Parents in the Military Find Hardship in Leave Policies

The Washington Post

When one Army captain became pregnant for the second time, she called it quits. The military, she decided, was no place for a pregnant woman.

Instead of congratulating her, the former officer said, her peers viewed her condition as “definitely negative.” Looking ahead to the next nine months, she saw a system that was “not only resistant to the needs of pregnant women, but actually communicated distinct disapproval.”

The complaints of this captain and other mothers in the military prompted Rep. Patricia Schroeder (D-Colo.) to order a survey of the military’s parental leave policies.


The study has found that the policies are discretionary and, in many instances, did not conform to accepted medical recommendations for child care. The majority of military commanders interviewed said they see no reason to change the Defense Department’s practices, however.

Schroeder disagreed sharply and said she will ask Defense Secretary Frank C. Carlucci to institute a military-wide parental leave policy as a result of the findings.

‘Must Wise Up’

“The Pentagon must wise up to the fact that family issues are becoming increasingly important to readiness and retention,” said Schroeder. “Over 20% of men and women cite family reasons for leaving the service. Our policies should reflect the changing demographics of our service members.”

The study found that less than 12% of the military installations surveyed reported having any formal or informal policies regulating leave programs for childbirth.

The military did not view that as a problem, noting that a military supervisor should have the authority to “balance the needs of his people with essential mission requirements,” the study said. But Schroeder argued that the military’s lack of parental leave policies forces service members to use annual leave time to cover needs associated with the birth, adoption or serious illness of a child.

Mothers are expected to return to duty five weeks after delivery, but military-operated child-care centers do not accept infants under 6 months old and private facilities do not allow infants under 6 weeks of age.

Schroeder also points to recommendations from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists that new mothers allow a six-to-eight-week recovery period for an uncomplicated pregnancy.”

The military allows its personnel 30 days of leave each year, in addition to medical and special leaves. The study found that the length of maternity and paternity leaves varied, but that the median period was 15 days during pregnancy and childbirth and 35 days following delivery--one week of which was taken from annual leave.

Financial Problems

The survey found that only a small number of women took unpaid leave to spend more time at home with the child before returning to work. Military officials attribute those small numbers to the financial problems it would create for many young mothers, particularly enlisted ones.

Schroeder’s research has found that federal government workers and working mothers in the private sector are much more likely to take unpaid leaves.

About 94% of the commanding officers surveyed said they believe the military leave program is adequate or more than adequate. The sampling also found that 86% of officers believe there is no need to provide additional time for parental leave.

Pentagon officials concluded that instituting a special paid or unpaid parental leave program of any lengthy duration is “considered unnecessary” and would create “significant budgetary impacts.”

Some of the commanders interviewed disagreed strongly with the majority.

“I feel the current leave program is barely adequate to the family needs of our military parents,” said one Air Force commander. “The annual leave program was intended to provide vacations from duty to benefit morale, motivation and the member’s psychological and physical status, not as a program through which parents take off to administer the health cares of their families.”

Schroeder and some of the commanders who responded said the short-term leave allowed military service members is detrimental to both the mother and child.

“Short disability leave is medically irresponsible,” said Schroeder. “Families don’t bond in a day. They need a strong foundation. I don’t think our service members should be excluded from this process.”

Concerns Pediatricians

The Air Force commander added in the survey: “In the case of a newborn who becomes ill and spends an extra week in the hospital, the military mother may have only three weeks at home with the child before she goes back to work. This concerns our pediatricians.”

But many women service members say there is an aspect of pregnancy that is also frequently overlooked: the attitudes of superiors and co-workers. A Marine Corps study on women in that service noted: “If women are looked on as a burden, then this period of maternity leave becomes a point of dissension which precludes the women from ever being fully integrated and accepted in the command.”

The task force that wrote the report recommended that leaders make arrangements for another Marine “to cover the work of a woman Marine” during her leave period. “While this is not always easy,” the report said, “it is recognized as a necessity due to the health and welfare of a woman Marine. The attitude of the leader in making alternative arrangements is very important in setting the example for other Marines within the unit or command.”

Schroeder’s request that the Defense Department implement formal leave policies stemmed from letters she received from military members after she introduced the Family and Medical Leave Act, which gives employees in the public and private sectors the right to 10 weeks of unpaid leave and a guarantee to return to their job.

The Defense Department survey was based on questionnaires sent to 455 military installations in the United States and overseas. Officials said 81% of the commanders responded in time to be included in the results.