One of my most emotionally potent childhood memories is of a video of my father reading a book to my brother and me as young children. Almost 30 years later, I remember I used to sit and cry watching the video because my dad was so far away. My father was in the Navy and gone for most of my childhood: out to sea or deployed to a number of different bases around the world.
Because of my own experience, I have always wanted to be as present and involved as possible in my children’s lives. Almost eight months ago, my wife Andrea and I were blessed with the birth of our daughter Maya. Thankfully, my employer truly values family time, and I was able to take two months of paid parental leave, and to extend my time off for an additional month using vacation time. People in my community — and elsewhere in the United States — are not as lucky. Frankly, paid parental leave should never be a matter of luck.
I am a rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Austin, Texas, which is a member congregation of the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). For many years, the URJ has staunchly advocated for social justice for all — for women, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and people from all faiths and backgrounds who lack basic civil and human rights. In 2015, the Reform Movement passed a resolution advocating for paid family leave, which refers to time away from one’s job, often of extended duration, with full or partial pay, to attend to the birth, adoption, or foster placement of a child, as well as to address a serious personal illness, or the serious illness of a family member.
As a rabbi in the Reform Movement, I am also a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), which also takes a progressive position on paid family leave. In the most recent handbook for placement of newly ordained rabbis the CCAR states:
“Given Judaism’s traditional commitment to the family, congregations should gladly support the decision of rabbis to raise a family. Fathers, as well as mothers, should be afforded every opportunity to devote themselves to parenting. Therefore, congregations should grant at least a two-month parental leave at full pay for their rabbis. Parental leave should apply to all rabbis regardless of marital status, gender, or sexual orientation. This applies to adoptive parents as well.”
After Maya was born, Andrea and I coordinated our leave time so that we were able to spend the first two weeks of Maya’s life together as a family. Then Andrea took the rest of her leave (which she, unlike too many new moms, was lucky to have). When she went back to work, I resumed my leave.
This solo time with Maya was simultaneously one of the most meaningful and most exhausting times of my life. When babies are so young, and you have the chance to spend all day with them for three consecutive months, you literally get to watch them grow. I look back now at the pictures I took during my time off with her and it is absolutely amazing how much she changed over that three-month period. I got to experience her first laughs, her first babbling.
I tried to get out of the house as often as we could so that Maya would be able to experience as much as possible, and so that I wouldn’t go stir crazy at home. We went to Central Market, to the Austin Zoo, to Books and Babies at the Austin Library and to our local park. In all these places, I could see her brain and her world expand — colors at the market, fascinating faces of people and animals at the zoo, singing and music at the library, and bugs and flowers at the park. I loved carrying her in her front carrier while she slept and then seeing her wake up to take in the world after each nap.
One thing I noticed most places we would go is that I was often the only solo father with his child. Every now and again, there was another dad, but it was rare, and usually he would be there with the baby’s mom.
I pray that one day our society will truly learn to see value in this incredibly important family time. If we had a system that guaranteed paid leave, perhaps we would see more dads and babies at the grocery store, the library, the park, or the zoo; more fathers able to bond with their children during the first few, formative months of their lives.
I hope that day isn’t far off, because all of us are better when we have time to care.