She wouldn't deploy, she got arrested

Was it an act of bravery or poor protocol?

Published November 17, 2009 10:04PM (EST)

Alexis Hutchinson is the 21-year-old single mother of a 10-month-old son, a young woman trying to make it in a male-dominated field. She is a cook. She is also a soldier. And when Spc. Hutchison didn’t get on board a plane to Afghanistan 12 days ago, she was arrested and jailed. No charges have been filed, but she remains confined at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah.

Her lawyer told the Associated Press Monday that Hutchinson had planned to leave her child in the care of her mother, but when that fell through, she was left with no other options. She added that although Hutchinson asked for an extension to make alternate arrangements, her superior told her that she would have to deploy on schedule and place the baby in foster care. The child, meanwhile, is currently staying Hutchinson’s mother in California. Her lawyer says that she is no longer in a relationship with the baby's father, and presumably, he is not an option as a caretaker for him.

Hutchinson’s case is a complicated one. While mothers are deployed all the time, army spokesman Kevin Larson told the AP that all single parents must submit a care plan for their offspring before deployment. He added that Hutchinson would not have been sent to a combat zone if she had no alternative care in place, and that her deployment is currently on hold.

Predictably, reactions to Hutchinson’s defiant move have been all over the map. On the Atlanta Constitution-Journal's blog, some commenters expressed the sentiment that “She should be able to stay until she can find the necessary care for the child,” but the more popular opinions ran along the oft repeated phrase to “Ship her out!”  And on the Orlando Sentinel, a “patriot” said simply that "Women shouldn't be allowed in the military."

Far from the theater of war, in the world on London fashion, surprisingly similar sentiments echoed last week in a scathing editorial for the Daily Mail by UK Vogue editor Alexandra Shulman. “I don't understand is the idea that you should be able to keep exactly the same job, with all the advantages that entails, and work less for it, regardless of how that affects the office or colleagues,” she wrote.

In an office she describes as 90% female, Shulman’s need to accommodate mothers is very different than the US Army's, but ultimately it’s that wealth of femininity that seems to be the source of frustration. Work, she says, “doesn't mean being on the school run at 4pm on Friday when a work emergency breaks out, or making paper snowflakes with your four-year-old while a younger and undoubtedly worse paid and probably childless fellow employee is trying to solve a problem that needs to be dealt with now.”

She’s right. You've got to do the job you're paid for.

But life isn’t easily compartmentalized, and humans, especially children, rarely get sick or have school plays to accommodate our schedules.

Spc. Hutchison likely didn't follow the right protocol to give herself time to find care for her son. And Alexandra Shulman has probably torn her hair out putting her magazine to bed while colleagues were off tucking in their tots. Family and career don't exist in utterly different realms; they melt into each other all the time. That doesn't necessarily make us bad mothers or bad workers. It means something's got to give, that we need to be vocal and realistic about our time and our workloads, to be great employees, to champion flexible schedules, and not feel shamed by those of who trot out the old line that hey, you were the one who wanted to have kids, lady. Because scolding and rhetoric don't mean a damn thing to the work that needs to done, the crying baby at home, or the conflicted woman in the middle.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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