I like to think my wife and I have a somewhat unique relationship. We’ve been married for nearly five years and lived together for six. From the beginning, we always split chores and responsibilities right down the middle. So, when we found out she was pregnant with our daughter in late 2019, we wanted parenting to be no different.
But our jobs put us in a challenging situation. My wife owns and operates a social media marketing company that, at the time, was in the early stages of what would be rapid and sustained growth. But being self-employed meant any time away from her business would significantly hurt our bottom line. I was an investigative reporter for a local TV station in my hometown of Pittsburgh. My company started offering two weeks of paid paternity leave less than a year earlier. I also saved vacation days to take extra time off when our daughter, Adley, was born.
Before that incredible day came, we knew this would be a challenging timeline before returning to work. We were about to become first-time parents and felt terrified and ill-prepared like most first-timers. Those feelings went into overdrive when my wife was diagnosed with preeclampsia late in the pregnancy and had to be induced at 37 weeks.
Sudden Paternity Leave
Adley kept us waiting 56 hours before saying hello. She was jaundiced and had low glucose levels, requiring a six-day NICU stay. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s eight days of paternity leave gone before we could leave the hospital. When it came time to return to work, I was frustrated, exhausted, and unsure of myself. Was I doing the right thing? Adley wasn’t even a month old!
My wife worked those first couple of weeks sparingly but was still responding to emails and taking Zoom calls throughout the day. It was a necessity to keep her business running. I had been with my company long enough to qualify for the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This federal program requires employers to give employees 12 weeks of UNPAID leave after the birth of a child or a family medical emergency. I used a few days but was hesitant to take too much unpaid time off.
Paternity Leave Improves Family Relationships
In my research, I learned FMLA eligibility is limited, requiring employees to spend at least one year with the company and work at least 1,250 hours over that year.1 A company is only required to offer FMLA if it has more than 50 employees within 75 miles. That potentially leaves hundreds of thousands of new fathers with no option to spend time with their families after a child is born, paid or unpaid. While this is alarming, recent studies suggest it’s even more so when considering its impact on raising a child.
In a guest essay for the New York Times, University of Southern California psychology professor Dr. Darby Saxby and doctoral student Sofia Cardenas detailed how paternity leave can significantly boost family relationships. Their November 2019 study followed 6,000 couples from birth until their child reached kindergarten. The fathers who took at least two weeks of paternity leave were 26 percent more likely to stay married to their partner compared to fathers who didn’t take any leave. Mothers also became less likely to need anxiety medication. Saxby and Cardenas also detailed how men’s hormones shift when they take time away from work after their child is born. Fathers became more responsive to their children, and children reported closer relationships with their dads nine years later.2
Why Are Fathers Not Taking Paternity Leave?
President Joe Biden originally included paid family leave in his initial version of the Build Back Better Act in 2021. But they eventually scrapped that portion of the bill after facing resistance from lawmakers. Nine states and Washington D.C. offer some form of paid family and medical leave (PFML), but eligibility and benefits vary.3 Even for the smaller number of people who qualify for some form of paid paternity leave, research shows fathers have been hesitant to take it.
After California became the first state to enact paid family leave in 2004, economists Charles L. Baum and Christopher Ruhm studied the impact on the workforce.4 They found mothers took advantage of the change far more than fathers. On average, parental leave for mothers increased by nearly five weeks. For fathers? Two to three days. One of the reasons is the professional penalty men can face for taking paternity leave. “Men who take paternity leave do tend to be stigmatized and viewed as less committed employees,” University of New Hampshire professor of sociology Rebecca Glauber told the New York Times in April 2020.
We Must Encourage Paternity Leave
So how do we solve this issue? The answer is simple: encourage paternity leave. For those fathers lucky enough to have it, don’t hesitate to take the time with your baby. ALL OF IT. It helps you grow closer to your child and improves the mother’s health and your familial relationship.
In the end, I took just short of one month off to be with my family after Adley was born. My only regret is I didn’t take more. It’s a time that’s challenging, sleepless, and, at the moment, not necessarily rewarding. But I was there for my daughter and wife when they needed me most.
We need to put every new father in a position where they aren’t punished or looked down upon for spending critical time with their growing family. Should their company pay for that? State government? Federal government? I don’t care as long as we do everything we can to improve relationships and create healthier families. It’s a simple goal and one that won’t come easy. But not forcing fathers to choose between their jobs and their families is a goal worth pursuing.