If you want to kick-start a conversation among Navy families, bring up the topic of child care. But beware, because discussing the wide range of child care struggles for a Navy family is much swapping particularly contentious sea stories— the lack of options, costs, length of child care development center (CDC) waitlists, limited hours, and so much more. Unfortunately, this is a societal issue that affects all working families. But Navy life adds to the challenge. A mother who wants to return to work after the birth of a child begins researching child care options long before the baby arrives, and the stress never ends until the child has grown up and left home (and most parents would agree the worries never really fade.) Sailors know this all too well, especially those in single-parent or dual-military households. And being in the reserve component adds an extra layer of unique challenges.
According to a Child Care Aware 2018 Fact Sheet, “Many [U.S.] households spend more than 10 percent of their household income on child care. Nearly one in three families report spending 20 percent or more of their income on child care, and one in five families spend more than a quarter of their income.” In Virginia, the cost of child care for an infant is higher than in-state tuition at a public university. Most working families work just to afford to pay for care, and the frequent moves, untraditional work schedules, and lack of extended-family support that come with active and reserve Navy life only exacerbate the struggle.
Navy leaders have begun to discuss the challenge but have shown an inconsistent understanding of its nature. Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith testified to Congress in February about numerous quality-of-life issues Navy families face. He brought to light the lack of “accessibility to affordable and quality child care,” calling it a “family issue that affects critical readiness.” Unfortunately, later the same month, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson referred to child care in a Facebook Live All Hands Call as an issue that “affects our female service members and female officers.”
This is not an issue that plagues only women; we no longer live in a 1950s-era society where the wife stays at home to raise children. In fact, many Navy households have two breadwinners, and many are dual-military. For this reason, the child care struggle is a “talent management” issue that affects both men and women. A male service member whose civilian spouse works is just as much in need of quality, affordable child care as a single-parent or dual-military family. The CNO clearly regretted his comment as soon as he heard himself say the words, as evidenced by the apology he posted on his official Facebook page and his request to the fleet for inputs and ideas to help tackle the challenge. The Navy has to change its narrative surrounding child care, to make clear it is not a “women’s issue” but a “human issue.” But that is only a start.
As leaders across the Navy come together to figure out how to improve the availability of this resource to sailors and their families, it is important to include members of the Navy Reserve in the march to a solution, because reservists are hit with child care challenges inherently different in some ways from those faced by the active-duty component. Parents in the Navy Reserve face the challenge of putting together a mishmashed family-care plan that lacks consistency and predictability, is often absurdly expensive, is logistically challenging—and is incredibly stressful.
My husband is an active-duty surface warfare officer. I spent five years on active duty before transitioning to the Reserve, hoping to make parenting less of a challenge. Every few years, we cobble together patchwork child-care solutions that include often-complicated plans to cover drill weekends, duty nights, underway time, annual training, PCSs, and long-term orders. Among the solutions we have had to settle on: paying for a family member to accompany me on travel to care for my nursing infant; an expensive, last-minute nanny after unexpected orders; being waitlisted at a local CDC; and driving hours from our home to drop our children off with family members to permit me to drill, all while my husband was deployed or under way.
We are not alone in our experience. I asked some fellow Navy Reservists who are also spouses of active duty service members to share some of their child care struggles. These are some of their experiences:
I drill in San Diego and used to drive my kids from Maine to my in-laws in Pittsburgh for every [drill weekend] or AT [annual training]. But now they're in school and I can't justify yanking them from school for a few days or weeks. We live in Northern Virginia and sometimes my in-laws can drive down to help, but they also work. My husband is active-duty Navy and in a CO pipeline right now and has no possibility to take leave (and I'm a full-time student). —L. N.
I always have to bring my kids with me and either fly my mom out with me or to my home to watch them. I took a billet out of state (that I pay to travel to) where my family lives so I would have care for drills. This last time I went out of town for AT for 5 days, my mom looked exhausted—so I don’t think that’s an option anymore. I even flew my mom and my newborn daughter with me to D.C. earlier this year so I could keep breastfeeding her all night and during breaks. —T. M.
There is a lack of understanding for child care needs when your spouse is deployed and you have no family to watch them. What do you do when the Navy says no dependents in hotels or rental cars? Or how about when your babysitter gets sick, your husband is on watch at the Pentagon, your executive officer won’t let your then-one-year-old come for physical readiness test weigh-ins and no family again? One drill weekend, I flew during my third trimester, along with my four-year-old, while leaving my 15-month-old with her nanny in Japan. My husband was deployed at the time. Fun fact: my daughter’s flight cost $3,600. —M. A.
Many reservists with children quite often pay for the privilege of serving; it is not uncommon for the cost of child care to consume as much or more than an entire drill weekend paycheck. Critics may argue that raising a family while serving is a choice, and thus, we have to “suck it up” and slog through the years of raising young families while trying to meet professional milestones. “Suck it up” is not a strategy, and if the Navy Reserve continues down this path, it will find itself devoid of enlisted and commissioned leaders who can be understanding of the struggles their sailors’ families face.
There are no easy solutions. The short-notice nature of Reserve orders; the dispersed places reservists live and perform their duties; and the short-term need for care are all challenges that defy simple answers. Some possible starting points do exist, however. Management at bases with CDCs should work to make those centers available temporarily during drill weekends. Those, and reserve centers without CDCs in close proximity, also should seek partnerships with local civilian child care centers to increase access, especially for those who have to travel for weekend drills and annual training.
While the CNO and the Chief of the Navy Reserve can offer support and develop policy, merely changing words on paper will not force a cultural shift. This is truly an “intrusive leadership” issue. Leaders from the highest ranks down to the deckplates need to engage with their sailors, officer and enlisted alike, to determine the child care struggles their people face. Rather than just telling sailors to “Make it work!” the Navy must ensure that Reserve families have access to safe, flexible, and affordable child care so they can focus on achieving the mission, just as active-duty families do. Listening to the experiences of sailors from across the active-duty and reserve components will be critical to achieving success.