Changes made at the beginning of the calendar year to the Army's parental leave policy are giving flexibility to new parents.
Previously, new parents were allowed to take a total of 12 weeks of leave that did not come out of their earned leave balance. The leave started at the birth of the child and when it ended, even if only after 6 weeks, the allotment of nonchargable leave was done.
Chief Warrant Officer Damien Knight, G-1 senior human resources technician explained one of the changes to the parental leave policy is when that 12 weeks can be taken.
"If you didn't use it in that (initial) timeframe, it was lost," he said. "Now, it's kind of broken down a bit. So now, they allow six weeks for maternity convalescent leave. And then, whoever is the primary caregiver can take another six weeks convalescent maternity leave, but they have to take it within a year's timeframe, they don't have to take it consecutively back-to-back like they did previously."
An example Knight gave is if a Soldier's unit is going to deploy soon after she gives birth, she has the option to take her first six weeks, go on deployment, then take the remaining six weeks when she returns.
The new rules have more specifications on designating a primary and secondary caregiver, he said. Generally, the primary is the mother who gave birth and the secondary is the father of the child. However, there can be exceptions depending on which family member is designated as the primary care giver. For each parental couple, only one can be designated as the primary.
Another change is that the father of the child does not have to be married to the mother to qualify for parental leave.
"Previously, the spouse was allowed to take 10 days of nonchargeable absence," Knight said. "Now they are allowed up to 21 days and they don't have to necessarily be married. They just have to be identified as the one of the caregivers, either the primary or secondary caregiver."
The changes are retroactive to Dec. 23, 2016. Anyone who has had a child since that time and did not get to take advantage of the extra nonchargable leave should check with their command about eligibility for the balance under the newer policy.
Knight said he missed that cutoff by just a few months and would have really liked having that extended time when his child was born.
Sgt. Evelyn Hartz, religious affairs specialist at Irwin Army Community Hospital, Department of Ministry and Pastoral Care, and her husband Sgt. 1st Class Michael Hartz, operations noncommissioned officer in charge, 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division, had their first child, 5-year-old Makayla, before the changes. However, they were able to take advantage of the extra leave under the new policy when their second daughter, Madison, was born.
"I was extremely thankful," she said.
Those first weeks after a baby is born, a parent Soldier is busy trying to find daycare, tend to the newborn, recover physically and get some sleep.
"It's really stressful," Hartz said. "Increasing the father's leave was beneficial because it used to be 10 days and those 10 days goes by extremely quick -- and you know, the moms need help."
When her first child was born, she did not have confirmed childcare until two days before she had to return to work.
With the second child, they were able to have a slot at daycare before she went back to work.
"That was great because I got into that routine of dropping her off and I got to work out and get my body back into shape," she said.
Besides the convenience, having the extra time allows both parents a better bonding experience. There are many studies that show bonding with the mother and the father is crucial for a child's socialization and their development, Hartz said.
She said some of that bonding happens while breastfeeding, which many mothers choose for the health benefits as well.
"If you're a breastfeeding mother, especially us in the service, it's hard getting on that schedule," Hartz said. "Being able to bond with your kiddo, and also being able to store up your milk. "Once we come back to work, we've got missions -- you've got to be ready. So, you have to have that storage of milk set up if you're breastfeeding, so that was my stress."
Hartz said the change in how the time can be used is beneficial in many ways for new parents and she is glad to have been able to take advantage of it with Madison.
The policy changes can be reviewed in a memorandum dated January 22 that references Army Directive 2019-05, the Army Military Parental Leave Program. For more information consult your personnel office, or G-1.