Deployed or Unemployed? This Mom of Four Tackles Tough Choices
Ashley* (name has been changed) is a mother of four, and was enlisted in the military for eight years. After being told she would be deployed six months after her second son was born, she chose to leave the military. She worked as a government contractor for three years, during which time her husband and mother cared for her children. After her third son refused to take a bottle at daycare, and lacking the support she needed from work, Ashley opted to leave the workforce entirely to focus on her family. While Ashley loves the challenges that come with raising and homeschooling her four children, she is also eager to get more education and start working for herself. In our interview we discuss her story, along with how society could better support mothers to balance work and family.
Please give us a brief introduction to yourself and your journey with work and kids.
I’m Ashley. I’m a mom of four. My oldest one is eight. My youngest one will be two soon. I have three boys and one girl. I joined the military right out of high school, and served for eight years. I had two of my sons during that time, and my children are actually the reason why I left. After leaving the military I worked for a few different government contractors while my husband stayed home with our kids. In my last contracting job, I was fortunate enough to stay with one for two years, and that’s when I had our third son. At that point, work-life balance was very difficult for us, so we made the decision for me to stay at home. After that I became pregnant with our fourth child, our daughter, and I’ve been a stay-at-home mom now for three years.
What is important to you about the choice to have kids?
For my husband, he’s one of two, and he wanted a lot of kids. I come from a big family, and I’d always wanted children. When I was younger, my family would joke that I’d have Cheaper by the Dozen because I always wanted to take care of all my cousins’ babies. . . . And I just really dreamed about having a family and children and things like that.
Describe what it was like to have children as an enlisted member of the military.
The work that [I did with the military] was very fulfilling. My battle buddies that I had [and the] team that I [was on] were amazing. It’s when you get up to the senior command level where they do the unit assignments and things like that, that is where the issues are, because they don’t see you day to day. They just see your stats on the paper, and they’re like, “We need you over here.” But you can’t communicate with them, because if you’re lower enlisted like I was, I was just a specialist, then they don’t care. You’re fodder pretty much.
If I could have stayed in the military, I 100% would have. If the situation had been different. But I could not stay in the military and be a mom at all, and I was told that specifically. Basically they told me that once I hit my six months postpartum they were deploying me. And I had talked to everyone I could talk to because my husband was also being deployed. . . and they basically said it’s either this or you get out. [I was] being told that I had to sign over my rights to my mother to take care of my children so that I could get deployed, [and] I didn’t want to leave my six-month-old child. And they’re like, “Well, needs of the country.” And I was like, “Well, needs of my family. Bye!” So I chaptered myself out. I did all my paperwork to chapter myself out of the military on a pregnancy chapter.
For my situation, there was not enough work-around for me to be able to have the family life that I wanted. . . Everyone always talks about “It’s a sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice.” I had one Senior NCO [whose wife was also in the military]. Their kids would go off nine months a year to a grandparent’s house, because [both partners] were deployed. And it’s just how much of a sacrifice are you willing to give? For me, personally, and for our family it wasn’t worth it. We wanted more for ourselves.
What was work family balance like when you were a government contractor?
[When] I was working on the contract, you had to work 80 hours within a two-week period, and some people were able to [front-load] a lot of their hours in one week. And [I was] able to do that for a time where I could take every other Friday off.
But then our government manager changed, and she ixnayed that hardcore and basically [said] “you’re a slave to your job or you are not a valuable employee.” Even though [taking every other Friday off was] within the contract, she was not allowing it, and that caused a lot of strife. So my coworker [who was also pregnant] actually up and quit a month before I did because it was just not a good environment at all at the end. This [new] manager just had a different idea of a woman in a workplace because her children were older, and she had more freedom and ability to do what she wanted. And I guess she forgot what it was like to have a newborn.
I would not go back to work the way that I was working prior to being a stay-at-home mom if I was given the opportunity. My goals now are a lot different than they were when I was younger.
[Another difficulty was] the commute . . . I would have to leave home at like 4:30 in the morning, [my husband] would either have to drop off at daycare or I would have to drive down to drop off at daycare [and then] drive back up to work. So, logistically, it wasn’t working.
What were the factors that pushed you out of the workforce?
The reason I left work this last time was because of my third son. I was able to stay home with him the longest–twelve weeks before I went back to work. But transitioning back to work was very difficult with him because he never took the bottle when he was an infant. So one of the main reasons I had to leave was because he was not eating, and there was no work around that.
There wasn’t a lot of support, and I was not able to take time off to figure the situation out. [I had] many, many fraught days of just [wondering] “Why am I doing this?” The situation I was in at work was very stressful, so it wasn’t worth it financially or emotionally or just family-wise for me not to stay home.
Are you interested in returning to work?
I would not go back to work the way that I was working prior to being a stay-at-home mom if I was given the opportunity. My goals now are a lot different than they were when I was younger. Back then, it was just essentially about career. The goal, the only thing that you were taught, was you want to get into a good company, stay with them for years, and ride them to retirement. The last contracting job I had was that job. It was the dream, and it was a really hard company to get into. It took two years of applying and applying to get into it. But I was there, and it just wasn’t what I was expecting. It didn’t have the appeal. Being in my mid-20s at the time with three kids, just starting out in corporate America just wasn’t what I wanted for myself [or] my family. The stress wasn’t worth it. I want to enjoy my time with my children. I don’t want to resent it. I wanted to experience things with my kids. I couldn’t do that when I was getting up before the sun came up and not getting home until the sun came down.
What was your transition like to being a stay-at-home mom?
I had been warned by another stay-at-home mom friend that the first few years would suck and that I should prepare for it. So I was proactive, I looked for moms groups in my area, and I actually found MOMS Club® of Stafford. It’s a big organization, and they have moms clubs all over the place—all over the world, actually. And it was just a very nice environment to be in because there were pre-planned activities during the week and family events.
It’s great that you want to push more women in the workforce, but you’re not giving us any incentives to work while we have kids. Sweeten the pot a little bit. Give us something.
You can kind of feel rudderless as a stay-at-home mom. And it comes and goes. I’ve been here for three years now, and it still comes and goes, and that’s why you set small goals for yourself to try to break up the monotony and also feel your own self accomplishing something. So much when you’re a stay-at-home mom can revolve around your children, your spouse, and your home that you lose sense of yourself, sometimes. . . . Figuring out how to intermix little goals into your stay-at-home mom life makes it a lot easier and a more positive path because you’re not getting sucked back into the negative.
How have you experienced the social reception of your choice to stay home?
You have all the stereotypes around you of people saying, “Oh you’re a stay-at-home mom. All you do is this. You don’t really accomplish anything. All you do is sit on your butt all day.” Blah blah blah. And that’s not the case.
And the sad thing, too, that I’ve experienced is it’s mainly coming from other women. . . . It’s hard to live the life of a stay-at-home mom when you have people being negative around you or even implying that what you’re doing isn’t worth as much as what they’re doing or what you could be doing. A lot of [what people talk about] is missed opportunity. “Oh, well, all your good years are staying at home, and now, when you go back, you’re going to have to start at an entry level job. And you’re going to be so far behind the curve for retirement. You’re going to be so behind on whatever,” fill in the blank.
. . . It’s definitely a difficult situation because so many women don’t have the opportunity or choice to be a stay-at-home mom. I’m very fortunate that we are able to do this. We can financially support ourselves with me staying at home. A lot of people can’t.
Looking back on your time in the workforce, do you miss it?
Letting go of work was refreshing. I think that is the best term because I did not have to have like the raptor brain of just trying harder to be better than everyone else and to show all of our supervisors, “Oh, I’m the best worker here. Give me all the work.” I didn’t have to prove that I deserve to be there. . . I think for me, as a working mom, you’re constantly having to prove to other people that you deserve to be there and that your children are not going to hold you back.
You would get those side comments of, “Oh, are you taking time off because your kid’s sick again?” You would have to try to make excuses for why you had to take care of your kids. “Oh well, you know he’s really sick. He had a really bad fever. I have a doctor’s note. He was vomiting all night long.” You couldn’t just say, “Oh well, he’s not feeling well, and he wants me home, so I can take care of him.” Your kid had to be basically sick as a dog for them to be like, “Oh, yeah, you should take off. That does not sound good.”
What is your advice for working mothers and their employers?
Women need to understand that they’re worth more—that they don’t have to comply with things that they don’t agree with or that don’t feel right—because a lot of times we just comply because women in the workforce is still a newer thing, comparatively.
If I could say something to “society” about this issue, I would say: it’s great that you want to push more women in the workforce, but you’re not giving us any incentives to work while we have kids. Sweeten the pot a little bit. Give us something. You have to do more than saying “Hey, we want to open our arms and accept you,” like you should have been doing 50 years ago. No, we don’t need your permission to come into the workforce. We want to be in the workforce, but we want to be supported.
Now you’re wanting to further your education. Can you explain that more?
My goals have shifted to where I do want to have a career for myself, but I want it on my terms. I have zero desire to do a nine-to-five Monday through Friday. None of that. I need the flexibility, and I desire that flexibility. Being at home has given me that, and I don’t want to give it up.
My goal for this next year is looking up scholarships and grants to see how I can fund those certificate programs without touching our kids’ college savings. But doing my research and everything, I’m finding that as a woman in her late 20s with four kids and a husband who works, there’s not a lot of scholarships or grants that are available for me as an older student—someone who is looking for an education later in my life. . . . I guess they just assume that when you’re at a certain point you should be able to just fully fund everything, no matter how many kids you have that you’re trying to fund college for.
So you put yourself on the back burner, too. My understanding is when I go back I’m not going for my full degree yet, because I need something that will earn an income so that I can pay for my degree myself, because everything else is for the kids. I’m not putting any part of our savings for myself because I don’t feel comfortable doing that. So I have to figure out my own way to get my education, because I don’t want to take away from my kids.
If you were in charge for a day, what policies would you put in place right away?
Child care subsidies. There are a few companies that provide it, where you can put in an HSA or an FSA where it’s a pre-taxed amount that you can put into child care. I think it’s about $2,500 for the year, which is like two months of care. Great cap. But that helps a little bit on the income burden because child care can take so much of your paycheck. For me, I got two paychecks a month. It took one and a half paychecks just for child care, and I still had to pay for transportation. Three kids in day care—it’s expensive. Super expensive.
Another thing is, companies could match for child care in the same way that they match for retirement savings. If a company is matching 2% of a paycheck, they can match a little bit of child care. I know some of the companies I worked with had contracts with child care centers where a worker could get a reduced rate if you use that child care center. If that sort of thing were more of an option for working parents, then that would be something.
What are other ways we can make society more welcoming for mothers?
As a stay-at-home mom and also a homeschool mom, we have to pay for literally everything as we educate our children, while also paying taxes to the public school that our children are not going to. I buy a lot of curriculum, and I could use some support. Let’s just say you could get $2,000 to spend per child, and then have an actual vendor website where you can use your grant money to purchase curriculum and products and games and use it for your homeschool. If something like that could be provided to [us] that would make life a little bit easier.
And then any kind of assistance with childbirth costs, because insurance only covers so much. I mean we were lucky enough where our insurance covered everything, otherwise we would have been financially strapped. And if you have a NICU baby, oh my goodness. My husband was just talking about someone who had a million-dollar hospital bill because their child was a NICU baby. There’s no assistance for that. Everyone’s talking about the declining birth rate in the United States, but you’re not helping to incentivize it.
And finally, support for breastfeeding. When I was nursing my oldest one back in 2013, it was illegal to breastfeed in public in many states in the United States. Even in Hawaii, I was sitting at a Ross in the furniture section nursing my son under a cover, and a security guard asked me to go up to the second level to the fitting rooms to go nurse out of sight. . . .
When I came back from maternity leave—my six weeks with my oldest one—I was on gate guard duty working in a shack for 12 hours a day for 12 weeks. . . . I wasn’t allowed to go off to another separate building to pump. And my coworkers would ask “Oh, do you need to pump right now? Can you hold it?” They word it in a way where you don’t feel [like you can ask] to take that break. . . And that affected my [breastmilk] supply. My supply tanked that entire time. It was a struggle.
Yes, now the law is that you can get 15-minute breaks every so often to pump. That’s an improvement. Now, you should be provided a quiet room when possible. That is the law. But there’s no mandate that they have to provide you a quiet space. It’s “when possible.” If it’s not possible, you’re not provided a quiet room. That is not sufficient to support a woman who is exclusively breastfeeding. Maybe someone who’s supplementing can go through it, because they don’t have to pump as often, but not if you’re exclusively breastfeeding, which is also recommended. So there’s definitely a lot of work that needs to be done.
What words of encouragement do you have for mothers who are trying to figure out this work and family thing?
Especially in the young child phase, I know it can seem endless, and I know it can seem like many, many endless days of motherhood and changing diapers and trying to get into your routine. But your kids do grow up, and they turn into the children that you guide them to be. So in the time that you have them as young children, it is important that you are present and take the positives. There will be a lot of negatives in motherhood, but look back at the positives, because it makes it so much easier to say, “Oh, well, this negative thing happened, but she walked for the first time,” or “they wanted to cook me eggs, and they poured me a glass of milk.” Even when they argued about the brussels sprouts for dinner and sat there for an hour, there’s the little positive nuggets in motherhood that make it worthwhile.
You want to be present with them and to enjoy that time because it’s so fleeting. It’s so quick. . . . It goes by in a blink. It really does. I tell myself that often when my children are screaming. [laughs]
Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.