Mom2Mom Global is an all-volunteer support organization for breastfeeding military families. What’s wonderful about our model is that those who take on leadership positions, whether in local chapters or on the national level, are real parents who have the expertise of lived experience. Unfortunately, many of our members come to us after having faced difficult or traumatic circumstances surrounding birth and breastfeeding. My dear friend and colleague, Miriam Valdez, ALC and Mom2Mom San Diego Ambassador, found her community after experiencing very difficult birth and breastfeeding experiences, compounded by the loneliness and isolation that often accompanies military mothers left alone to recover while caring for their newborns. This is her story.
“When our first daughter was born via emergency C-section during a remote military assignment, we of course had to adjust our life to the changes of parenthood. I’m a pediatric nurse and thought my knowledge would suffice to manage the care of a tiny human and myself. I was surprised to learn that motherhood had unforeseen challenges that were aggravated by recovery from C-section, difficulty breastfeeding, inadequate breastfeeding support, dealing with a traumatic birth experience, frequent pediatric follow-up visits for hip dysplasia and braces during the first 12 weeks of our daughter’s life, and the feeling of isolation and loneliness when my partner had to return to duty after 10 days of parental leave in a foreign country on top of the separation from my family and social support network.
Unfortunately, this is not all attributable to the remote location, as many young families experience this time of adjustment, especially on overseas assignments, as I later found out. Extension of parental leave following birth or adoption and fostering of a child would greatly impact the health, safety, and emotional well-being of new mothers in the military environment.
As I learned, C-sections are painful, and recovery is lengthy. I was told not to lift anything heavier than my baby, which was already a task with insufficient functioning of abdominal muscles. I was lucky to have my incision heal well, while my nipples and breasts became infected. A home visiting nurse told me to see my primary care provider (not at the military treatment facility) to inquire about a prescription of antibiotic for my degrading nipples. The doctor shrugged her shoulders and recommended folk remedies. I was determined to continue breastfeeding because it was the only part of my birth plan that remained as my choice, even though the pain was excruciating.
The pain slowly subsided around 6-8 weeks, at which point I was able to lift better and learned to deal with handling my baby who had her legs restrained into a frog position 24 hours per day. Since carrying neither a stroller down 3 flights, nor a baby including car seat was an option during recovery of about 6 weeks, I was stuck in the apartment alone with a newborn for 10 hours of my husband’s workday.
It was stressful having to console a colicky or hungry baby when the primary measure to reach contentment was my bleeding nipples. Two bouts of mastitis also did not help. There were instances when I was at my wits end and became exceedingly frustrated. Fortunately, I knew to leave the room with baby in the crib at times to curl up on the couch crying because it was feeding time again. There was nobody else to take over helping me until my husband came home.
I was all my baby had, a sleep-deprived zombie, pain-stricken, fed-up, angry at the substandard medical care I kept continuing to receive, upset at my own inability to function despite my medical training, alone and ill. I was a new mother in the military.”
Unfortunately, her story is not unique, and we military families are faced with great uncertainty regarding parental leave.
In 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter instituted a new policy of 12 weeks of paid maternity leave for all female active duty servicemembers who give birth. As I wrote previously, this was a great step forward from the previous standard of 6 weeks of “convalescent leave” before returning to duty, but it was disheartening that the Department of Defense overrode the existing Navy and Marine Corps policy of 18 weeks of paid maternity leave.
The NDAA 2017 defense budget bill created the option of up to 6 weeks of parental leave for “secondary caregivers,” a term as yet undefined, but broadly interpreted as non-birth-parents. It also slashed the parental leave for “primary caregivers,” a term as yet undefined, from 12 weeks to 6 weeks. It does offer the option of an additional 6 weeks of leave, but it gives service branches the option to make this 6 weeks of “parental leave” for both primary and secondary caregivers chargeable (meaning it’s not family leave, it’s regular leave), or to require a one-for-one payback active duty service obligation (ADSO) for each week used. This is a disappointing leap backward from the previous policy of 12 weeks of nonchargeable paid maternity leave and 10 days of nonchargeable paid paternity leave, and will undoubtedly leave many more mothers struggling the way Miriam did.
This blog originally appeared on United States Breastfeeding Committee blog.