When Petty Officer 3rd Class Samantha Rivera fell in love and became pregnant, she never questioned her service to the country, even though she had to sacrifice raising her son for the first few years of his life.
“Motherhood is hard enough, but add military to the mix, and it’s going to be really difficult,” Rivera said.
Rivera is an active duty sailor and solo mom to 1-year-old Elijah. Although she originally planned to wait before starting a family, she discovered she was pregnant the day she made a Permanent Change of Station to a sea duty station.
Rivera enlisted in the Navy immediately after high school graduation. Her first assignment was a shore duty rotation as a culinary specialist/cook in Mayport, Fla. There, she met a sailor she would eventually marry, but not before they received orders to separate sea duty assignments. The day she PCSed to California, Rivera learned she was pregnant.
“At first I was thinking I can’t do this — have a baby during sea duty,” she said. “In the back of my mind was what will people say when I get to my ship? At the same time, I was excited because I would be a mom and this is what we had wanted.”
Although Rivera initially only told her sponsor, she said, “By the time I checked into the ship, everyone knew. People in the galley would say to me, ‘You just got pregnant to get off the ship, right?’”
A pregnant sailor on sea duty will get transferred off a ship because of hazmats, chemicals and the danger of falling. When Rivera was transferred to a pregnancy assignment with submariners, she had a completely different reception.
“Even though there aren’t usually females on subs, I had amazing support from them because they were all dads. They were amazing and even threw me a baby shower,” she said.
Rivera’s husband planned to fly out for the birth, but because she had an emergency delivery, he wasn’t there in time. He met his son two days later. After 12 weeks of maternity leave, Rivera returned to work at her “pregnancy tour,” which typically lasts until the baby is 1 year old.
“From the day you give birth, you have a year to get back into PRT standards,” she said. “I tore really badly, so I had a lot of recovery. I lost a lot of lower abdomen muscle.”
Returning to work was challenging because Rivera was breastfeeding. Each military branch has policies to protect female service members who are nursing, but mothers must voice their needs.
“I was so scared,” Rivera recalled. “I told my shipmates I needed a place to pump. They said I could use the office, but people kept knocking on my door. I finally talked to a fellow shipmate. He immediately printed out a sign I could put on my door when I was nursing. There were two other women assigned there, but they were actually less supportive and demeaning because they hadn’t breastfed before.”
Rivera’s pregnancy tour ends soon, and her next assignment will be sea duty in Yokosuka, Japan. There was a possibility that her husband could receive the same location, but even if he did, he wouldn’t arrive until several months after her ship deployed.
Rivera made the difficult choice to leave her son with her parents for the next three years. As a young mother, she describes what she feels as heartache.
“When I made the decision to leave, I was crying and felt like I was a terrible mom. It hurt so bad,” she said. “My mom reminded me what I have to do: ‘You’re in the military,’ she said. Fathers get praised for leaving their kids behind. People wish them a good deployment. But my own relatives are judging me. But I know that here he will be taken care of. I can focus on going out on deployment and don’t have to focus on ‘Who has my son today? Will he be ok?’”
She said the Navy provided a list of childcare options when she received her orders, but there weren’t enough long-term options she could use during deployments. She is grateful to have family currently living nearby who already watch her son while she is at work.
Although Rivera is sad when she realizes that her baby will be 4 years old and preparing for kindergarten when she returns, she said, “I will be able to visit sometimes, but won’t be able to see him as often as I would like. There’s FaceTime and Skype, so we’ll be ok.”
When asked about her long-term plans, Rivera sighed. “It’s really hard to find the happy balance between being a mom and sailor, or just being a working mom in general. At the end of the day, my baby is my world. I don’t regret having him or anything that happened in the past two years. But at this point, I don’t know how much longer I will stay in [the Navy] because I don’t think I can leave my kid again.”
Rivera doesn’t blame the Navy for the challenges that sailors face when becoming a mother.
“I think the Navy has come a long way with maternity and paternity leave,” she said, “and even making it mandatory for base buildings to have lactation rooms. I think they are on the right track with everything. I would like Tricare to cover more options for pregnancy, birth and postpartum.”
Rivera has advice for fellow female sailors.
“It’s not going to be easy. If having a family is important, then do it. But remember that the military can replace you. The Navy will keep going, whether you get pregnant on shore duty or sea duty,” she said. “Your military career will end, but your family is forever.”Read comments