HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Dené McCracken is due to give birth to a baby boy in April.
It’s her first child, and she says her stress and anxiety levels have been on a steady march upward since discovering she was pregnant.
“My immediate plan (after giving birth) is really just to take him home and try to keep him alive,” McCracken said, only half-joking. “I already feel panicky about having a newborn.”
But thanks to a newly announced Department of Defense policy, the 25-year-old Hill Air Force Base 1st Lieutenant says her apprehension is much more manageable than it would be otherwise.
This month, the DOD announced it will increase paid military maternity leave from six to 12 weeks. According to a DOD news release, the new rule applies to all active-duty and reserve service members. The secretary of the Air Force’s public affairs office says the new policy will affect more than 200,000 women.
“This puts DOD in the top tier of institutions nationwide and will have significant influence on decision-making for our military family members,” defense secretary Ash Carter said in the news release. “Our calculation is quite simple — we want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family.”
The new policy also includes other family support changes, like expanding military paternity leave from 10 to 14 days, expanding military child-care hours and a pilot program in which the DOD pays for the cost of freezing sperm or eggs. DOD officials say the new rules will improve retention rates and provide an overall strengthening force to the military.
The policy changes came at a perfect time for McCracken. She said when she and her husband, Levi McCracken, initially started planning for a family, they did so with a six week maternity leave schedule in mind.
“When we started thinking about starting our family, no, I had no idea (of the policy change),” McCracken said. “We just kind of went for it. But shortly thereafter, they said they were looking at the policy. When I heard that they were extending (it), I just felt relief, because the idea of handing over my 6-week-old baby to a stranger was really stressful.”
Whitney Pardo, a staff sergeant at Hill, has two children, a 7-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter. Her son was born while she was stationed in England, and her husband deployed a short time after she gave birth. She says the new 12-week maternity policy is being roundly applauded by mothers around Hill.
“When it comes to having a child, obviously the more time you have off, the better,” Pardo said. “I know 12 weeks would have made it a lot easier for me to get things situated.”
With her son’s birth, Pardo said, she went back to work after six weeks.
“Just developmentally, there were some things where I felt like some more time would have really put me at ease,” she said. “He couldn’t quite hold his head up at six weeks, and there were a few other things where some extra time would have been really nice.”
McCracken says the new policy backs up talk she’s heard throughout her entire Air Force career.
“You’ll hear a lot of leaders say ‘Healthy airmen have healthy families,’ and they talk about how important families are because they support what we do,” she said. “So, them saying, ‘You know what? Your family is important to you, that means it’s important to us,’ they’re kind of putting their money where their mouth is.”