There is no set mould for modern families, so how is the army adapting to support our changing community? Jill Misson reports…
While many army families consist of one serving person living with their spouse and children, not every household conforms to that traditional setup. There are single parents, couples who are unmarried, dual serving, blended families, and – undoubtedly – lots of other permutations.
Sergeant Alastair Smith-Weston is a divorced father of four, whose son lives with him. He says: “The biggest challenge has always been juggling the care of my son and making sure I could still be an efficient soldier.”
To understand the needs of the armed forces community, the MOD commissioned an independent review, led by Andrew Selous MP. In June 2020, Living In Our Shoes was published, which reflected on the way society and the military way of life has changed.
“Family life in the 21st century is fluid and diverse,” the report says, recognising that “long-term cohabitation has increased substantially, not just as a prelude to marriage but as a lifestyle choice.”
The authors noted that more than 40 per cent of marriages end in divorce in England and Wales and that by age 18, more than 25 per cent of children in the UK live with just one of their birth parents.
“AFF is here to support all army families whatever their make up,” says policy & research director Michelle Alston. “The report confirmed many issues we’ve raised over the years and we’ll continue to engage with the army and MOD on the next steps.”
Since 2019, couples in established long-term relationships have been allowed to apply to live in surplus Service Family Accommodation (SFA). Unit welfare officer, Captain Lorraine Dotchin recalled the case of a soldier whose partner was living far away with their baby. She says: “He was often stressed about how she was coping or worried whether he could get back if something were to go wrong. They registered their relationship and are now living on patch.
The uplift in wellbeing of that young family is a clear demonstration that there has been a tremendously positive impact coming out of this new policy.”
Sarah Hulyer and her serving partner live in SFA in Northern Ireland but there’s no guarantee of surplus housing on their next posting. She says: “We were required to provide several written forms of proof that we had been together for two years. Luckily, we were able to scrape it together even though we hadn’t rented as a couple due to his job sending him all over the place.”
She adds: “I think it’s incredibly important to count long-term relationships as valid so that serving men and women don’t feel rushed into marriage.”
Hope for housing
AFF housing specialist Cat Calder is pleased with the progress so far. She says: “It’s a welcome change in policy which reflects the modern family and the hope is that going forward into the Future Accommodation Model (FAM) this will become an entitlement which will also make a huge difference to serving personnel who are not the primary carer for their child.”
One soldier with an eight-year-old daughter told A&Y: “I live in the mess and when I visit her, I have to stay with mates or family near my ex’s house because I have to drive four hours each way. I’m on the list to get surplus housing so she can stay with me.”
Married soldiers whose children do not live with them full-time have no entitlement to a larger property but can apply for surplus SFA. Cat says: “FAM is looking to address this issue by allocating on need to include children who visit for more than 80 nights a year.”
Unit welfare often has a contact house which can be booked for weekends or holidays. These also exist in some overseas locations but all travel expenses for non-resident children are at personal cost.
On overseas postings, unmarried couples don’t have the same opportunity to live in surplus quarters and need permission to rent privately.
The non-serving partner can apply for Limited Dependency Status in some locations – none of their travel expenses are covered.
AFF’s overseas manager, Esther Thomas says: “We would encourage those in long-term relationships overseas to register this on JPA as this will strengthen their case and evidence longevity for when they are assigned back to the UK and may apply for surplus housing.”
When Alison Russell remarried, she brought her two children to live with her new husband and his three children. The blended family was allocated a four-bedroom house in Tidworth.
She says: “All the kids adjusted to their new life so well. Our two younger teenage boys shared a bedroom but we had to adapt our dining room for our eldest son.”
Alison is grateful to the welfare team. She says: “I felt supported as a newbie. The army is moving forward with ‘the new normal’ such as divorced or single parents, which is amazing as there should be no shame or stigma.”
Through social media, AFF has been hearing your experiences to help gain a better understanding of the issues you face as blended or step-families.
It’s important to inform unit HR about any changes to family circumstances. To be eligible for Continuity of Education Allowance (CEA), a service parent must demonstrate that they are the ‘prime mover for the child’ and provide a home where the child usually lives.
“Sadly, we are frequently made aware that where parents separate, the children may not be able to continue at their boarding school. We’d encourage parents – serving or non-serving – to contact us for advice on moving schools or educational concerns,” says Sue Smyth at the Children’s Education Advisory Service (CEAS).
The mobile lifestyle can be challenging and some families will choose to settle in their own home to enable children to go to local schools.
Mark shares his experience: “We decided to purchase our forever home in Germany to put our daughter through the German schooling system. Life hadn’t been easy for my wife moving around as she suffers from spina bifida.”
Continuing with unaccompanied postings in the UK has been hard, Mark admits: “Both my wife and I have had depression over the years. We endeavour to be in constant contact and I’ve been fortunate to have some very good line managers, however, a minority haven’t been so understanding. It can be difficult managing annual leave and budgeting for travel expenses.”
Adjusting to life as a single parent wasn’t easy for Major Brian McGregor, who was awarded custody when his children were seven, five and three.
He says: “To begin with it was an absolute challenge trying to remain focused at work and then switching fire to do the school pick up, get tea ready, get the washing done and help with homework.”
When Brian deployed to Afghanistan just two months later, his mother and brother took on the childcare. He says: “It seemed a good idea at the time but it was far too early to leave my children, who had just had a major change in their lives, and it had a detrimental effect on the way I operated in an environment where you have to be on top of your game.”
Brian no longer feels too proud to ask for support. He says: “I was initially my own worst enemy but when I did ask for help it was there in abundance. The army as a whole is a fantastic employer of single parents and service personnel should never be afraid to ask for understanding and assistance.”
UWO Lorraine Dotchin agrees: “Unit welfare can support applications for surplus SFA or for SFA above entitlement where a family needs to employ a resident carer. We can also work with an individual and chain of command to establish a helpful working hours regime where applicable and available.”
Single and dual-serving parents are encouraged to consider completing a childcare plan – a useful example can be found at Annex I to AGAI 081. The army does endeavour to co-locate dual serving parents and not to deploy both at the same time.
It’s hoped the roll-out of Programme CASTLE will give all soldiers greater flexibility to manage their careers with the needs of their families in mind.
Brigadier James Cook says: “Many of the current career policies were based on research done in 1959 and, unsurprisingly, society has changed since then. People have different expectations, and we need to accommodate that to be truly successful.”
Alistair feels his unit has always supported him as a single parent. He says: “The army has learnt that to make their soldiers efficient, they have to be happy and to know their family is looked after and considered. It sees each family as individual and supports them as and how they can.”
If you need support with any aspect of army family life, contact the AFF team.