Health & Social Policy

Empowering a Soldier’s Choice to be “Mom”

Students from Dr. Jacqueline Angel’s LBJ School seminar “Women and the Changing World of Work,” address obstacles faced by women in the military in this series. To view more of the series, please click the “Women in the Military” tag below. 

For over forty years, women have faced challenges and made gains in the military but they continue to lack the policy support necessary to be the most effective soldiers and mothers. Motherhood is much more of an obstacle for women in the military, than fatherhood is for men in the military.  This reality stems from the time-tested notion that wives of soldiers take care of the home and children, leaving husbands free to commit themselves to a military career. Today, more than one-third of women serving in the military are mothers. But who is taking care of them? Military mothers face multifaceted costs, ranging from the expense of long-term childcare to the psychological effect of prolonged separation from their children. While the deployment of mothers receives some public attention, military policies on abortion and maternal leave often do not. A woman who volunteers to serve her country should also be able to choose to be a mother. She must be empowered to both choose and delay parenthood effectively.

Under current military policy, a deployed servicewoman seeking an abortion may legally obtain one only if the law in the country in which she is deployed to allows it. The military does not provide any type of alternative services for soldiers where the procedure is banned. This leaves some soldiers with few options. Some women risked paying out of pocket for illegal abortions, while others attempted to or successfully terminated a pregnancy themselves, to avoid legal or career repercussions. Soldiers committed to their country must not be left vulnerable while abroad. The military should provide services and protection for servicewomen who choose to delay motherhood and continue their deployment.

Historically, pregnant women have not fared well in the U.S. military. Until the mid-1970s, pregnant servicewomen were dishonorably discharged from the armed services. Today, pregnant soldiers may choose to take an honorable discharge up until the time they give birth. If they choose to continue their military careers, they receive a six-week maternity leave. Research reveals military women experience the same issues as civilian women do postpartum, such as recovering from delivery complications, postpartum depression and the demands of breastfeeding. But soldiers have less time to adjust than do their civilian counterparts, who are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid leave when having baby. Balancing the demands of being a soldier and new mother require more than six weeks. By making policies more helpful to soldiers becoming new mothers, the military may lose fewer servicewomen, thus increasing overall military readiness.

Motherhood should not be treated as an obstacle that women must overcome to effectively serve their country. Supporting service women’s reproductive choices is important to military readiness and national security. The U.S. military has the opportunity to influence the next generation of men and women soldiers by ensuring the success of military mothers. If women can serve and advance in their careers with the same encouragement that male soldiers currently receive, more women and families will be inspired to choose military service.

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