SecDef Announces 12 Weeks Maternity Leave and More

us air force mother breastfeeding
US Air Force mother breastfeeding. Used with permission.

Today the Secretary of Defense, Ash Carter, announced as part of his Force of the Future initiative, a DoD-wide expansion of maternity leave (no longer called convalescent leave) to 12 weeks among other initiatives.  This move increases the maternity leave for Army and Air Force personnel by 6 weeks, but also reduces by 6 weeks the leave already granted to Navy and Marine Corps personnel.  Still left out of any type of longer maternity leave is the Coast Guard, which under peacetime conditions is part of the Department of Homeland Security, and it remains unclear how this will affect National Guard personnel.

This expansion of maternity leave is being heralded as a way to bring the military in line with other major civilian corporations that offer generous maternity leaves, and by doing so, both recruit and retain highly-skilled women who otherwise might leave the service to better balance work and family life.  SecDef Carter has been quoted as stating that “Twelve weeks is extremely generous and puts us in the top tier of American employers,” he said. “But then you have to balance that against the readiness costs associated with it.”  This is interesting given that the United States is the ONLY Western country that does not offer year-long paid maternity leave across the board to everyone, civilian and military alike; and that militaries in Europe, Canada, and Australia, to name a few, offer MUCH longer maternity leave without affecting readiness.

Breastfeeding in Combat Boots believes that 12 weeks is still woefully short when it comes to recovering from childbirth and establishing breastfeeding.  Especially for women who may be returning to workplaces or duties that include long separation on daily basis, training and TDY, lack of places to pump, or mission critical functions that preclude pumping breaks.  And lost in all of this is the fact that the Navy and Marine Corps are losing 6 weeks (Sailors and Marines who are currently pregnant or become pregnant within 30 days of the enactment of this policy will still be eligible to take the full 18 weeks of paid maternity leave, consistent with the Department of the Navy’s 2015 announcement). Instead of reducing the maternity leave to 12 weeks, why not make it 18 weeks for all the branches of the military?  Even if the mother doesn’t want to take it all at one time (due to a need to remain qualified in her job or similar reasoning), having that extra 6 weeks can make a huge difference just knowing it is there if needed for a family emergency, day-care issues, or illness.

There is much more to the family benefits portion of this Force of the Future initiative including increasing paternity leave from 10 to 14 days (which is also still woefully inadequate, and does not compare to other countries generous parental leave policies) and also allowing same sex couples and adoptive parents to receive the same 14 days.  CDCs will stay open for 14 hours a day to better accommodate working (think dual military) families, and a task force is being formed to look at other ways to improve child care.  BFinCB would like to see better policies regarding breastfeeding and breastmilk handling enacted at all CDCs military-wide as there is a lack of standardization and major issues at virtually every military installation.

A final piece of this initiative, and one of great importance to breastfeeding mothers in the military, is the implementation of a standard requirement across all branches of the DoD to install or modify spaces to create lactation rooms (colloquially known as ‘Mothers Rooms’) at commands with more than 50 women regularly assigned.  These spaces must be designated, clean, lockable rooms with tables and chairs, electrical outlets, access to running water, and refrigeration, and NOT be restrooms or located in a restroom.  On the surface this sounds wonderful and it is a step in the right direction.  But how many commands DoD-wide have 50 or more women regularly assigned?  Many, many commands are much smaller and may only have a few individuals or a dozen at most.  Those individuals will continue to have to fight to procure a clean, safe space to express breastmilk.  And oftentimes that means using a supply closet, a POV, a co-workers office, or the restroom.  This is unacceptable.  This standard needs to apply to ALL commands, without regard to the number of women assigned.

The full document can be read here and as BFinCB learns more, we will update this post.

***UPDATED Feb 8 2016 – DTM 16-002 released by Secretary of Defense providing instructions to the services on implementation of the 12 week maternity leave policy. Each service still needs to write and publish individual policies.***

Please leave your thoughts below on the SecDef’s Force of the Future initiative.  Do you think it is helping or hindering your ability to breastfeed in the military?  Will these initiatives be enough to keep you serving?  Will this affect readiness?   

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