it seems like something else always comes up–first it was immigration, now it’s a friend’s wedding in October, then it’s training for Jeff’s certifications at work, then it’s paying down debt, buying a house, getting me a car. I’ve started telling him that it’s pretty much next year, no matter what–because there will ALWAYS be something that we have to pay for, but I feel like I’m losing precious time. Is it terrible to say that I don’t want to be an old mom? There’s only 3 years between me and Jeff but there are 20 years between his mom and my mom, and I prefer my mom by FAR. Is that an in-law thing, or an age thing? =/ Gah. Anxiety is a bitch.

  7. I’m so glad to hear someone else is feeling the baby pressure! I never, ever wanted kids; I was morally opposed to them in the name of overpopulation, even. Most importantly, I did not want the drastic lifestyle change that comes with having them. But 3 of the women I work with on a farm have infants or toddlers, and they are right there beside all of us picking turnips with the babies on their backs or wrapped to their chests. They’re friggin rockstars, and I’m just a teeny bit jealous. (Part of me is still blaming it on all the hormones they’re suffocating me with though…)

    I was talking about this with a customer, and she gave me some interesting insights. Her & her husband had the same feelings when they first got married, but they agreed that until they could come up with 5 solid reasons why they should have a child – not why they wanted one – they weren’t ready. They ended up waiting several years, but she said she was so glad they waited because she knew it would not have been as wonderful an experience. That made so much sense that I couldn’t believe I’d never thought about it that way.

  8. Thank you for this post!!! I’m so glad this blog is out there.
    At every new duty station there are always those few wives I’m just meeting for the first time that ask “so when are you guys going to have children”. I honestly would like to reply ” thank you for your concern on my reproductive plans, but they are not needed and it’s none of your damn business”. Seriously though, does anyone else feel that is just an awkward question to ask a stranger?
    I had one experience I will never forget. It was at an FRG lunch at Ft. Campbell. I missed all the lunches previously due to being in college a few hours away. I happened to be home for this one and decided to go, I didn’t know any of the wives except the FRG leader. There were about 10 other ladies there all talking about their lives, their kids, and what they had been up to. Then it got real quiet when the FRG leader turns to me and asks “So when are you and your husband going having kids.? We could have play dates”. I told her the truth ” I can’t for medical reasons”. She then replied” oh I see”, and after those words left her lips I was shut out and locked out. Those mommies ignored my existence the rest of the lunch. I honestly had no idea that in that particular unit to make friends with the wives I had to have children. It hurt, and felt awful. My worth should not have been defined by how many kids I had, or planned on having. From then on I wasn’t invited to events because they were family oriented.
    There is pressure to have kids within the community just to fit in and not seem to be weird. I had no idea that not having kids was weird until I saw my community, mothers under the age of 25 with 2-4 kids.
    There is a division of couples with kids and the childless. Its sad that their exclusion within the military community is very common.

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