Christia S. Brown Ph.D.

Beyond Pink and Blue

Instead of a Tie, Get Dad Some Parental Leave Policies

Beyond Fathers' Day, the U.S. does little to recognize the importance of dads.

Posted Jun 15, 2018

This Sunday, in the U.S., we will collectively recognize Fathers’ Day. This is mostly a day to buy Dad a card and an ugly tie. The rest of the year, we – as a society – don’t do much to recognize the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Let me preface this by saying: I am not talking about differences between children raised by single mothers (of which I am one), children in two-mother families (of whom I know many), or children raised by grandmas, aunts, and family friends (of whom I know many). I mean that the U.S. does remarkably little to support the men who have become fathers in their pursuit of being great dads. 

Christia Brown
My own favorite dad
Source: Christia Brown

In general, although certainly not in every household, there has traditionally been, and largely continues to be, a gendered asymmetry in parental labor and childcare. For example, in American heterosexual two-parent households, 70% of families have both an employed mother and father. Despite equal hours in outside employment, moms spend approximately twice the amount of time on childcare and housework as dads (Parker & Livingston, 2016). Additionally, mothers spend more time performing the boring childcare tasks, like diaper changing and bathing, compared to fathers, who spend more of their time doing the fun tasks like playing (Drago, 2011). 

Yet, this difference between what moms and dads do is heavily influenced by society, and can be exacerbated and institutionalized by a country’s specific parental leave policies.

Currently, among the 35 Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries, parental leave policies vary widely: they range from allowing parents twelve weeks to three years off work following the birth of a child, and replace 0% to 100% of their wages while off (Kamerman, 2000; OECD, 2016). Scandinavia leads the rest of the world in both the length and generosity of its parental leaves, with leaves lasting approximately one year or more. Parents in Spain and Germany can take up to three years off to stay home with their children.

Unfortunately, the United States has the worst parental leave policy in the world: it is the shortest, at only 12 weeks (matched only by Mexico) and it replaces no wages (whereas Mexico replaces the full wages during leave). In fact, the United States is the only OECD country and one of only a handful in the world (including New Guinea and Lesotho) that does not guarantee paid leave to all new parents. 

These policies matter! They matter because they often foster a gendered division of parental labor. In other words, they increase the difference between what moms and dad are doing. Currently, 25 of the OECD countries offer either paid paternity leave or reserve portions of their paid parental leave for the father. (For complete details: Check out the interactive map produced by World Policy Center. Also check out the great article by Malaka Gharib from NPR discussing this map.)

Yet, even when dads have paternity leave, the amount of leave they are given is often vastly different from the leave time given to moms. On average in the OECD, mothers receive five times longer leaves than do fathers. Further, fathers are more likely than mothers to return to work early, without utilizing either the full length or any of their leave time (Evans, 2007). For example, Swedish fathers in 2003 utilized only 17% of their time off, and only 2% of Japanese fathers between 2001 and 2012 took advantage of their yearlong leave. Less than 11% of Luxembourg fathers took their full leave period between 1999 and 2007. I remember my own husband receiving a phone call from his boss one week after our child was born asking when he would be back.

Some European countries have tried specifically to encourage dads to stay home longer. Croatia, for example, offers an additional two months of paid leave if both parents stay home, and France increases the percentage of wages replaced if both parents take leave. In 2007, Germany passed a reform that allowed two “daddy months” at 67% wage replacement in the hopes of increasing paternal involvement in the months immediately following birth. Austria offers couples an additional one thousand Euros if they split their leave time equally. 

Most importantly, making parental leave policies more dad-positive, and thus helping dad be more involved in childcare, is important for child development. Heymann and colleagues (2013) found that longer parental leave was associated with higher rates of childcare by fathers that continued even after the leave ended. Similarly, Nepomnyaschy and Waldfogel (2007) found that fathers who spent more than two weeks at home immediately following the birth of their child engaged in more childcare activities including diaper changing, feeding, dressing, and bathing nine months later, compared to fathers who took less than two weeks off. Why that matters? Fathers who do more of those childcare tasks are more likely to have babies with secure attachment. Their sons are also more likely to engage in those types of behaviors when they grow up. 

Christia Brown
Source: Christia Brown

To be sure, many, many families don’t have dads involved. As the product of one of those families, I believe the hundreds of studies showing those kids turn out just fine. But there are also important studies showing how much dads influence and enhance their children’s lives. Check out the research of Professor Michael E. Lamb. Not to mention how much children enhance the lives of their fathers. It is unfortunate that the parental leave policies in the U.S. are not helping foster that important father-child relationship. 

Those kind of policies would be much more useful than another tie. 

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