Maternity and Paternity Leave: Implications for the National Security Workforce

One month into parenting our newborn, my wife and I, both national security officials, had an epiphany: No doubt some of the worst foreign policy decisions made by the United States must have been the result of key staff’s sleep deprivation brought on by watching over their newly arrived infants at the same time they were advising the president and his cabinet. Though we were first-time parents, we were not strangers to the anxieties of working on stressful and complex dilemmas, having spent years in the national security field. We had each spent time working through headquarters and bureaucracies on time-sensitive issues, and both of us had deployed to unforgiving and dangerous environments where we worked for weeks and months on little sleep. We understood how this sort of stress had impacted our decisionmaking abilities and, after a few years of marriage, knew how grumpy we could be with each other on little sleep. Still, none of this fully prepared us for the exhaustion of taking care of a baby.

Working in the national security environment is an honorable and rewarding profession, but also demanding and stressful – even more so for those raising families. We have worked for managers who placed duty to the job over duty to the family, but we have also had managers who stressed a work-life balance. Even with enlightened managers, however, the “system” tends to discount employees who seek a work-life balance, particularly women. This is not unique to the public sector and is perhaps a function of high-pressure jobs. Making matters worse is that many of us in the national security arena are self-selecting, type-A, or ENTJ personalities and place an inordinate amount of pressure on ourselves to do it all, without worrying about overextending ourselves or the longer-term consequences to our health and happiness. Working at the Departments of State or Defense, at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), or in the intelligence community is a calling, not just a job, and sitting on the sidelines or taking yourself out of the game to pursue another path can prove extraordinarily frustrating or even feel humiliating. There is no getting around the reality that national security professions may require frequent or long tours overseas away from family. Even while stateside, the ability to create a better work-life balance is limited due to security requirements that make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to work from home. Good managers can only do so much to overcome a bad system. In the end, my wife and I had a very limited amount of leave, and our desire to ensure the well-being of our child was a priority, but couldn’t change this reality.

While these challenges and dynamics are, in part, the result of a bureaucratic system that is cumbersome, inconsistent, and haphazard, department secretaries and senior leaders have a considerable amount of authority over their personnel and how they are managed. Not only can good leaders make bad systems more palatable, but they can set the example in terms of work-life balance (even in the national security arena) and set expectations for managers in terms of the importance of taking care of people. Finally, these senior officials have some ability to change policies to advance work-life balance, including making it easier to take family leave. While there are some legal and policy changes that require congressional intervention, on the whole, the executive branch has not pushed existing authorities to their limits.

Read the full report here.

Mark Jacobson
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Women in National Security

Women in National Security | Center for a New American Security