Paternity leave for dads isn’t something I’d ever given more than a passing thought about (I’m not a mom, and I’m certainly not a dad). It sounds good—a concept I can get behind and champion as a modern woman who believes in certain cultural ideals. And the picture it paints is sweet—a young father and his new buddy hanging out together for three months without distraction from work or business dealings. (Google “dads wearing babies” for some of this dad-baby adorableness.)
In the U.S., parental leave is legally mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act which grants 12 weeks of unpaid leave to both mothers and fathers working in large and medium-size workplaces (Mundy, 2014). But it turns out that most dads in the U.S. only take one day of leave time for every month the typical mom takes off from work (Harrington et al., 2014).
The reason, of course, is likely the unpaid aspect of this mandate. Most families simply can’t afford to live for 12 weeks without at least one income. But around the world, unpaid family leave is actually quite rare. Of the countries that grant parental leave, there are only two that do not mandate paid family leave: the U.S. and Suriname.
Along with Washington, D.C., there are only five states (California, Rhode Island, Washington, New Jersey, and New York) with laws that allow for paid family leave.
Naturally, I care about fathers and their role in the family unit and believe dads should take family leave if they want or need to. But as a woman who cares deeply about issues affecting women and children, I am also fascinated how paternity leave can benefit women and society as a whole! Let’s dig into these effects.
Having dad around for longer right from the start can prevent the household from defaulting to culturally influenced gender roles which unfairly place the bulk of parenting and unpaid household labor on mom’s shoulders. With dad available to roll up his sleeves, parents can work together to divide and conquer tasks around the house more fairly.
Households with an inequitable division of labor might even explain some of the gender difference in higher rates of depression in women (Bird, 1999). And according to University of Oregon sociologist Scott Coltrane, when men share household chores, “women feel they are being treated fairly and are less likely to become depressed” (Mundy, 2014, para. 13).
Since working moms are much more likely than working dads to take time off after childbirth, their careers can be jeopardized. Having dad around during those ever-so-important first weeks of a fragile new life can enable working moms to return to work sooner (if they so choose) and keep on top of their careers.
A strong paternity leave policy can also weaken justifications for discriminating against women in their childbearing years in the workplace. Or as The Atlantic (2014, para. 16) puts it, “Widespread paternity-leave plans raise the possibility that bosses will stop looking askance at the résumé of a 20‑something female applicant, or at least apply the same scrutiny to a similar male applicant.”
As for the impact of paternity leave on babies, dads with longer leave from work have more time to bond with their young’uns. This loving attachment, aside from helping the child feel secure, can lead to other benefits. Dads on parental leave, if actively engaged, can help their children develop emotionally and mentally, with improved cognition and mental health outcomes. Studies also suggest that longer paternal leave times are associated with higher cognitive test scores (Department of Labor, n.d.).
Dads who diaper, cook meals, and clean, feed, and soothe baby can model gender-role busting behavior for their older kids, teaching them that dads are as competent as moms in caring for kids. Dads aren’t babysitters, after all.
I also feel strongly that it is important to give children, especially boys, an opportunity to see their dad in nurturing roles that demonstrate sensitivity and empathy. The world always needs more compassion and tenderness.
The days following the birth of a child are some of the most significant and life-changing times in a family. The internal conflict must be immense for working dads who want to immerse themselves in this unique time, but who feel the force of workplace pressures.
Interestingly, it turns out that “working fathers increasingly report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do. A 2011 report concluded that the most-conflicted men are those who are stuck working long hours yet feel they should be at home” (Mundy, 2014, para. 21).
Offering paid paternity leave would certainly help dads reach a more balanced work-life dynamic, but first there is a workplace stigma here that needs busting. The Department of Labor Policy Brief on Paternity Leave reports that even when men are provided paid leave,
“...they might still cut their leaves short to avoid being perceived as less dedicated employees. One recent survey of highly educated professional fathers—who had more access to paid parental leave than most U.S. workers—found a substantial portion took less than the full amount of paid leave available. In that survey, fathers cited workplace pressures as a factor in the length of leave they took. Other studies have found that fathers who reduce their work hours or leave work for family reasons may incur a ‘flexibility stigma’” (Department of Labor, n.d., p. 4).
The good news is, even while length of paid leaves are cut short, the percentage of dads taking time off increases, doubling the odds that dads would take paternity leave after the birth of a child.
Surveys show most dads do want to be home more. The Boston College Center for Work and Family surveyed 3000 fathers, the majority of which rated their children as a top priority, with three out of four wishing they had more time to spend with their kids (Harrington et al., 2014).
Appearing “less dedicated” points to a greater issue within the modern American workplace. Perhaps the pressure to put work above all else will be eroded the more dads use their full paid leave time.
In the end, paternity leave creates smarter, healthier kids, happier moms, less conflicted dads, a more equitable workforce, and I would even go so far as to say it creates a better economy (because the strongest economies are historically the most gender-equitable). That’s the kind of world I’d like to live in!
How about you? Are you a family that has experienced the benefits of an extended paternity leave? I’d love to hear your stories.
Bird, C. (1999). Gender, Household Labor, and Psychological Distress: The Impact of the Amount and Division of Housework. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 40(1), 32-45. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2676377
Department of Labor. (n.d.). Policy Brief: Paternity Leave Why Parental Leave For Fathers Is So Important For Working Families. Retrieved from https://www.dol.gov/asp/policy-development/PaternityBrief.pdf
Harrington, B., Van Deusen, F., Sabatini Fraone, J., Eddy, S., Haas, L. (2014). The New Dad: Take Your Leave Perspectives on paternity leave from fathers, leading organizations, and global policies. Boston College Center for Work and Family. Retrieved from http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/cwf/news/pdf/BCCWF%20The%20New%20Dad%202014%20FINAL.pdf
Mundy, L. (2014). Daddy Track: The Case for Paternity Leave. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/01/the-daddy-track/355746
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