Legislation introduced last week seeks to improve postpartum care for women in uniform and their families through Title 10, the section of the United States Code on the armed forces.
Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-Penn., introduced the Military Moms Matter Act of 2021 May 7. The bill would expand paternity leave to 12 weeks for primary and secondary caregivers; extend the service member's physical fitness grace period to 12 months postpartum; and ensure that new moms who serve will have their medical needs met, including access to pelvic floor physical therapy referrals and increased postpartum depression and anxiety screening.
Houlahan, who serves on the House Armed Services Committee and founded the Servicewomen and Women Veterans Congressional Caucus, told Military.com that, as a woman in Congress and an Air Force veteran, she keeps women in uniform in mind as she crafts legislation.
"There's not a lot of people who are kind of in positions of legislative ability to be able to think about what it means to be in uniform, and also to be a woman in uniform," she said. "And so some of the experiences that I personally have had informed the way that I'm trying to be helpful in terms of the modern military and the women who are currently serving."
Houlahan, who served for three years in the Air Force as an active-duty service member and 13 years in the Air Force Reserve before leaving in 2004, said that her own pregnancy shaped the bill.
"The experience that I had, trying to figure out how to piece that all together, in some ways was part of the reason why I separated from the military. It had to do with a lot of different stressors, including child care. But 30 or so years later, much of that has not really changed," she said.
Though some of the service branches have decided to offer a postpartum grace period of 12 months to get back in weight and fitness standards, "it hasn't been codified," Houlahan said. The Army announced in March that it would double its postpartum physical standards grace period from six months to 12 months.
"I had the opportunity to meet with National Guardswomen in Washington, D.C., from Pennsylvania who were deployed there during the January 6 timeframe," she said. "They felt as though their bodies needed more time to be healed before they had to perform in their next physical fitness test. Part of this bill is that it increases that time to 12 months, to allow them to be able to fully heal. … And this, in fact, would codify that."
Looking forward, Houlahan said she will continue to legislate change for mothers in uniform. She said that reducing stressors for service members is key to military readiness.
"Yesterday, I was speaking with a junior enlisted woman, single mom, who was in tears describing the fact that she had to be in formation by 6 a.m., when child care didn't open until 5:30. … And she spent every single day white-knuckled trying to drive as quickly as she could, from her off-post housing, to drop off her child to get to formation by six," Houlahan said. "And these kinds of things are things that are creating enormous stresses on the individual, but are also about the readiness of our military."
In addition to contributing to a more inclusive force, Houlahan said taking care of women in uniform signals that the military values them and their families.
"And we need to be working toward having more women in uniform, rather than fewer. This … provides the feedback to a person who's looking to serve that you matter, that your life matters, that your family matters and that your children matter," she said. "This is a competitive working environment. These people are choosing to wear [a] uniform, rather than choosing to do something else in the civilian economy. And we need to be taking care of people."