FORT SILL, Okla. — What started as a Facebook group for active-duty Army mothers to connect as a community, exchange ideas and seek guidance from other Army moms in uniform led to a long-awaited change in postpartum policy.
Army Secretary Christine Wormuth issued a new directive April 19, 2022 — Army Directive 2022-06: Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum — which is designed to increase flexibility, improve quality of life and positively impact retention, according to senior Army officials.
The directive is a long-term investment in the readiness of military parents by investing in Soldier wellness during and after pregnancy and improving quality of life during parenthood.
“As an Army, we recruit Soldiers but retain families,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville. “Nearly 4,500 active component enlisted men have separated due to parenthood over the last decade. There are nearly 39,000 single parents in the Army, including approximately 9,800 single mothers and 29,000 single fathers. Across the entire military, 45% of all active duty married women are in dual-military marriages. This directive reaffirms our commitment to support our military families and children from pregnancy to parenthood.”
The total Army has more than 180,000 female Soldiers, according to demography reports released by the Department of Defense. Approximately 98% of these women are in their child-bearing years.
The changes, which include establishing clear miscarriage leave guidance for non-birth parents; duty station stabilization for fertility treatment; and paid parental leave for reserve component Soldiers, stemmed from a group of Soldiers in a Facebook group called The Army Mom Life, founded by Staff Sgt. Nicole Edge, an instructor at Fort Sill’s Non-Commissioned Officers Academy.
“I continue to serve because I want to make a good impact on my daughters and set a good example as to the fact that just because you're a woman doesn't mean that there's limitations to what you can do and achieve in the military,” said Edge, a single mother of two. “I also want to set a good example and show women in the Army, who are mothers, that you can be a successful mother as well as having successful Army career.”
For Edge, the challenge of affecting positive change in the Army began in 2016 when, as a dual-military family member, she and her spouse suffered a miscarriage. Following the traumatic event, Edge was only granted two days of convalescent leave, she said. However, even after requesting more time to grieve, she had to use personal leave days to “…to process and mourn the loss of my family and the future that I thought I was going to have.”
A later pregnancy in 2018 prevented the noncommissioned officer from attending Advanced Leaders Course resulting in the delay of her promotion to staff sergeant. Edge’s latest pregnancy in 2020, along with the COVID-19 pandemic further hindered her progress and scheduled attendance of the leadership course.
“At that point I was two years behind and I was ineligible for promotion until I took that course,” Edge said. “And of course, with COVID, day care classes were shutting down due to exposure but fortunately, I had good leadership and was able to work from home but it’s not like that for everyone.”
During all this, Edge, like many people, turned to social media. It was after starting the Army Mom Life Facebook group that she realized she wasn’t alone in her struggle.
“I really felt a call to give back to the Army and, in a way, that kind of segued into me becoming an admin for the Army Mom Life group,” said 1st Lt. Kimberly Wolfe. “I really wanted to help Soldiers and after becoming a mother that became a defining characteristic of who I was as a person. I really want to help mothers in the Army and not that’s become almost a calling.”
Wolfe initially joined the group to better understand the challenges she would face as a new mom and an artillery officer, she said. It was after the birth of her daughter that she realized the Army’s lactation policies were not sufficient for mothers.
“I exclusively breastfed and I was pumping three to four times per day,” said Wolfe. “But I was pumping in my truck in the parking lot of my unit because the only space that was available to us was this dusty, musty broom closet that only had one working light and a broken barracks chair in there.”
Along with less than desirable conditions, Wolfe was also concerned with the perception of her, as a leader, breastfeeding and pumping.
“I felt like I was sacrificing how people saw me as a young leader, a young lieutenant at my first duty station, because I was having to pump in the field when I first came home from maternity leave,” said Wolfe. “So, just being in a Facebook group and connecting with other women who had the same experiences as me made me feel better about the experience.”
While the group was able to help one another through shared experiences, it wasn’t until a tweet from Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston that the group realized they could affect real change. On Jan. 23, 2021, Grinston posted a photo of notes on his Department of the Army letterhead — “Beards? Earrings? Pregnancy Policy?”
The group of Army moms pulled together and after polling members, produced a white paper outlining proposals allowing pregnant Soldiers to attend Professional Military Education, clarification on ALARACT 016-2020 — which would effectively allow Army moms a deployment and training deferment for 12 months postpartum — education of pregnant and postpartum policies in Professional Military Education to include officer and enlisted, height and weight postpartum deferment for 12-months instead of six-months, and overall increased standardization of medical care, including a six-week pregnancy referral to physical therapy, chiropractor, behavioral health and lactation specialists.
In response to the white paper the Army established a Manpower and Reserve Affairs -led working group to review the problems and solutions identified in the white paper. The working group modified the white paper's recommendations, included additional ongoing People First initiatives and eventually aggregated 12 distinct policy recommendations into a single Army Directive.
This working group first met in March 2021 and has been working with stakeholders on drafting the directive since. These policy recommendations were briefed at every level of the Army People Strategy governance process to all Army Senior Leaders, including the Senior Leader Steering Committee, Executive Steering Committee and Army People Strategy Board of Directors.
“I knew when we started the white paper these changes wouldn’t help me with what I went through,” Wolfe said. “But they would help my daughter if she joined, and they will help the Soldiers who come after me. This policy will help those who may not be sure about joining the Army or staying in the Army.”
Edge said Soldiers of any rank can make changes in the Army if they are willing to work at it.
“Sitting back and complaining will get you nowhere. It might make you feel better at the end of the day, but the Army isn’t going to change a policy just because you don’t like it, or want it that way,” said Edge. “How we went about it and actually wrote a white paper and picked five policies to present really helped us to achieve our goal. Now we have a policy that seeks to normalize parenthood, not just motherhood, and extend benefits and accommodations to all new parents.”
The Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum directive includes 12 distinct policy changes including lactation accommodations. According to the policy, lactation breaks and a designated lactation area will be provided for lactating Soldiers, up to 24 months after birth, consistent with the American Academy of Pediatrics' most updated lactation recommendations.
For Edge, the directive’s pregnancy loss policy was the most important addition. The policy states all regular Army Soldiers will be provided with convalescent leave that considers the necessary time for physical and emotional recovery after this significant life event. Leave amounts for female Soldiers who miscarry are consistent with Defense Health Agency recommendations. Reserve Component Soldiers may be provided unpaid excused absences for Unit Training Assemblies.
The postpartum body composition exemption permanently extends the postpartum exemption period from the program from 6 to 12 months. This extension will allow units to better prepare Soldiers to meet body composition standards in a healthy manner.
The policy includes a physical fitness testing exemption allowing Soldiers who give birth to be exempt from record physical fitness testing for 365 days after the conclusion of pregnancy and regular unit physical readiness training requirements. This exemption provides Soldiers with adequate time to return to healthy weight and physical fitness standards after pregnancy.
Soldiers who give birth will also be deferred for 365 days after the conclusion of pregnancy from deployments, mobilizations and all other continuous duty events that are in excess of 1 normal duty day/shift. This is inclusive of all birthparents regardless of component, single Soldiers and one member of a dual military couple in cases of adoption or long-term child placement when the new child is a minor. The deferment also applies to other non-birthparents, as necessary, to ensure that at least one parent is home with their child throughout the deferment period.
A major issue with professional military education was also addressed in the directive. Now, commissioned officers and warrant officers are authorized to attend most PME courses while pregnant or postpartum using their last record physical fitness test and Height/Weight scores. Noncommissioned officer attending the Sergeant Major Academy are also authorized to attend while pregnant or postpartum using their last record scores. Enlisted noncommissioned officer will not be permitted to participate in leadership courses while pregnant but may volunteer to attend postpartum.
The directive also addresses family care plans, paid parental leave for the reserve components, a postpartum service uniform exemption and fertility treatments.
Edge said the new policies will reduce impediments to advancing an Army career while also having a family. The policies are designed to increase flexibility, improve quality of life, and positively impact retention.
“That career/family balance is much more possible in the Army with these new policies,” said Edge. “This [directive] really shows that the Army does care, that they are putting people first and we will be protected and that’s just very exciting.”