Photo courtesy of Ryan Wallace
There are few milestones in a man’s life that are more exciting and terrifying than the birth of his first child. And the days, weeks, and months following are a chaotic and oftentimes humiliating learning curve as he tries to decipher various screams and cries, navigate dirty diapers, and exist on about three to four hours of sleep per night. I know this because my son was born in March, and even before he entered this world, I made a commitment to try and be as involved as possible in his caregiving.
At this point, as he approaches his 7-month birthday, I can now tell the difference between bored, tired, and hungry cries, and I don’t get peed on nearly as often as I used to when changing his diaper. My confidence and fathering skills are leaps and bounds better today than they were in those first couple of blurred weeks. Why? First of all, my wife (this is her third child) is a superhero mother and a good teacher. But just as significant were the eight weeks of paid paternity leave that allowed me to immerse myself in fatherhood and bond with my son.
I am one of the lucky ones, though. Yahoo’s generous family leave program is the exception — not the rule — for employers in the United States. “Only about 15 percent of employers in the U.S. offer paid paternity leave,” Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, tells Yahoo Parenting. “And it’s often just a few days.”
Harrington is the lead author of The New Dad Studies, a series of annual reports that focus on the changing roles of fathers, including the state of paternity leave in America. He said that the United States is lagging behind the rest of the world when it comes to offering paid family leave. “The federal government has no stance whatsoever when it comes to parental leave for mothers and fathers,” Harrington says. “So that makes it difficult for both genders, but even more of a challenge for new fathers.”
According to Harrington, the U.S. is one of three countries on a list of 180 developed or developing nations that does not have a national policy on paid leave for new mothers. (Swaziland and Papua New Guinea are the other two.) Seventy countries worldwide offer paid paternity leave, but the U.S. does not. “We live in a country that has a fairly individualistic view of these kinds of issues,” says Harrington. So instead of paid paternity leave being a nationally accepted practice, it is seen as the exception rather than the norm. As a result, men might not feel comfortable or fear that there could be unspoken consequences if they take off work for an extended period of time.
Personally, I can understand the sentiment. I waited four months to take my leave, in part, because the thought of putting the company and my coworkers in a bind made me feel guilty. And when I did leave, it took at least a week for me to shake that feeling. I asked other recent fathers, and it seems I was not alone. “I did feel guilty, but that’s because I work with a tightly knit team,” says Jonathan Fulcher, a support engineer for a technology company who took the three days of paid leave he was offered. ”I didn’t really like leaving them high and dry in any way, but my wife and baby outweighed any feelings of guilt.” Jake Bye, an executive for a National Football League team, did not have paid paternity leave, but he took a week of vacation. Even still there were some feelings of guilt. “It was late September between two big home games for us, so certainly not ideal for me or the staff,” he says. “But the guilt was 100 percent from me, not from the company in any way.”
Dads who get past the guilt and take time off to spend time with their child reap significant benefits, says Harrington. “Research has shown that dads who take paternity leave tend to be more engaged fathers over the long term,” he says. “And the confidence they have as fathers tends to increase dramatically after they have a significant amount of time alone with their children, where they’ve been flying solo and providing care.”
So why aren’t more companies offering paid leave? “For the most part, organizational cultures have not changed to keep up with the times,” says Harrington. “When we’ve talked to younger fathers, they often don’t believe that the higher ups in their organization understand what a critical role fathers play today in the home. The senior people in the organization are still operating under the notion that once the kids come along, the woman will take some time off, but the expectations for fathers haven’t changed.”
These gender-biased expectations provide an interesting perspective on the realties for both men and women as employees. “Women have had legitimacy in the home and have to fight for legitimacy in the workplace,” says Harrington. “Fathers have had legitimacy in the workplace, but now need to fight for it in the home.” And the two goals are not mutually exclusive. “If women want to advance in their careers, especially into more senior roles, they are going to need a partner who is able to share responsibilities at home” he adds.
With the government unwilling or, at best, slow to act, Harrington said that corporate America is starting to take the lead on legitimizing paid paternity leave in the workplace. Because young fathers are starting to place a higher priority on caregiving roles at home, more companies are using paid paternity leave to attract the best young talent. “That’s where change often comes from,” says Harrington. “When leading companies start to offer it, and they become a benchmark for other organizations to shoot for, then it really does become a matter of competitive advantage. Leading companies are always looking for ways to stay ahead of the curve on these kinds of issues, so they become role models for other businesses.”