I asked men to start shouting about the need for paid family leave two weeks ago, and over 500 people responded with their stories. Since then, the Biden administration’s social spending bill, which includes a provision for four weeks of paid family and medical leave — not exactly robust but better than nothing — passed in the House on Friday, though the fate of the bill, and that specific provision, in the Senate isn’t certain.
Men who had access to a month or more of paid leave said it allowed them to really learn how to be dads in a practical way and to really bond with their children. They also talked about how their partnerships strengthened when they had time to learn to parent together.
Men who didn’t have access to paid leave or who had very short breaks talked about how difficult, even painful, it was. Chris Osterlund, 32, who lives in Virginia, said that when his son was born, he took only two weeks and that the company he worked for at the time was not particularly supportive of dads taking long leaves. The sleep deprivation of a new baby made it difficult for Osterlund to function, and it led to disengagement at his job and tension with his spouse. “I never felt like I had the buoyancy to think clearly about how to change what became a dark period in our marriage. Whatever the reason, I regret not being home and have carried that shame for almost three years.”
In a 2019 piece for The Times, Nathaniel Popper explained that while only a small percentage of American fathers get access to paid leave, even those with access do not take full advantage of it. That’s because “some studies do show that taking paternity leave can damage a man’s professional reputation and affect his future earning potential,” he wrote.
While overall, Americans are supportive of leave for caregivers of children, there is less support for paternal leave than there is for maternal leave. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center at the end of 2016, about 15 percent of Americans think men should not take any parental leave — paid or unpaid — after a birth or adoption, compared to only 3 percent who think mothers should not take leave. Pew found that “older adults, particularly older men, are the least supportive of fathers taking time off from work after the birth or adoption of a child” — unfortunate, considering that among S&P 500 companies, C.E.O.s are under 50 are rare, as are female C.E.O.s, and that’s part of why I don’t trust private industry to push paid leave forward if the federal government can’t get it together.
Many of the responses from dads that I received about family leave reflected the fear of judgment and professional repercussions if they were seen as putting their families first. As Osterlund put it, his insecurities about how he might be seen by his clients and colleagues kept him from using more vacation days or taking unpaid time off, but in retrospect, “I should have found any way imaginable to be home.”
Kevin Pemoulié, 42, who lives in Washington, where state-provided paid leave is available, said that while he was legally permitted to take up to 12 weeks when his second child was born in 2020, “I felt pressure to return in six weeks and pressure to return part time. I tuned it out and took my allowed 12 weeks. I still felt it was not long enough,” he wrote.
When I followed up with him over the phone, Pemoulié, who worked at a catering company at the time, said that he felt guilty putting extra work on his colleagues. The food industry isn’t like a lot of big corporate offices, he said, where there is more of a bench to help out if someone is gone for a time. Restaurants and catering companies tend to be small businesses running on tight margins. “There’s not really a subs roster. If work doesn’t get done, it just doesn’t get done,” he said.
It’s not a fantasy that your colleagues might resent you for taking that time off. During the nadir of the Covid pandemic, when many schools were closed, some tech companies offered parents additional paid leave, and Daisuke Wakabayashi and Sheera Frenkel reported for The Times that there was significant backlash from employees without children, who felt they had to shoulder additional work without additional compensation. Writing for CNN, Jill Filipovic made the case that these kinds of policies indeed aren’t fair to child-free employees and that they can pit workers against each other when it’s really management’s responsibility to make sure work is equitably distributed.
Seema Jayachandran, an economics professor at Northwestern University, looked at studies from Norway, which has government-supported parental leave. According to a 2019 report from Statistics Norway, about 70 percent of men take the full amount of Norway’s “paternity quota.” Jayachandran argued that the only way men will not be punished for taking leave is if almost everybody does it. “The solution is not only to make paid paternity leave a legal mandate but to encourage it sufficiently that it becomes commonplace,” she wrote for The Times.
If workers know that they will be able to take time off if they need it, too, they may be less resentful about covering for their colleagues, and if the state is providing the benefit, then companies large and small can better afford to hire temporary fill-ins more easily.
The climate in our country is so toxic for parents that a few dads said they questioned whether they should have more children here (and we wonder why the birthrate continues to drop like a stone). Osterlund and Pemoulié ultimately left the jobs they had when their children were born. “I have come to the conclusion that the type of father I want to become is incongruent with a specific type of work,” Osterlund wrote.
And while I know it’s something of a cliché to invoke the Nordic social democracies during these conversations, one American dad, Cameron Thompson, 36, who wrote from Bergen, Norway, where he is about to embark on a fully paid paternity leave, said, “I don’t know if we would have had our second child without it.”
He said that he and his partner had their first child in the United States, that his partner took 12 weeks of unpaid leave and that she used vacation and disability for the family’s income. Thompson said his position was about to end, so he went on unemployment and took over primary care for their daughter from months 4 to 8 while they slowly ramped up day care for the baby. “During that time, our household finances were uncomfortably tight, and I had the added stress of searching for a new position, but we managed.”
Now the family lives in Norway, where Thompson is a Ph.D. fellow at the Institute of Marine Research. “After announcing that we were expecting another child, every discussion with my managers and supervisors was overwhelmingly positive,” he wrote. “These were all men 10 to 15 years older than myself with children, who had also taken paternity leave when they had children. There are options in Norway where you can take less time, but they fully encouraged me to take as much as I could. Family life and society’s responsibility to children is at the center of Norwegian culture, and if there is any stigma at all around parental leave, it is against those who would avoid taking it.”
I’m not someone who believes that the federal government’s intervention is the right solution to every societal problem. But I am overwhelmingly convinced — based on the economic, health and psychological evidence — that if we do not make paid leave available to caregivers at the federal level in the United States, it will not only continue to make us an embarrassment on the global stage but also, as Claire Cain Miller reported for The Times a few years ago, possibly influence Americans’ likelihood to have the number of children they say that they want. And that’s a preventable disappointment.
Want More on Parental Leave?
Axios is reporting that Democrats have started to “draw up plan B for paid leave” if the four weeks that is currently in the Build Back Better legislation is removed from the Senate bill.
The Washington Post has a good breakdown of the House’s just-passed family leave provision.
Thirty-eight percent of young adults surveyed by Morning Consult for The New York Times in 2018 said they planned to have fewer children than their ideal number because of no paid family leave, and 39 percent said it was because of not enough paid family leave.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
Greek mythology came to the rescue of our chaotically messy house. We’ve been reading about Heracles to our almost-4-year-old and managed to get her to clean up the whole living room by assigning cleanup tasks as heroic labors.
— Kate Hampel, Glouster, Ohio
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