Vigorous physical demands and the looming prospect of deployment pose special challenges for women in the military who plan on starting families. Graduate student Sarah Cote Hampson is researching the impact these challenges have on the decision-making of military mothers as a part of her dissertation.
Hampson, a Ph.D. candidate in political science, is exploring the manner in which professional choices are affected by the messages people are getting from their work environment and from society, focusing on women in the armed forces because of the unique conditions they face. She has interviewed 17 military mothers so far.
“Women who want to pursue military careers and have families are going to experience challenges that other people don’t have to face: having to [separate] from their child at four months old, having to go back to a very physically demanding job, having to deal with being a minority in their work force,” says Hampson. “A real goal of doing these interviews is getting these women’s voices heard.”
While some details vary between branches of the armed forces, servicewomen are generally entitled to a maximum of six weeks paid maternity leave for vaginal delivery, and eight weeks paid maternity leave for cesarean section delivery. They must be able to pass vigorous physical fitness tests after six months, and can deploy as soon as four to six months after delivery.
With nearly a quarter of a million active duty servicewomen in the military – about 15 percent of the entire force – women are a minority in the field and are immersed in a heavily male-dominated environment. There is a stigma surrounding pregnancy in the military, which is viewed by some men as an easy way out of deployment, leaving women vulnerable to negative attitudes in the workforce.
“Many of the servicewomen I have spoken to felt as though they had to work harder to combat the image of pregnancy as a scapegoat,” Hampson says.
While certain aspects of maternity leave policy are standardized, the implementation of some rules is at the discretion of the commanding officers. One woman Hampson spoke with was placed in a position with much less responsibility after she notified her supervisor of her pregnancy, and she felt very demeaned by this demotion.
The women who seemed to be the most successful were the ones who were aware of their regulations, knew what they were entitled to, and let their supervisors know, says Hampson: “Without knowing your rights, you are opening yourself up to failure.”
One woman needed to pump milk during the work day so she could continue breastfeeding her baby. She noticed that her colleagues took frequent smoking breaks, so she recorded the times of these breaks and determined that she would be able to pump milk during those time periods. When she asserted her professional right to be accorded the same breaks as her colleagues, her supervisor willingly agreed to give her the time she needed.
Hampson says that if women are having negative experiences with maternity leave in the military, it is the attitudes surrounding the policies that need to be modified rather than the policies themselves. She encourages women who are considering a military career in conjunction with having a family to seek advice from servicewomen who have had experience of being pregnant in the armed forces.
Within the UConn community, Hampson plans to form connections between the ROTC program and veteran groups on campus, to enable prospective military mothers to find out what they are entitled to and what they can expect from their employer. She also hopes speak with women now at UConn who have been pregnant or adopted children while in the military who would be willing to participate in the study. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I am so impressed at what I am finding in these interviews,” says Hampson. “These women are incredible and have a real sense of duty. They are superwomen, really.”