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The Postpartum Risk Window: Mentoring New Military Moms

Updated: Oct 10, 2023

Christine Neusmith is an active-duty Army Intelligence Officer currently serving in the US Army Counterintelligence Command. Raised in California, she commissioned through ROTC at UC Davis with a degree in International Relations. Following assignments with 10th Mountain Division, 75th Ranger Regiment and the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade, she completed masters degrees in Strategic Intelligence and Military Operations Studies. Christine spends her time competing with Capital Rowing Club, reading for professional development and pleasure, and trying to get outdoors as much as possible.



It’s 4:15 am and I am once again staring at my alarm app on my phone, struggling to decide whether to turn my 5:15 alarm off and just sleep until 6:30. I need to get up to do a workout, either body weight calisthenics or the next part of my run/walk progression. Eventually, I need to be able to pass the Army’s new fitness test, and I know my one-year grace period will be over before I know it. But my son, my wonderfully happy and beautiful six-month old baby boy, has only just gotten back to sleep after being up at midnight…and 1:30 am…and from 2:00 straight to 3:30. I also know from recent experience that now he’ll sleep through until 6:30 or 7:00. I decide a full REM cycle is more important than a workout and turn off the alarm.


It's a tradeoff I have made too many times since going back to work. The Army is among the most generous of American employers with regards to maternity leave, and I had twelve full weeks of leave after giving birth (1). Though I wanted to take more time, I felt pressure to return to duty; both internally and externally. My unit is short-handed, and my position is what the Army calls “key-developmental,” or KD, position. Being one of only two majors in my battalion, and second in command, it was not what most would have considered an “ideal time” to have my first child. For commissioned officers, time in a KD position is integral to career progression and is evaluated just a little harder.


More than half of military women believe that there is no ideal time in their career pipeline to have a child, even if we could control such a thing (2). Nonetheless, I still tried to time having a baby for what I felt would be the least impact on my career, only to have it take three years to get pregnant. And no matter when one manages to have a child in their career, the pressure to return to the office and “back to the fight” is very real. Active-duty military women work longer into their pregnancies and report less support than civilian women (3).


All of these thoughts go through my head the next day, when my son has slept a little better and I am able to get up at 05:00 without worrying a lack of sleep will make my commute dangerous. I am just lacing my running shoes when he starts crying. Fortunately, my husband wakes up and takes him, telling me to go for the run. I do and feel guilty the whole time. I know the mornings I am able to spend time with my son before going to work set him up to be in a better mood all day. I have yet to find the “work-life balance” all my mentors spoke of and can feel the emotional toll mounting.


Since the onset of the Global War on Terror, the rate of women in the military experiencing post-partum depression (PPD) has increased steadily (4). This trend has been exacerbated by the global COVID-19 pandemic, with the prevalence of PPD in the general population reaching an astonishing 34 percent (5). More concerning is the research that shows 20 percent of all mothers do not disclose their symptoms to healthcare providers, which could lead to depressive symptoms left unidentified and untreated (6). Despite the military’s best effort, there is still a stigma against seeking mental health care. Given the rising level of PPD, we in the military need to be on the lookout for warning signs in our postpartum population.


The Army emphasizes the need to support soldiers through transitions, such as following a deployment or exiting the service. Mentors need to be aware of the immense transition that the birth of a child brings to their mentees’ lives as well. Research shows that the first six months of a child’s life are when women experience the greatest risk of PPD, which overlaps with the first six weeks back to work following maternity leave (7). As leaders, we need to watch for warning signs in this risk window and be ready to rally support to the new mothers in our formation. These signs include feelings of irritability, sadness, constant worry, and sleep and appetite changes. New mothers struggle with feelings of isolation, difficulty with breastfeeding and logistics surrounding pumping, and anxiety surrounding leaving their newborn to return to work.


There is good news: research also shows that social support is a factor that can improve postnatal mental health (8). Women with greater support are more likely to disclose their symptoms to a medical provider and therefore get the help they need (9). This support could come in the form of a confidant, a fellow new mother, or hopefully a professional mentor.


Women fill crucial roles in today’s military leading soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen; becoming a mother does not change this fact. Unfortunately, approximately one in four women who chose to leave the military do so because of the difficulty in finding a balance between career and family (10). We need to ensure that we are not losing vital talent, because we are not supporting our new mothers through the difficult period following birth.


It is now a few months later, and my son has just turned one. He is sleeping through the night consistently and I have strung together enough workouts to scrape through a fitness test successfully. Life is still crazy, but we have reached something of an equilibrium. Coming through the other side, I can recognize the precipice I had been teetering over. Moving forward, I aim to support other new, and soon-to-be, moms; but the responsibility cannot rest solely on the shoulders of the mothers in our ranks. All who consider themselves a mentor or a leader must be aware of the challenges our fellow service members face and do their best to be there for our juniors and our battle buddies.


1. With the publishing of Army Directive 2022-06, the Army has since expanded this time period to a full 18 weeks, a decision which was made in 2022 but did not go into effect until 2023.

2. Kathryn Kanzler Appolonio and Randy Fingerhut, “Postpartum Depression in a Military Sample,” in Military Medicine, 173, Issue 11 (November 2008): 1085 - 1091, https://doi.org/10.7205/MILMED.173.11.1085.


3. Appolonio and Fingerhut, “Postpartum Depression in a Military Sample.”


4. Ellen R. DeVoe, Katherine Dondanville, Brian A. Moore, Juliann H. Nicholson, and Brigid Wheeler, “Examining Rates of Postpartum Depression in Active Duty U.S. Military Servicewomen,” Journal of Women's Health (December 2020): 1530-1539, http://doi.org/10.1089/jwh.2019.8172.


5. Jennifer Barkin, Kelby F. Bulles, James A. Dimmock, Monique Du’cane, Lisa Gibson,Ben Jackson, Amanda Krause, Kwok Hong Law, Kaila Putter, Xuan Hui Tan, and Samantha Teague, “Strengthening Peer Mentoring Relationships for New Mothers: A Qualitative Analysis,” Journal of Clinical Medicine, 11, no 20, (2022): 6009, https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm11206009.


6. Juli Fraga, “Mommy Mentors Help Fight the Stigma of Postpartum Mood Disorder,” NPR, September 29, 2017, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/09/29/554280219/mommy-mentors-help-fight-the-stigma-of-postpartum-mood-disorder.


7. Barkin et al, “Strengthening Peer Mentoring Relationships.”


8. Ibid.


9. Fraga, “Mommy Mentors.”


10. Appolonio and Fingerhut, “Postpartum Depression in a Military Sample.”



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