How A Facebook Mom Group Changed How The Army Handles Parenting
Major Sambriddhi Winkler was shocked by the stories she heard... and she did something about it.
Major Sambriddhi “Sam” Winkler is fast approaching a meaningful milestone: in September, she will have spent as much of her life in the Army as out of it. Enlisting when she was just 17, she has lived her entire adult life as a soldier. She got married and had her two daughters — Maya, 11, and Grace, 7 — while in the Army, rising through the ranks over time. Last year, Winkler helped forge a better path for those following in her footsteps by spearheading “Army Directive 2022-06,” a comprehensive policy for parents in the Army, and it all started in an online mom group.
Motherhood, especially the early years, has sometimes been a bit of a “blur” for Winkler. Expected to get back into literal “fighting shape” within six months of delivery, she was deployed quickly after having her children, and worked the kind of rigorous hours typical in the service. Adjusting to parenthood under any circumstances is a challenge, but Winkler says it was never overwhelmingly difficult, thanks to supportive leadership and understanding colleagues. She also found an online community — The Army Mom Life (TAML) on Facebook — a place to connect with other women who truly understood the unique challenges faced by mothers in the Army. Per the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Defense estimates that there are approximately 400,000 parents in the army, 39% of uniform and civilian personnel. As Winkler heard more from her fellow soldiers, she says she began to recognize that she’d enjoyed a level of privilege that was not necessarily standard. “I started realizing my experience was a little bit unique, and that not every soldier, male or female, was getting the same great leadership that I’d always been surrounded by.”
One story stood out to her in which a young soldier miscarried during her lunch break; because it happened before 20 weeks gestation, the Army had no policy that would address her loss, and the woman continued to work into that night, quietly coping.
The major recalls reading about soldiers spending thousands of dollars out of pocket on fertility treatments only to be transferred away from their doctors before they could complete a cycle. Others often found themselves struggling to find childcare for an overnight shift on a day’s notice. One story stood out to her in which a young soldier miscarried during her lunch break; because it happened before 20 weeks gestation, the Army had no policy that would address her loss, and the woman continued to work into that night, quietly coping.
“I've been lucky in my parenthood journey,” Winkler says. “So I couldn't believe I'd been in the Army this long and been blind to some of these things. I think that’s what’s so exciting about these communities and social media: it really makes you feel less lonely, and it brings real problems to the surface that people can go and fix.”
She and the nine other admins of TAML started tweeting about what they were seeing: real problems faced by soldiers of all genders, but mostly women. Some were a matter of outdated, often nonsensical policy. Other issues had simply never been addressed at a policy level, leaving leadership without a clear course of action and soldiers out of luck. That’s when something interesting happened. “Once we started tweeting about it, our senior leaders were like, ‘tell me more,’” Winkler recalls. “It wasn't like, ‘This is a really taboo topic; you shouldn't talk about it.’ It was like, ‘How can we help? What can we do?’”
She and the other admins took those questions to the group, asking in a post what things members would change about how the Army addresses parenthood. Responses numbered in the thousands. They took the top five most common responses, wrote a paper, and delivered it to the Pentagon, at which point “multiple general officers said ‘OK let’s put it in policy.’”
Within 15 months (“which is lighting speed if you know anything about the bureaucracy”), “Army Directive 2022-06 (Parenthood, Pregnancy, and Postpartum)” was signed in April 2022 by Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth (perhaps not incidentally, the first woman ever to fill that role).
The 23-page directive covers a lot of ground, from fertility treatments to miscarriage, abortion to parental leave, breastfeeding to childcare and more. Some items are amendments to existing policy — postpartum parents now have a full year to get back into “fighting shape” for a physical fitness test as opposed to just six months, for example. Others provide clear guidelines on appropriate accommodations, like providing time and space for lactating soldiers to pump, or giving sufficient notice for parents to arrange childcare during overnight shifts. Other items the Army had never really addressed before, such as child loss.
You shouldn’t have to choose between growing your family and growing your career, and now women don’t have to.
The new guidance not only provides appropriate accommodations, but new opportunities. Until the directive, pregnant and postpartum soldiers were unable to participate in classes that would have qualified them for promotions, effectively forcing many to choose between having a family and advancing their careers, or at the very least delaying one or the other. It’s something Winkler experienced personally: she found out she was pregnant with her second child at the “last possible minute” she could have gone to her promotion school.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do… so I lied about it.” Winkler says she did not disclose her pregnancy until after she had completed the physical fitness test, after which point she spent the next six months in class. “It was actually the perfect time to be pregnant and have a baby, but old school thinking had disqualified women in the past. No one ever asked why. You shouldn’t have to choose between growing your family and growing your career, and now women don’t have to.”
Many of the new and revised policies benefit birthing parents and non-birthing parents alike.“We had to catch up on policies for not just moms, but for parents,” Winkler says. “We realized parenthood had kind of become a woman's game in the Army. No one was talking about the non-birth parent. No one was acknowledging that they need time off with their kids, or time to mourn the loss of a child.”
Winkler has been encouraged by reaction to the new policies, not just from the soldiers who benefit from them but from the leaders enacting them. “[The directive] is a great tool for anybody who's leading soldiers,” she says, because it clearly lays out expectations, enables longer-term planning, and allows superiors to care for their people.” I was a little bit nervous about the backlash or the naysayers, and I haven't encountered too many.”
Women have been (officially) serving in the Army since 1948 and currently make up about 18% of the force. Fathers have been serving since Day 1. So why did a policy like this take so long?
Winkler attributes it to a number of factors. Part of it, she thinks, was simply acceptance of the status quo, even though it was not one established with women or families in mind. It was also, in her opinion, a matter of women feeling like they had to prove themselves. “I think the first 75 years, we were making sure we didn't need to be accommodated,” she says. “I had a leader tell me once we were so busy trying to get into the room that we were just doing whatever we could to survive to get there. And now that we’re in the room, we’re in every single room, and we’re at the table. Women weren't allowed in the Army 75 years ago. Well, today we’re being led by one.”