Pfcs. Grace and Lucas Gaddis practice diapering a baby in the Baby Boot Camp class at Ord Military Community, Calif., March 10, 2022.

Pfcs. Grace and Lucas Gaddis practice diapering a baby in the Baby Boot Camp class at Ord Military Community, Calif., March 10, 2022. U.S. Army / Winifred Brown

New Parental Leave Policy Could Help Retention, Recruiting

Mandated change gives 12 weeks’ leave to all new parents.

All parents in uniform will get a dozen weeks of leave when they welcome a child under a new Pentagon policy. But only time will tell how the change, which standardizes leave policies that previously varied based on the parent’s role, will affect retention and recruitment.

The policy, announced Jan. 4 but backdated to Dec. 27, gives military parents up to 12 weeks of paid leave within the first year of the birth or adoption of a child. The change was mandated by the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.

Lawmakers such as Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn., have been pushing for more military parental leave for years. Houlahan said she has seen the expansion of military paternity leave over the course of her own life. When she was born, her father who was in the Navy, had no parental leave. But when she had her first child while serving in the Air Force, she was able to take six weeks of leave.

“I'm pretty excited about it and really hopeful that it is something that will make a really big difference in the lives of our servicemen and women and their children,” Houlahan said.

The policy also makes the all-volunteer military more competitive with the civilian job market, Houlahan said.

“When people are making decisions, of course it's about service… But you're also looking at what other opportunities there are in the economy, and you want to make sure that you're competitive,” she said. “And also importantly, the military has always led by example, has always been kind of on the cutting edge of diversity issues. Now in this case, its support of family issues as well.”

Before the change, the length of leave granted was dependent on whether the service member was the birth parent or “primary caregiver,” or the “secondary caregiver.” Now there is just one standard of leave across the Defense Department for all parents, said Kyleanne Hunter, a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

“Having a standard does a few things. One, it values all parents equally, which is important just when we start to think about norms of who is expected to sort of take the brunt of child care,” Hunter said. “And that becomes very important, because in a lot of the focus groups that have been done by [Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services or DACOWITS] in particular, when they talk to service members about parenthood, and parenthood and career progression, what comes up a lot is that there's this unspoken expectation that women are always the one who have to sort of take the brunt of caregiving in terms of time. And are expected to dedicate their time. I think this goes a long way to say that parenthood is a universal aspect, and that’s important.”

The standardization also normalizes same-sex parents in the military, she said.

The change brings the military in line with its civilian counterparts in the federal government, who have received the 12-week paid leave benefit since 2020. Houlahan said the military’s new leave policy could serve as a model for other federal agencies and the country.

Whether the policy will help with troop retention and recruitment remains to be seen, Hunter said, noting that no data is available yet.

“From what we have heard from service members, anything that helps to alleviate some of the stress between having a family and doing your job is going to be positive,” she said. “I think a lot of this continues to come down to … how is it implemented? How is it communicated? How is it utilized? And as we start to see those things, then I think we’ll know.”

The Navy’s top personnel officer is optimistic it will help recruiting and retention.

“Navy family members are an integral part of our Navy force, and the parental leave policy updates provide needed time for our Navy families to bond. This is the right thing to do for our sailors, and it brings the Navy in line with, or ahead of, many civilian workplaces,” Chief of Naval Personnel Vice Adm. Rick Cheeseman said in a statement to Defense One. “Additionally, though we do not yet have data to demonstrate the impact this could have on retention and recruitment, there is little doubt that the new parental leave policy will have a positive impact in both areas.”

While the DOD-level policy is out, how each service will adapt it to their own unique needs is still being worked out. The Air Force and Space Force are the only branches that have publicized their leave processes so far, Military Times reported.

“I'm extremely proud of the lasting impact this policy will have on all of our service members and their families," Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said in a statement to Defense One. "The services worked hard to give as much as the law allowed, and I’m extremely proud of how fast our Department of the Air Force implemented [the office of the secretary of defense’s] policy.”

The policy will have to confront a cultural tension in the military between operational readiness and the needs of individual troops, Hunter said, but both are possible with communication and planning.

“If this is not implemented correctly, there is the ability for it to become disruptive. And there's also the ability for it to create sort of dissent among service members who don't have children that are there, right? That are like, ‘Well, why am I picking up the slack?’,” she said.

While the policy is expected to help many military families starting or growing their families, there are still several other areas that need improvement to assist in raising and developing military children, Houlahan and Hunter said, such as accessible and affordable child care.