Independence Day celebrates the day our forefathers put pen to paper and outlined the rights and beliefs that would form our values as a new nation. And, like most things patriotic, the Fourth of July has become inextricably linked with our nation’s armed forces.
Independence Day also commemorates the beginning of a distinctly American set of cultural values, proudly displayed right in the holiday’s name. For centuries, as a country we have come to celebrate self-reliance, a certain “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” national identity.
That’s why, as an Army spouse, Independence Day and all the self-sufficiency it extolls, I can’t help but be reminded of my own irksome designation within the military: I am my husband’s dependent.
Look up independent in a thesaurus and you will see words like strong or liberated — traits that we all aspire to have. Look up dependent in adjective form, however, and you are likely to see words such as weak, helpless, debased and subordinate. In the civilian world, dependent can only be used interchangeably with child.
Dependent’s connotations are not only antithetical to those virtues we value most as a country, but they also feed into the worst kinds of stereotypes about military spouses and antiquated notions of homemakers. It harkens the image of spouses as leeches, parasitically feeding off their service member’s benefits and contributing little in return.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Causation doesn’t exist between military spouses’ unemployment and a desire to live off government benefits, but rather between those high unemployment rates and the challenges of military family life. Frequent moves, licensure issues in new states, the costs of child care, and lost credits between school transfers often create the perfect storm of career barriers for military spouses.
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It is an insult to injury when we face hardships pursuing a career because of military life, and then be pigeon-holed as free-loaders, often by the very culture that created our reliance.
I have never met a military spouse who wasn’t strong. One cannot make it as a spouse without a heightened independence streak. Military spouses are alone much of the time. Through deployments, field exercises and trainings, spouses learn to be a picture of autonomous sufficiency.
Our country relies on the strength of its military spouses. Through the past 40 years, America counted on military spouses to maintain the household and tackle child care alone throughout frequent deployments and trainings. In fact, a RAND Corp. study in 2011 estimated that the duties of Post-9/11 caregivers, 33 percent of whom are spouses of the care recipients, can be estimated as worth close to $3 billion. Our government depends upon spouses to step up to the plate when the going gets tough.
If spouses rely on anyone, it is often one another. Spouses can be counted on to throw baby showers for women they barely know, to organize a drive for the woman with surprise triplets on a private’s salary, to drive across town in the middle of the night to talk a fellow caregiver through a particularly rough week.
Words matter. In social work research, researchers carefully contemplate not only the usefulness of what we study, but the language with which we describe it. They often debate whether words like resilience, or even stigma can prejudice the populations they hope to more accurately understand.
This Independence Day, as we reflect on the members of the armed forces and their families, and what it means to defend and embody the spirit of this country, perhaps we can liberate ourselves from stereotypes and view spouses for what they truly are: partners in a mission to keep the home fires burning, and the pace of our military at full speed.
Jennifer Aronson is a U.S. Army spouse and program coordinator for the Veteran Spouse Network program at the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin.
A version of this op-ed appeared in Rueters.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
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