Daddy Should Know Better: Why I’m Taking Twelve Weeks of Paternity Leave
It’s a Wednesday afternoon, and my newborn son, now seven weeks old, is wrapped in a pile of blankets in his Moses basket, sucking on a bright orange pacifier. He’s content, and, if I’m lucky, drowsy enough that I can get a few sentences down before he wakes up and gives a particular cry — a chorus of squeaks and grunts, punctuated by a demanding “mmm-waah” — his cue that it’s chow time.
Among his other cues: A huff and puff breath that if left unchecked will crescendo in a desperate cry, his way of signaling that he’s spit out his pacifier and wants it put back in; a short, raspy wheeze that means he needs to be burped, again; a strained growl or chortle that puts us on diaper-change alert; and, worst of all, a screaming bleat, like a mortally wounded goat, his way of saying, “I’m scared, I don’t know what’s going on, and I need you to hold me, right now.”
Before she left thirty minutes ago for a midday meeting to discuss her first book deal, my wife pumped breastmilk so I could feed our son while she’s away. Later today, she has two doctors’ appointments and other errands to run. While she was at a dance class yesterday, I took a break from staring at my son — and laughing at him as he grunted and fought to squeeze out a №2 — and with him bundled against my chest in a baby wrap carrier, we took our dog Buccmaster for a walk around the neighborhood. Well, alright: I walked the dog; my son slept. Lucky baby.
If you’ve already been parent to a newborn, this probably all sounds old hat. If you’ve never had a child, it’s probably agonizingly domestic. But for new parents, this is what it’s all about: Spending lots of one-on-one time with your baby, getting to know them, their cues and needs. It’s about adjusting to the new reality of parenthood, exploring how you fit into your new role as a mother or father. It takes time, especially in the middle of the night when baby’s round-the-clock needs force you to keep vampire’s hours. With the right amount of time and support during this most important of life’s transitions, the whole family can lay down a solid foundation for future health and development. Work, frankly, gets in the way. That’s why every mother and father should have easy access to ample paid leave.
I’m taking paternity leave because the health and well-being of my family — as I told my boss on day one, nine years ago — is my number one priority. I’m taking it because I want to know everything about what it means to be a father, from beginning to end. I’m taking it because rights unexercised are among the first to be expunged by productivity-obsessed governments and businesses — in other words, use it or lose it. And I’m using all of it. Not just the two weeks most dads in the U.S. say they feel comfortable taking. And not the ten days or less most actually do take. But the full 12 weeks of job-protected, and, it should be stressed, unpaid parental leave offered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).
The only federal law addressing family leave, FMLA, while perhaps well intentioned and a good first step, falls far short of what is necessary to ensure that American parents and children, especially those most in need, can enjoy the numerous and far-reaching benefits of paternal leave.
Of course, there’s no substitute for a mother’s love. Maternity leave is critical to the health and well-being of both mother and child, and moms deserve more paid time off than their male partners. So, it makes sense that more employers provide more paid maternity leave than paternity leave. Be that as it may, the disparity between the leave available to mothers and fathers creates an unequal playing field, both at home and at work.
According to senior employees at the public radio station where I work, I’m the first male employee to take extended paternity leave in at least 30 years. In fact, in the wide web of my acquaintances, I have yet to meet anybody who even knows of a father who has taken a full 12 weeks of leave. A report prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, found that just six percent of men took more than six weeks of federally protected leave for parental reasons, while nearly 40 percent of women did. The vast gender gap in early childcare and the persistence of the male-breadwinner norm is a status quo ripe for de-quo’ing in this #MeToo era where we’re fighting for greater gender equity. When I thought of all the moms out there spending months caring for and establishing lifetime bonds with their newborns, my reaction was, “Me, too!”
In spite of the status quo, reactions to my long leave have been overwhelmingly positive. The supportiveness of workplace culture has been shown to correlate strongly with the uptake of paternity leave. The more support a father gets at work for his leave, the more leave he’ll take; the converse is also true. Thankfully, my work colleagues, including my boss, have been on board with my leave from the beginning. They may or may not be aware of a growing body of research that has demonstrated the profound effects of paternity leave — especially when paid at two-thirds, or better, of full salary.
For starters, fathers who take more leave report developing deeper emotional connections with their children. They feel more competent as caregivers, are more likely to share in household chores, and remain more involved in childcare as their children grow and age.
Researchers at the Center for Work & Family at Boston College have been studying how fathers manage work-life balance for the last decade. Their most recent study explores the attitudes and experiences of over a thousand employees, working at four large companies, who were eligible for at least six weeks of fully paid parental leave. The vast majority of male respondents reported that taking at least six weeks of paternity leave resulted in deeper bonds with their children, more confidence as caregivers, a greater sense of life satisfaction, and stronger relationships with their partners. In other words, it made them better fathers.
Dr. Brad Harrington, who leads the Center for Work & Family, told me in an interview that when fathers spend just the first two weeks at home, it’s mostly with a child who’s sleeping. “Fathers in those situations tend to do ancillary things,” he said, “but not the care of the child. But the more time the father spends at home, the more they begin to understand what it means to be a parent, in a very hands-on way.”
Other studies support the relationship between longer paternity leave and stronger child-parent bonding. One study of OECD countries, including the U.S., found evidence that children with more involved fathers performed better on cognitive tests. According to Mr. Harrington, paternity leave is also associated with better health outcomes for children, lower at-risk behavior, better self-esteem, and improved feelings of self-efficacy.
Mothers also benefit. The more invested a father is in infant care, the less likely she is to suffer postpartum depression, and the better her well-being months after the birth. The more time he takes off, the higher her wages will be, and the more likely she is to return to the same employer.
The opportunity to take long, coterminous leave has helped me and my wife adjust to the many demands of parenthood.
Earlier this week, for instance, my wife stayed home with our son while I ran out to do some Christmas shopping and pick up a couple bottles of lye to make soap, a holiday tradition in our family: We like start to make a clean start to the New Year. Our son was sound asleep when I left and all seemed copasetic on the home front. I was gone an hour. When I returned home, I found my wife in tears, slumped on the couch with our son couchant in her arms. He was quiet now, but, as my wife explained, soon after I had left the house, he had woken up and started crying. He didn’t stop until moments before I walked in the door. The ordeal pushed my wife past her breaking point. I sat down next to her, rubbed her head and shoulders, and listened. All she needed was to share her feelings with someone who truly understood what she was going through — and to hand the kid off so she could go play pickle ball at the senior center and blow off some steam.
There’s something about a baby’s cry — the atonality, the dysrhythmia, the volume, and, perhaps most of all, the apparent suffering — that in short order shatters a parent’s nerves like a Molotov cocktail thrown through a plate-glass window. Before you know it, the building’s on fire and you’re tearing out your hair in hysterics, convinced there’s nothing you can do. You’re unfit to be a mother or father. Worse, you’re harming your infant child. My wife had been stuck in that spiral of despair. If I hadn’t been on paternity leave, if she hadn’t been certain of my imminent return, who knows how long she may have suffered. Sometimes all it takes to dispel the emotional inferno is an extra pair of hands on duty. My wife and I are convinced that my long paternity leave, and the support and solidarity it has engendered, has helped her stave off postpartum depression. It’s also paying off for me and my son.
On day 34 of my paternity leave, my son and I were alone in the sunlit room of a mountain cabin in central Utah. I was feeding him bottled breastmilk, and but for the sound of his sucking lips, the silence was pure. It was then that I saw, reflected in his slate-grey eyes, the log walls of the room, and the big bay window, and through it the clear blue sky and the snow falling in dusty clumps from the limbs of the ponderosa trees. And in the perfect mirrors of his eyes, I saw my own reflection. The moment swelled with significance. It deepened my emotional connection with my son down to the core of my being. It crystallized my understanding of the purpose of my life and what trace of myself will remain living in the world when I am dead and gone.
I don’t say all this to sound like Super Dad or something. It’s just stuff I learned and experienced on paternity leave, and only because I had the dedicated, unalloyed, and paid time to learn and experience it. For some readers, all this might amount to little more than luxury: The privileged experiences of a white, thirty-something, upper-middle-class, cisgender male. That wouldn’t be entirely wrong (or right). And, that should change. Considering the benefits of paid paternity leave, it shouldn’t be a right afforded principally to the people who already have a leg up.
The public radio station where I work is chartered by the University of Utah, a state school. Earlier this year, the university rolled out a new package of partially paid parental leave that covers roughly a quarter of the wages an eligible employee would earn during the 12 weeks granted under FMLA. I’m covering the rest of my wages by using all my accrued sick time and most of my vacation. Nevertheless, I’ll take what paid leave I can get: anything is better than nothing. Because nothing is exactly what the law, passed in 1993, offers in terms of financial compensation. It’s also only available to those who have worked at least 20 weeks at part-time and above for companies of 50 or more workers. As of 2017, 88 percent of American workers were covered by FMLA. Still, the birth of a child accounted for only a fifth of FMLA leave. That number would undoubtedly be much higher if the leave were paid.
One study published by Center for Work & Family found that most fathers wouldn’t even take paternity leave if it were paid at less than 70% of their salaries. Nearly all the women who participated in the Center’s most recent survey took all the paid leave available to them, up to 16 weeks. Men who were offered eight weeks of paid leave took nearly all of it. Offered 16 weeks paid, they took almost 13 weeks.
However, most of the people in that survey were married, college-educated, management-level, and, it seems reasonable to assume, white collar workers, making more than $100,000 a year. Not exactly the hoi polloi. The fact is, most American workers simply can’t afford to take paternal leave. And, according to recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 16 percent of the civilian workforce has access to paid leave.
While extended paternity leave under FMLA may be a luxury, it doesn’t have to be the end of the road. California, New York, New Jersey and Rhode Island all offer robust paid family leave policies. Similar laws go into effect this year in Washington and Washington D.C., in Massachusetts next year, and in Oregon in 2023. More states should follow their lead.
Better yet, the United States should end its long holdout as the only developed country in the world not to offer paid family leave. It’s one of the rare political issues with true bipartisan support. In his 2018 State of the Union address, President Trump called for Congress to make paid family leave a federal law. Perhaps unbeknownst to Trump, that very option has been on the table since 2013.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has introduced her Family and Medical Insurance Leave (FAMILY) Act in every congressional session for the last seven years. It would offer all American workers up to 12 weeks of leave paid at 66 percent of their monthly wages, capped at a fixed amount, and funded by employee and employer payroll contributions of just $2 per week per worker. Americans strongly support paid parental leave, and considering its many impacts on the long-term well-being of children and parents alike, an investment of two bucks a week is a bargain we’ve passed up for far too long.
As for myself, I’d take paternity leave, and I’d take all of it, whether it’s paid or not, and regardless of how much it costs me. Having a child with a person you love is the chance and the very purpose of a lifetime, and I’m not about to let that pass me by.