One leave to rule them all: how the military can create parental equality

By Jessica Ruttenber

In 2020, Air Force pilot Major Travis Wilkes and his wife Amanda eagerly awaited the arrival of their first child. Like many fathers of his generation, Travis desired to share in parental responsibilities and to have time to bond with his baby.  Being stationed in a foreign country, geographically separated from family and friends and further complicated by a global pandemic, Travis knew he was needed at home while his wife recovered from birth.

Up to this point, Travis made the assumption Air Force policies afforded women 12-weeks of maternity leave (six of which are medical leave) and men were allowed 3-weeks (21 days) of paternity leave. However, he was surprised to learn the regulation was not gender specific and stated “primary” and “secondary” caregiver and the non-birth parent may designate themselves as primary. In actuality, primary caregiver leave is 6-weeks (42 days) and the birth parent is entitled to 6-weeks of medical leave which can total 12-weeks if the birth parent is also the primary caregiver.

Prior to the birth of his daughter, Travis designated himself as the primary caregiver and requested 6-weeks of leave versus the 3 weeks of secondary. Unfortunately, because of how the Air Force Instruction (AFI) is written, despite wanting to support Travis’ choice, his commander felt as if he could not approve this request without a legal review. Like many situations commanders face, the AFI wording was convoluted. It leaves many to interpret the guidance to restrict military members from designating themselves as the primary caregiver if they have a civilian (non-military) spouse, who is also the birth parent, unless extenuating circumstances exist (extenuation circumstances such as the birth parent being incapacitated, unavailable due to work constraints, is in a dual military relationship, has medical complications or dies). As a result, Air and Space Force women are overwhelmingly (approximately 87% of the time) designated as primary caregiver in a service that consists of 21% women.

Travis was frustrated because he felt the policy was discriminatory and devalued the importance of men’s role in their children’s lives, and it motivated him to drive positive change. “AFI policy, driven by parent DoD guidance, regarding primary and secondary caregiver fails to simply acknowledge that parents can have equal responsibility in raising their child(ren)” he said. “The notion of a primary and secondary caregiver is something out of the 1950’s.  We are in an age where the DoD has a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office…yet the parental leave policies are inequitable.”

He stressed primary and secondary parental leave is not maternity convalescent leave, a medical entitlement which is necessary for women to physically recover from the act of giving birth. Women need to have adequate time to medically recovery, establish breastfeeding (if that’s something the mother is capable and/or chooses to do), as well as to bond with their child(ren). However, medical recovery is not applicable to parental leave, and breastfeeding is typically not applicable with adoption.  In all cases, both parents need time to bond with a new child, whether it be by birth or adoption (the latter potentially even more so, depending on the child’s developmental level).

Although the regulations states, “in most cases the primary caregiver will be the parent who physically gives birth” it also states the non-birth parent/covered military member may elect to designate themselves as the primary caregiver.  This statement, along with additional guidance found by his leadership team, gave his commander the authority to approve Travis’ designation as the primary caregiver for his daughter.  “I was not actually expecting that to be the outcome” Travis wrote to his commander upon receiving the good news. He acknowledges he and his family are extremely fortunate to have leadership who not only entertained the request, but actively worked with him to find a positive outcome.  “I will forever cherish those six-weeks with my daughter and I’m grateful to have had the leadership that I did. However, I’m the only male I know of who’s been able to do this, and for that we need the law and DoD guidance to change.”

Travis’ story is becoming an increasingly common occurrence. A policy that makes men jump through hoops to justify caregiver leave does not make sense. How often do commanders feel pressure to obtain a legal review when a female designates herself as the primary caregiver? The current wording of these policies have baked in bias about traditional gender roles, leaving many commanders and service members unaware the non-birthparent has an option to become the primary caregiver. Some men feel they will be stigmatized for asking for such a role which further divides gender inequities. A stereotype might be felt stronger in a service such as the Navy and the Marine Corps who elected for 14-days of secondary caregiver leave instead of 21-days authorized by law.  

Air Force pilot, Major Sean Domincovitch, and his wife Jessica, were expecting their second child. After delivery they encountered numerous challenges by having two children under the age of three at home. “At the time we didn’t have any family that could support us right after the birth so I decided to take personal leave in addition to my secondary caregiver leave,” Sean said. Like many military families, Sean and his wife faced multiple military moves that disrupted their ability to establish a local support system.  Because leave policies are written ambiguously and left open for interpretation, neither Sean nor his commander knew he was able to apply for primary caregiver leave.  Given the approval of Sean’s additional leave by his commander implies he would have likely been approved a primary request.  Instead Sean needlessly took time from his annual leave to care for his children.

Christian Paasch, Chair of the Virginia chapter of the National Parents Organization, advocates the importance of having both parents involved at an early age benefiting a child’s overall well-being.  “As a result of 50+ empirical, peer-reviewed studies on the benefits of shared parenting (i.e. children having consistently substantive & meaningful relationships with both parents, except in cases of abuse & neglect), we know that children are best served by policies that facilitate and encourage such relationships,” Paasch stated. “These studies also support this specific involvement of fathers, even with very young children and infants.  The gender stereotypes of the past have not applied to American families for decades, so it’s time for our policies to reflect reality.  Perpetuating the dated and false ideas that women only belong at home and men only belong at work does nothing to improve society; it keeps us mired in dynamics that we know help no one.  At the end of the day, the more we force men to stay at work, the more we force women to stay at home…and we know this hurts our children and, by extension, society.”

Andrea Harrington, Air Force veteran, discusses family polices not only impact the Armed Services, it also impacts the culture in the United States. “The U.S. is woefully behind other nations in family friendly policies, particularly surrounding parental paid and unpaid leave after the birth of a child,” she observed. “Multiple studies to include the UNICEF 2019 report ranked the U.S. second to last and last in family leave policy among 21 developed nations”. But fortune 500 companies like Amazon have started offering more support and resources for parents to attract and retain talent.  Amazon offers 6-weeks of fully paid parental leave for its full time employees as well as other family friendly flexible policies. Progress isn’t exclusive to the civilian industry. In 2020, Congress amended the Family and Medical Leave Act that allowed federal employees to take 12-weeks of unpaid time for effective births, adoptions or foster placements.  Under the Congressionally-revised policy, federal employees will now receive fully paid benefits for those same 12-weeks. Eliminating the perception there is a primary or secondary parent is the next logical step for the military to modernize policy.

Equity in the Armed Services requires equity in caregiver leave policies. Air and Space Force and DoD regulations are constructed around an outdated family constructs; this archaic default imposes the primary responsibility of childcare upon the parent who gave birth, sending a message to males they do not play a significant role in child raising. This outdated family construct no longer reflects American society and the population in which the military recruits from. A population, which according to a DoD report, states 71% of American’s youth are ineligible to serve.  To attract quality recruits with a dwindling recruiting population and retain current talent to increase foundational readiness, the DoD should modernize their caregiver leave policies.

The solution is very simple: eliminate secondary caregiver leave and replace it with one standard parental caregiver leave.  Simply put, this would increase the secondary caregiver leave from 3-weeks to 6-weeks to be on parody with primary.  Active duty members have an average of 2.0 children and overall, 38.1% of the total DoD has children.  These numbers are relatively low compared to return on investment by making the service more attractive to quality recruits and retention. This update in policy will send a clear message the DoD is serious about eliminating gender inequalities and supporting all families that serve, including same-sex couples. In short, it’s a three week increase felt twice over the span of an entire career.

“Policies that provide equity for LGBTQ service members and their families are vitally important. Supporting a policy of equal parental leave is the right thing to do to take care of all military families.” -Bree Fram, President of SPARTA

A three week increase in caregiver leave may be felt more deeply by smaller units especially during a deployment cycle, sea duty, or in career fields that are critically manned.  The solution, or order to lessen the impact of this necessary policy change is to make caregiver leave flexible to be taken over a greater time span, up to 2-years after qualifying birth or adoption, or allow more than one leave duration increment can alleviate the negative impacts to the mission. It is already common practice to extend leave earned by each service members into the following year when they are unable to take their normal 30 days of annual leave due to operational requirements.  A matter of fact the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 allows service secretaries to authorize parental leave to be taken in more than one increment. However, these changes are not being implemented at the tactical level.

In order for the DoD to be permitted to make these much needed changes legislation must amend the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 which established the number of days for the current primary and secondary caregiver construct. 10 U.S.C. 701 Entitlement and Accumulation, must be amended to remove secondary caregiver leave and rename primary caregiver to parental leave. This will grant all service members, regardless of gender or family circumstance, access to an equal amount of 6-weeks parental leave. Simply put, equity in the Armed Services requires equity in caregiver leave. The time for this change is now.


1. Remove references and regulations in 10 U.S.C. 701 Entitlement and Accumulation associated with the “Secondary Caregiver”. 

2. Replace the term “Primary Caregiver Leave” with the more inclusive & accurate term “Parental Leave”. 

3. Establish 6-weeks (42-days) of Parental Leave for all Service members following a qualifying birth or adoption. 

4. Delineate the 6-week medical (maternity) convalescent leave from Parental Leave.  A Service member who is also the birthparent would still have access to 12-weeks of total leave.

5. Ensure Parental Leave cannot be restricted based upon family circumstances of Service members. 

6. Expand Parental Leave utilization window from 1-year to 2-years in order to provide Commanders and Service members greater flexibility to balance deployment requirements, unit readiness, currency, and certification requirements, as well as to not inhibit career progression and support individual family needs. 

7. Maintain current paragraph (i)(5) which allows parental leave to be taken in more than one increment. 

8. Member may elect to forfeit parental leave if the members request. 

9. Research possibility to include a manpower study in predicted person-year workforce cost of increasing Parental Leave from 6-weeks to 12-weeks, similar to what Title 5 Federal Employees were provided in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. 

Current Law & DoD Military Parental Leave Policy (MPLP) does not support gender equitable parental leave. Many groups within the services such as the Air Force’s Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT) and Air Combat Command’s Sword Athena recognize current policies discourage men from becoming caregivers and have begun to review data to help senior leaders better understand how important equality in caregiver policies help close the gender gap. The WIT’s chair, Major Alea Nadeem, oversees many of these efforts.  Alea states “to establish equity in the Armed Services for parity in caregiver leave, it takes the stroke of a pen and a common sense approach; which is in the realm of the possible. Let’s get to it!”


Edited by Megan Biles

Resources: Open source for the FAQ that helped Travis. Current Air Force guidance can be found on the myPers website by searching “MPLP FAQ”.

Featured Photo provided by author.

Photo Slideshow provided by Major Travis Wilkes.

The opinion written by the author is her own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force.

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