Conventional wisdom and some research suggests that deployments affect military moms more than other female troops without children — that stress, worry and concern for kids increases warrior moms' susceptibility to mental and physical strains issues and can carry long-term consequences for a healthy family life.

But new research from the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Adelaide, Australia, turns those conclusions on their heads, finding that the majority of moms who deployed in the Australian Defence Forces view their overseas assignments as an important part of their jobs, and the most resilient among these women navigate the challenges of deployment successfully.

University researcher Ellie Lawrence-Wood and an investigative team that included female veterans reviewed responses to a 2010 survey of female troops who had deployed to the Middle East, including 235 women with children and 686 without.

The researchers combed through the women's responses to key health questions, examined their psychological health indicators and interviewed 76 female veterans by phone. They found that, for the most part, "female veterans with dependent children were at no greater risk of negative psychological or self-reported physical health impacts following deployment compared to female veterans without children."

Pre-deployment periods were extremely busy and stressful for everyone, but especially for military moms as they worked to ensure the needs of their families would be met while they were gone, according to the study. But the deployment itself was positive for most women, with veterans seeing it as "an important means of validation." Reintegration was most successful for those who planned carefully for it.

Military Times corresponded with Lawrence-Wood via email to further discuss her findings and what they mean for women in uniform.

Q. Why did you do this study?

A. This study was actually originally proposed by Susan Neuhaus, an associate professor and ex- Australian Defence Force surgeon, who has deployed numerous times and has two children.  We had just completed several other studies that included nearly 1,000 women, 25 percent of whom were mothers at the time of their deployment. There was a recognized gap in understanding, as well as data addressing  to go at addressing it, of the potential impact of active military service onfor women with dependent children. 

Q. What were the most significant findings?

A. The quantitative component demonstrated no increased risk for negative psychological impacts of deployment for women with — versus without — dependent children.  This is in contrast to research from other allied nations, indicating that motherhood may increase psychological burdens. Women with dependent children in the ADF are particularly resilient — we didn’t find any worse psychological health outcomes for those women … with versus without children at the time of their deployment, a "healthy mother effect."  This is important, because it highlights that despite additional challenges they face, they are not more adversely impacted. It challenges the belief that mothers are not suited to deployment and combat.

Q. What was your most surprising finding?

A. Despite all the challenges and difficulties, every woman we interviewed was highly protective of her role as an ADF member and her military career.  I think this is extremely important, as it shows that this career is important and rewarding and, contrary to what some people might expect, the sometimes extreme challenges mothers face doesn't undermine this.

Q. The least surprising?

A. It is extremely important to have a supportive family network to enable deployment for mothers or any primary caregiver.  Where it worked well, there was a highly supportive spouse or family.  Where there was less support, things were much more difficult.

Q. Are there any steps the military services need to take to help mothers be more resilient or adjust to deployment?

A. As above, it's about knowledge and understanding. Many of the women we spoke to had no clear idea of what the challenges would be and how to manage these. It was only through experience and conversations with others that they developed strategies to manage. For example, several women spoke about their family seeing them off at the airport as being quite traumatic and, in hindsight, they would choose to do things differently. Similarly, a number of women spoke about the regular contact from home being disruptive and often difficult, especially when they were mediating child arguments via email from Afghanistan. Finally, the transition back to home life was often the most challenging, and many women talked about being unprepared for this. While much relevant information is available, many women were unaware of it, and not sure where to access it.

Ellie Lawrence-Wood, a researcher with the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at the University of Adelaide, Australia, studied the effects of deployments on military mothers.

Photo Credit: Photo courtesy of Ellie Lawrence-Wood

Q. What about the impact on the children?

A. Deployment is challenging and some challenges are unique to mothers. These must be acknowledged.  Understanding them upfront is important for mothers and their families, to include preparing the family and new primary caregiver for the challenges, maintaining a maternal connection and understanding the narratives — and guilt — around motherhood. The mothers we spoke with showed exceptional resilience and positivity in the face of challenge, and found that creativity and [willingness to take action]agency were critical to navigating systems and circumstances that can be incompatible with family life.

Q. You are a mom of small children. Did you worry that you brought biases into the research?

A. The use of a semi-structured interview format and interviews being performed primarily by a research officer who, incidentally, isn't a mother, as well as our structure hopefully addressed any bias. As a mother myself I did go into the study with thoughts about the difficulty of being away from my children for a long period of time and what that would mean for my family. ... But it was actually really interesting to hear the positives for these women. To be honest, while it would be hard for me to be away from my kids for months, I'm pretty sure I could get used to only having to be responsible for me!

Patricia Kime is a senior writer covering military and veterans health care, medicine and personnel issues.

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