I’ve always had a great deal of respect for men and women of service. They put their lives on the line to protect the lives of others, and that in itself is an incredible sacrifice. For service members raising families at home, the sacrifice is even greater. While most who enlist in the military return from deployment safe and sound, some fathers, mothers, husbands and wives do not. Even those who do are often gone for months at a time. As a single parent myself, it never even occurred to me that joining the military myself was an option.
Technically, single parents can join the military, but it’s not an easy route.
I’m extremely fortunate to have a mother who adores being a grandparent. She spends the majority of her time with my daughter so I can work. But even with that amount of support, I couldn’t waltz up to a recruiter and sign up today. To join the Reserve National Guard, I could apply for a waiver and cross my fingers. To join any other branch, I would have to give up my parental rights before they’d give me a shot.
This is all hypothetical, but for me, that would be an instant dealbreaker. For others, it might not be. A 15 year-old mom left her then 2-year-old in the care of her own parents to become a parachute free jumper. She was incredibly daring and made a permanent mark on the field. That was, however, in the early 1900s. Today, the regulations are much more stringent.
Each branch has slightly different requirements, but all require relinquishing custody. For the Navy, you can’t enlist for six months after the court order goes into effect. For the Marines, you’re not eligible for a full year. For the Army and Air Force, you must pledge that you do not intend to try to regain custody after basic training. If you do, you could be discharged and might face charges of fraud.
It’s also strongly discouraged, or even prohibited by some branches, to give up your parental rights specifically to join the military. The military can’t have people trying to shirk their parenting responsibilities by running off to join the Air Force, right? The custody agreement has to be in place prior to enlisting. No recruiter will advise you to give up your rights to be eligible for active duty.
Is the policy fair?
It may sound harsh, but the no single parent policy is there for a reason. The military relies on its members to report for duty wherever, whenever, without hesitation. They don’t have time to excuse a service member who can’t deploy because something came up with their kids. For that reason, they need to have legal assurance that your commitment to serve is your top priority.
Parents who are already on active duty when they get divorced aren’t completely exempt from these regulations. They have to establish a Family Care Plan guaranteeing that someone non-military is ready and willing to care for your child 24/7 without notice. If they don’t, they’re discharged.
Admittedly, newly single military parents have more leeway in comparison to single parents who hope to enlist, but there’s a reason for that, too. If you’re already on active duty, you’ve already demonstrated that someone else is available to care for your kids. For new recruits, it’s more of a gamble.
If you have enough support, enlisting as a single parent is possible.
If you’re determined to enlist and you have a very healthy relationship with your child’s other parent, giving up physical custody might be a reasonable option. Grandparents or other close relatives are solid options too, as long as they’re willing to become full legal guardians. As long as they’re on board, it’s an option worth considering.
That said, once you relinquish custody, there’s no going back. You’re handing over your voice as a parent to someone else, so it had better be someone you trust, and someone who fully supports your decision to enlist.
Why would a single parent want to enlist anyway?
For all the same reasons as anyone else would, really. Some are longing for a sense of purpose, or to be part of something bigger than themselves. While serving your own children gives many parents a sense of purpose, some long to serve on a much larger scale.
If someone else already has full physical custody of your children or if it’s a reasonable option for your family, joining the military can be beneficial for you and your kids. Military parents set an example of commitment and perseverance - and the benefits don’t hurt, either!
At the end of the day, about 8% of active duty military personnel are single parents. If you do decide to enlist, you’ll be in good company.
If you’d like to hear more about what it’s like to be a single parent in the military, check out the video below.