Parental Leave for Troops Should Not Require a Legal Review

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The daughter of a female airman holds her mother’s finger at Misawa Air Base.
The daughter of a female airman holds her mother’s finger at Misawa Air Base, Japan, June 29, 2017 (U.S. Air Force/Airman 1st Class Sadie Colbert)

Travis Wilkes is a husband and father stationed in Europe where he serves as an active-duty major in the Air Force.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

What message do military parental leave policies send to service members when a legal review is required simply to allow a father to take an equal role in caring for his newborn or newly adopted child? That was my experience when I designated myself as my child's primary caregiver in preparation for the birth.

Prior to my wife's pregnancy, I assumed the military's parental leave policy was straightforward: three weeks for men and 12 weeks for women. That is not the case. There is a primary caregiver vs. secondary caregiver construct, established by law, which gives weight to institutional subjectivity in which only one parent, overwhelmingly the woman, is allowed to be the predominant parent. This is not beneficial to women, men, children or even the military organization.

In short, servicewomen receive six weeks of medical convalescent leave to recover from giving birth. For birth or adoption, the designated primary caregiver receives six weeks of parental leave. Due to how the Defense Department policy is written, these are often combined to give servicewomen birth mothers a total of 12 weeks with their newborn.

For birth or adoption, the designated secondary caregiver, disproportionately men, receives three weeks in the Army, Air Force and Space Force, but only two weeks in the Navy and Marine Corps.

My wife and I do not view our parental roles in this outdated primary vs. secondary construct. We make a concerted effort to share our parental responsibilities equally, as does a majority of our generation. So naturally, I wanted to designate myself as the primary caregiver to be afforded the maximum amount of time to bond with my child and support my wife in her postnatal recovery.

I was fortunate to have a commander who wholeheartedly supported my decision, but he felt that the legal office should be consulted before approving it. While frustrating, his precaution was understandable since the military's parental leave policies are not written to easily allow, and certainly not encourage, non-birth parents or those with a civilian spouse (i.e. me) to be the primary caregiver.

The Air Force policy is reflective of the DoD policy. It outright states that in most cases the primary caregiver is the birth parent. Given that 83% of active-duty members are male and 91% of spouses are female, this automatically places a majority of the force into the secondary caregiver role. Policies establishing primary parental responsibilities enforce gender bias and an outdated family construct that no longer reflects American society.

Current policy also states that, for birth or adoption, the non-military (i.e. civilian) parent is most often the primary caregiver. This represents 44% of active-duty members who have a civilian spouse. Some examples are listed that would allow the non-birth parent military member, predominantly men, to be the primary caregiver. One is in the event of dual-military couples; however, only one member may be the primary caregiver, forcing the other to be the secondary.

The other examples include cases where the civilian parent must return to work and the incapacity or death of one of the parents. These seem more like extenuating circumstances that would dissuade most servicemen and their leadership from making or approving a request such as mine.

Fortunately, my leadership was supportive of our family decision to designate me as the primary caregiver. After further research, a Military Parental Leave Program frequently asked questions document was found on the Air Force's myPers website. It came to my rescue, answering the question of whether an active-duty male with a civilian spouse or partner can be a primary caregiver. It said that covered service members are allowed to decide their caregiver status.

With this information, along with the "other circumstances" allowed by the guidance, my commander happily approved my designation.

I will be forever grateful for my leadership and those first six weeks I had to support my wife during her recovery and to bond with my baby. However, I was one of the lucky ones. Current laws and DoD policies fail to provide a vast majority of service members the appropriate, medically recommended time with the newest members of their families. This disparity in parental leave is detrimental to servicewomen and damaging to the military's efforts to increase diversity.

In a 2018 Rand Corp. study, servicewomen "discussed a perceived [negative] stigma associated with pregnancy in the Air Force. They described a perception by leadership and peers that female officers get pregnant to avoid deployments and that pregnant female officers are not pulling their weight."

The study identified equitable parental leave as a means to reduce this stigma while simultaneously increasing gender diversity in higher ranks, as it would lead to increased retention of servicewomen.

Existing DoD policy, based upon interpretation of current laws, perpetuates unintended stereotyping and supports an institutional bias toward women in that they bear the responsibility of child-rearing to a greater degree than the other parent. Parental leave following a qualifying birth or adoption should be a universal entitlement for all service members, regardless of gender or family circumstances.

As part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, some federal government employees were authorized up to 12 week of paid parental leave. The recently introduced Servicemember Parental Leave Equity Act would do the same for uniformed service members by increasing primary and secondary parental caregiver leave to 12 weeks for all troops following a qualifying birth, adoption or long-term foster placement.

This is a shift in the right direction; however, changes to laws and military policy can take several years to be fully implemented. A bigger task is generating a much-needed culture shift in which we as a military organization not only acknowledge, but also encourage all our service member parents, current and future, to take an equal role in child-rearing.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration.

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