UPDATE: The below post was updated to correct information pertaining to the Family and Medical Leave Act. The information has been updated to reflect that the act applies to some federal employees, but not to active-duty Coast Guard members.
Twice a month, Coast Guard All Hands will feature “From the Homefront,” a column for Coast Guard spouses by Coast Guard spouse Shelley Kimball. Shelley has been married to Capt. Joe Kimball, chief of the office of aviation forces at Coast Guard headquarters, for 15 years. She currently serves on the board of directors for the Military Family Advisory Network.
Written by Shelley Kimball
New babies are a joyful addition to a family. But they also bring with them a tremendous number of questions and concerns.
Add to that the idea of incorporating Coast Guard life to a pregnancy and new baby, and it can be the source of stress, said Lt. Cmdr. Carrie McKinney.
When McKinney first learned she was pregnant, she started to try to find answers to all of her questions about this new part of her life, and she was coming up empty. Not everyone had answers to her questions, and there was no one place to go for advice or insight.
“So to be pregnant, and to have this huge life event happening, and feeling so alone was overwhelming,” she said.
Her struggles led her to write a manual (see more about this in the resources section) that describes how to combine pregnancy and parenting with Coast Guard life so that no one else had to struggle to find accurate information.
“Putting it all in one place has been a priority of mine,” McKinney said.
In light of this week’s announcement about the expansion of maternity leave from six weeks to 12 weeks, we thoughts we’d tackle leave and other issues facing new Coast Guard parents from the perspective of both active duty members and their spouses.
“Being a parent is something that, although it s a huge part of our work force, not everyone is a parent,” McKinney said. “Once you’ve been through the struggles, and the triumphs, it may still be hard to help people through them.
Kelsey Gabert and her husband, Petty Officer 2nd Class Shawn Gabert, are just beginning to find their way. They welcomed their first child, a daughter McKenzie Grace, about a month ago. They live in Cape Canaveral, Florida, and they have been able to rely on a new parent program at Patrick Air Force Base.
It hasn’t been completely smooth sailing in this first month, but Kelsey said she was able to find the help she needed. Kelsey said she experienced some postpartum anxiety in those first weeks.
“No one should be crying this much at such a happy time in their life, and it made me feel like I was failing as a parent,” she said.
She spoke with her doctors about it, and she got help right away.
“What I came to learn is that it’s a completely normal thing, and there are so many resources out there for help if a woman feels she needs it,” she said. “There are even resources through the Coast Guard who can point you in the right direction with a medical professional. I’m really happy with how I was received when I reached out to my doctors about it.”
Shawn took 10 days off for paternity leave and added in a few days of annual leave.
As for the new for maternity leave policy, it has officially been extended from six weeks to 12 weeks. For those who are currently on maternity leave or who are on annual leave at the end of maternity leave can take advantage of this extension.
Other parental leave changes may be on the horizon. Paternity leave may be extended four extra days, but it has not yet been approved. Currently, new dads receive 10 days of paternity leave that must be taken successively within 90 days of the birth.
For parents who adopt a child, 21 days of leave are available to one spouse per couple. (Meaning that in dual-military couples, one of the parents may take the leave.) However, a proposal that would allow the other spouse to take 14 days of adoption leave is in the works.
Two other options: Should a parent need more time off, he or she can request a temporary separation, and for some federal employees, but not active-duty members, the Family and Medical Leave Act allows for 12 weeks of unpaid leave within a calendar year for new parents.
Much of the Coast Guard’s information for active duty parents can be found in Pregnancy in the Coast Guard, COMDTINST 1000.9. McKinney’s manual combines some of the issues that are specific to active duty with information helpful to Coast Guard spouses. Like what to do about enrolling a new baby in DEERS and how to manage Tricare.
A recent change to Tricare benefits for new moms: Tricare will cover breast pumps and some supplies and lactation consultants or breastfeeding counseling. Kelsey said she had an excellent experience when she took advantage of access to a lactation consultant within days of McKenzie’s birth.
On the active duty side of the house, breastfeeding support is encouraged for active-duty Coast Guard members at work. When possible, active-duty members should have breaks for lactation, a private, clean lactation facility, and a cold place to store breast milk.
Don’t forget to look outside military life for support, too, Kelsey said. She said that she spent time researching programs available in her area for new parents, and they were able to attend information classes through their county and have their car seat inspected at a local firehouse.
“Enroll in any program that is presented to you,” she said. “It may not seem like something you need, and you may not end up using it, but that’s okay. At least the info has been presented to you and you can use it how you see fit.
Another avenue for information, Kelsey said, was learning from other parents.
“Research your area, and reach out to other spouses,” Kelsey said. “We found our pediatrician through recommendations from other spouses on base, and I’ve never been happier with a medical professional in my life.”
McKinney said that after her first child was born, she followed that same philosophy, which led her from putting together the manual to building an organized parent resource network.
McKinney is president of PARENT, or Providing Assistance and Resources for Expectant, Newborn and Toddler, families. The group has grown from just five members to more than 100.
Having a support system of other people to work through things like finding a pediatrician or where to get a maternity uniform makes it so much easier to navigate, she said.
“You know, all the little details,” she said. “We found it was a great resource having these people to talk to and working through these issues.”
Since they started, they have continued as a support group, they bring in guest speakers to talk about Tricare, turning to Coast Guard support for postpartum depression and stress management, birthing doulas, and lactation consultants.
They even put together an event this past fall at which families who needed to get rid of baby gear dropped it off at one location for new parents who needed supplies. Anyone could come take whatever they wanted, and no money changed hands. They gave away 1,600 items to 100 families.
“To be able to talk to people, to see people, and a sense of relief that some of the financial burden was lifted,” McKinney said.
One of the greatest lessons McKinney said she has learned having children as a Coast Guard family and developing the PARENT program is the value of a network of people who can provide support in a variety of ways.
“We’re not medical experts, were not policy authors,” she said. “We’re just parents trying to help each other through this experience.”
What advice do you have for new Coast Guard parents? What are some of your favorite resources? Share your comments below!
Coast Guard Pregnancy and New Parent Resource Guide: This guide covers pregnancy and parenting from the Coast Guard perspective, from leave, to uniforms, to Tricare. It also lists the primary relevant policy documents. It was developed by McKinney, and its distribution is sponsored by PARENT, or Providing Assistance and Resources for Expectant, Newborn and Toddler families, a Coast Guard Base Alameda volunteer organization that focuses on helping new families. The group also distributes a bundle of information to help others organize similar groups in other areas. Active-duty members can access the manual through the Coast Guard Portal, and spouses can contact Coast Guard Homefront for more information.
Updated maternity leave policy : As of this week, maternity leave has been increased from six weeks to 12 weeks. Those who are currently on maternity leave or who are on annual leave at the end of maternity leave can take advantage of this extension. Additionally, this references the other issues being discussed, but not yet approved, such as additional paternity and adoptive leave.
Pregnancy in the Coast Guard, COMDTINST 1000.9: This Commandant Instruction covers many of the issues that might face new Coast Guard parents, from leave, to uniforms, to medical instructions.
Tricare Guide for new parents or parents-to-be : This Tricare guide will provides pregnancy, adoption, and new baby benefits.
Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System : Before a new baby can be enrolled for health benefits, he or she has to be enrolled in DEERS.
Coast Guard Layette Program : Mutual Assistance provides a layette package to new parents, but you need to register from three months before to six months after the baby is born.
Family Medical Leave Act : The act provides for unpaid leave for a variety of medical issues, but it can also be used for new parents. The act covers some federal employees but not active-duty employees.
The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not to be construed as official or reflecting the views of the Commandant or of the U.S. Coast Guard.