Military Moms Breathe Easier as Pentagon Extends Maternity Leave
By Travis Putnam Hill
Maj. Erika King remembers that time four years ago when she nearly quit the Air Force and ended a 14-year military career.
Her son Phoenix had been born three weeks early and was severely jaundiced. Damon, her Air Force husband, couldn’t get paternity leave until he finished a project. When the baby’s condition deteriorated and he needed emergency medical care, King had to drive him to hospital under the influence of the painkillers prescribed following a difficult delivery.
The “guilt and stress” felt like déjà vu to King, who had also delivered a daughter in 2010 and had trouble breastfeeding and pumping sufficient milk because of long work hours as a mental health counselor for—ironically—new parents. On both occasions, King had taken the six-week paid leave the military allowed, but it just didn’t seem enough.
“There aren’t people here to support us in the way we need to be supported to be a military family,” King said of her thoughts at the time. “So I made the decision that I was done.”
In January this year, the Department of Defense announced that all uniformed service women will receive 12 weeks of paid maternity leave, changing a decades-old policy, as part of a package of expanded family benefits.
“We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family,” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said at a Pentagon press briefing.
As an all-volunteer force, the military is under pressure to become a more family-friendly employer, and thus more able to attract and retain talent. That talent increasingly has included women, whose long slog toward equal opportunity in the armed forces has quickened in recent years, as the Pentagon has lifted gender-based restrictions on military service and allowed women to fill combat positions.
The new benefits include extended hours at military child care centers, broader access to egg and sperm freezing, and more than 3,600 lactation rooms at bases nationwide. Mothers in the Navy and Marines, whose paid leave was extended to 18 weeks last July, also will receive 12 weeks’ leave. Carter said the changes strike the right balance between maintaining a ready force and being family-friendly.
The new policy still doesn’t match those of some U.S. allies. Women in the British armed forces, for example, are entitled to 26 weeks of paid maternity leave. And in the private U.S. sector, some companies are also more generous. Facebook offers four months of paid parental leave while Netflix gives new parents unlimited paid leave.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, however, only 12 percent of the nation’s private sector workforce has access to paid family leave.
King, 34, who also has served in the Air National Guard, decided to stay in the Air Force to advance her education. The extended leave would help new parents, especially mothers, she said. Through an Air Force-sponsored program, she is working toward a Ph.D. in social work at the University of Texas at Austin, where her research focuses on military families and policies that influence retention of women in the military.
Had her own military leave been longer, King says she thinks she could have “figured out breastfeeding with my daughter a little bit better and not had the same amount of guilt and stress.”
“It would have given me maybe an opportunity to work part-time for longer and get the hang of both worlds before I just leapt into the deep end,” she said.
With more than 117,000 active-duty soldiers, Texas has the nation’s third highest military population, behind California and Virginia. Most are in the Army or Air Force.
Nationwide, the 200,000 women in the military comprise over 15 percent of the active duty force, up from just 1.5 percent in 1973, when the draft ended. More than 15,000 children are born to military moms annually, according to the Armed Forces Health Surveillance Center. Overall, about 42 percent of active duty service members have children. Both male and female service members have their first child around 26, on average. More than two-thirds of service members are 30 or younger. Just over half are married.
“Because we have an all-volunteer force, if you don’t take care of families, you aren’t going to keep good people, and they’ll find some place else to go,” said Janet Crow, a fellow with the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University who has studied military family well-being. “So it’s important to recognize that the support of the family is critical to a strong and ready military.”
Retaining women is part of that. A 2011 report from the Military Leadership Diversity Commission concluded that, across all branches, women were less likely than men to remain in service. Women who quit often cite a high level of conflict over work and family as one of their main reasons.
A 2003 survey of female officers who quit the Air Force found that more women chose to end active duty for family-related reasons than to pursue private-sector careers. A different study by the RAND Corp., revealed that service members with preschool children were more likely to consider leaving because of child care issues.
Cassaundra Melgar-C’De Baca is the CEO of F7 Group, an Austin-based nonprofit that provides resources and support to active and veteran military women. She said the military was “still ahead of the curve,” compared with private companies.
Proponents of more paid parental leave, including the Obama administration, point to research that it improves children’s health and family well-being, increases female workforce participation and retention rates, and reduces the chance that families will rely on public assistance.
“Those first few months of having a new baby in the home are absolutely critical, not only for the baby and the mom, but for the rest of the family as well,” said Crow of Baylor University.
Tina Robinson, a Navy recruitment officer who lives near the Fort Hood army post near Killeen, gave birth to a daughter in August. With her Army husband deployed to South Korea for several months afterwards, Robinson said she was thankful for the 18 weeks of leave she had at the time. It gave her time to bond with her daughter, get back in shape for a return to active duty and study for her advancement exam.
“I would have been OK with the 12 weeks,” Robinson said. But she said it might have been harder to help her husband get used to fatherhood within that time. “I would have had no choice but to take time off.”
Movement is continuing. Pentagon officials plan to seek congressional approval to expand paternity leave, from 10 consecutive days to 14 non-consecutive days. In March, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, proposed legislation to grant 12 weeks of paid leave to all service members, regardless of gender, after a birth, adoption or foster placement.
King said that longer paternity leave would be particularly meaningful when both parents are in the military, because it would allow them to negotiate their roles as new parents before returning to work and help ensure that the mother doesn’t end up with the brunt of household responsibilities. She believes that paternity leave would help in recruiting and retaining women.
“I think paternity leave is as big, if not bigger, than maternity leave,” she said.