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Can the Military Be as Family-Friendly as Silicon Valley?

Photo: Master Sgt. Mark Olsen/U.S. Air National Guard

I hate to say, "I told you so" but ...

Did you happen to catch Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's speech last week? Probably not. Most of you probably had better things to do than watch the oh-so-riveting wall-to-wall coverage of mind-numbing bureaucracy on C-SPAN.

Here's the text of his speech and the Military.com article detailing what he said. It couldn't have come at a better time for me. This, you see, is a Very Special Edition of Must-Have Parent.

This is the 100th Must-Have Parent column -- that means I've written 100 columns of (hopefully) wise reflection on what it means to be in a family where the parenting load can't be shared equally despite having two hard-working, smart, well-meaning, fully committed adults.

So, to have the actual secretary of defense give a speech on what the Department of Defense can do to make life better for the Must-Do and Must-Have Parents in the military community -- well, that's my kind of vindication right there.

And what did he say, you ask? Because maybe you also have better things to do than to read that speech?

He announced the following DoD-wide initiatives that he says will strengthen support for and improve the quality of life of military families:

•12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave for active-duty new mothers. (It was previously 6 weeks.)

•14 days of fully paid paternity leave for active-duty new fathers. (It was previously 10 days.)

•On-base Child Development Centers (CDCs, which are basically daycare centers) will be open for 14 hours each day, to better accommodate active-duty parents' work schedules.

•Requiring that a "Mother's Room" be made available in every facility where more than 50 women work so that breastfeeding mothers will have a place to pump.

•More "reasonable accommodations" for service members "who face difficult family geographic situations while ... preserving our force's effectiveness." (I have no idea what this will mean in practice -- but it does sound nice. I assume he means allowing some service members the option of not moving.)

•Starting a pilot program to cover the cost of freezing sperm and eggs and IVF treatments for active-duty service members.

Also, bonus points to Secretary Carter for giving a shout-out to Sheryl Sandberg in his speech.

I truly love that Carter is taking action on these issues. He is the leader of the same fighting force that -- in some mean, dark corners -- still likes to insist, "If the Army (Navy, etc.) wanted you to have a family, it would have issued you one."

And I adore that Carter recognizes what many of us have been yelling for years, that helping military families function is not just the right thing to do, it's necessary to keep the best and the brightest people in uniform.

But ... it's still the Army. (And the Navy. And the Air Force. And the Marine Corps.) So I can't help but wonder how this will all play out. Work-life balance in the military will never -- and can never -- look the same as it does in the civilian world.

Twelve weeks of maternity leave is wonderful, but what if using all 12 weeks makes that new mom appear less committed in a work force where women are already at a disadvantage? Same for fourteen days of paternity leave -- will those days even get used if service members are penalized in real and perceived ways for asking for them?

Will some service members not be able to enjoy these more generous benefits at all?

And will allowing some to take more generous leave without losing their position mean that their co-workers will have to pull double-duty until they return? And what will that do to the work/life balance for everyone else?

Allowing service members to delay parenthood by funding fertility treatments is a generous gesture, but is it one that could mislead them into thinking that parenthood can be put off without risk to their and their future children's health, and to their own likelihood of fertility? And will tacit encouragement of delayed parenthood hurt the careers of those who choose NOT to delay parenthood?

And what about same-sex couples and families that choose to adopt? Who gets to take leave then? And will there be any funding for the considerable costs associated with adopting?

So many questions.

Carter is on the right track with these initiatives. But DoD isn't Google or Facebook. It isn't even like other government jobs. DoD will always have Must-Do Parents because theirs are jobs that simply must be done, and can't be done from home.

If, in chasing the best practices in corporate America DoD loses sight of what needs to be done to prop up the very different, very real needs of military families, I might once again be finding myself saying, "I told you so" -- and I'd really hate to do that.

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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