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Mothers in the Middle East: our resilient service women


THE pressures of raising a family and working full-time are felt by most parents, but perhaps none so greatly as the service men and women deployed in conflict zones far from their partners and children.

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Dr Ellie Lawrence-Wood from the Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies at the Universityof Adelaide, has been researching the psychological wellbeing of female veterans with dependent children following their deployment to the Middle East.

She says, until recently “we haven’t known a lot specifically about the effects of deployment on women because they haven’t been doing it for very long.”

“They found ways to cope and deal with [deployment] in really creative ways, and they were very protective about their service being a positive thing.” Dr Ellie Lawrence-Wood

In 1951 women comprised less than 4 per cent of the Australian Defense Force, says Wood.

That number has since doubled, and in 2011 most gender restrictions placed on combat roles such as ground defense were removed for women who were already serving.

“There is actually quite a history of defense force participation, but in terms of deployment into combat type roles, that’s quite a recent [change] in the Australian Defense Force,” says Wood.

“It was really about understanding that their [psychological] risks may be different to males, because we know in the general population that the rates of affective disorders like anxiety and depression, are different between men and women.”

The study titled Mothers in the MEAO (Middle East Area of Operation) compared the health outcomes of 235 women with dependent children and 686 women without children, serving in the Middle East between 2001 and 2009.

“We weren’t really sure what we would see in an Australian population, but overseas there had been research done that showed mothers are more at risk than other women because they have additional challenges and family responsibilities.

“What we found was that there was really no difference in the health outcomes of deployment for women with and without dependent children,” she says.

With funding from The Repat Foundation and the Department of Veteran Affairs, Wood conducted further interviews with 76 of the women to explore some of the reasons why they were coping better than their international counterparts.

“The mothers we interviewed talked about the public perceptions of what they were doing – they felt like people didn’t really understand, that they were bad mothers – saying ‘how can you leave your children, how can you go away and do something like this?’

“But they also talked about what they were doing being really important, that they had really important jobs and that’s how they managed those criticisms,” says Wood.

Almost all the women Wood spoke to talked about a “handing over” process prior to deployment; where they changed the names on utility bills, informed childcare workers that there would be someone else picking up and dropping off their children, and stepped back from primary care duties allow the family to adjust.

The women spoke of the challenges and tools they used to communicate with their families while they were away.

One testimony in the report reads: “I would get up and pretend to give the camera a hug and a kiss and my husband said [my child] would come over and kiss the camera…whether he was actually able to talk back…he had an understanding that mummy was still there.”

For others Wood said they wished someone had told them in advance to limit the amount of contact they had with home because of the strain it caused.

“I really hated having constant email contact because my children would tell me about all this stuff going on at home and I didn’t want to know,” said another participant.

On return, many of the women talked about feeling invisible in the community; that people thought the medals they wore at memorial parades and marches belonged to their husbands or fathers.

“People wonder why we are focusing on women and specifically mothers…but there’s this real drive to increase work force participation among women, and these days typically you don’t have mothers staying at home after having children so it’s really important to look at the impacts of work more generally on how families manage.”

“They found ways to cope and deal with [deployment] in really creative ways, and they were very protective about their service being a positive thing.”

One of the practical outcomes to come out of the study will be an e-book produced by the Department of Veteran Affairs, highlighting the women’s coping mechanism identified in the study.

“Almost all of the work we have done so far, has shown that these are incredibly resilient and capable people – that doesn’t surprise me and it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone, but the more that message gets out the better,” says Wood.

Wood plans to do further research on the group looking at the impact of women deploying on their families.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story. Copied to Clipboard

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