Not Helping: Study Says Deploying New Moms Into Combat Increases Maternal Depression Risk

women in combat

Dear Journal of Women’s Health,

A study in your current issue asks “Is Military Deployment a Risk Factor for Maternal Depression?” Scientific journals are constantly publishing studies that basically just quantify obvious social and physical observations; you can’t be blamed for doing the same (though I’m still mystified by where they get the funding, or why you bother allowing them to publish). But I disappointed that you, of all places, are publishing a blatantly sexist study undermining the ability of women to serve in the military, and women in combat. Who is this helping?

Stacie Nguyen and her coauthors set out to gather data about the impact of military service on maternal depression, because “little research has been conducted to examine maternal depression, especially among military mothers, where unique conditions often exist,” they said. Unsurprisingly, they found that heading into combat after childbirth made women more likely to experience maternal depression:

Deployment before childbirth, regardless of combat experience, and deployment without combat experience after childbirth did not increase the risk of maternal depression. Women who deployed and reported combat experience after childbirth were at increased risk for maternal depression compared with nondeployed women who gave birth (adjusted odds ratio [OR] 2.01, 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.17-3.43). Among the subgroup of female combat deployers, however, women who gave birth did not have a significantly increased risk for depression compared with those who did not give birth.

Now, I don’t think most women need this study to understand that they’re probably going to be really bummed out if they find themselves in the situation of giving birth and leave their babies at home to go serve in combat shortly afterwards. And we hardly need data to prove that giving birth during active duty service is more than likely a high-stress situation for the whole family.

But, especially given Leon Panetta‘s recent approval of women in the military  to serve in active combat, the choice is really up to women. So the main benefit of the study seems to be pointing out that letting women serve in the military could be bad for their kids, because–as the study abstract points out in the very first sentence–maternal depression is associated not just with poor maternal health, but with negative consequences on infant health.

You being The Journal of Women’s Health, it seems fitting that you’d publish studies that focus on women. But if this were about women’s health, the fact that new moms aren’t any more likely than other women to experience depression after serving in combat wouldn’t be presented as an afterthought. The study seems to really be about family health, and judging how the choices of women in the military impact their babies.

If what we’re really worried about is babies (which is a good thing to be worried about!), then might I suggest a parallel study about new fathers in the military? Again, I don’t think we need data to prove that new fathers are likely to be pretty bummed out about missing the birth of their child, and/or their new baby’s first months of life. But if we’re going to get hard data to prove that military service is bad for families, why not get it for men and women in the military?

Because one thing I’m pretty sure is bad for women’s health is the idea that society has a right to judge and determine our choices, simply because we’re capable of giving birth. And pushing the idea that we’re less capable than men doesn’t help, either.

Thanks for listening,

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    • Diana

      This week on The Obvious Files…

    • once upon a time

      ‘I’m still mystified by where they get the funding, or why you bother allowing them to publish’

      Because now that it’s been proven, the US military/parenting groups/feminists groups/whoever can use this data to ensure that these women get the help and support they need.

      A corresponding study on men would be impossible because men don’t give birth. Equality does not mean ‘we are exactly the same’. There are biological changes that occur when a woman gives birth.

      • Kate

        Totally agree! These are real issues that women must deal with, and they shouldn’t be ignored for the sake of “political correctness”.