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Are You Getting the Short End of the Paternity-Leave Stick?

Why dads underutilize their paternal-leave benefits—and why they shouldn’t.

Source: 1899441/Pixabay

Family leave policies vary widely and can be confusing. What allowances are state-mandated? Do dads even know how much time off they are entitled to? Why are fathers not using all of their time when the benefits to their family are so great? In this guest post, Sima Bernstein, EdD, who has studied the problem extensively, sorts out why, in her words, “not using parental leave is a crying shame!”—especially for dads.

When I gave birth to my first child in the 1980’s and had to face going back to work after twelve weeks of (very partially) paid leave, I was demoralized and outraged. I was kept up at night by anxious questions: How could I be expected to leave my newborn with someone I barely knew? How was I going to afford childcare on my meager salary in a prohibitively expensive city? And why was my employer—a company with a family-friendly reputation—so inflexible when it came to part-time work? I felt that both my workplace and the system had failed me. This, in spite of a leave with benefits that were relatively generous at the time.

Maybe if I had been less sleep-deprived, it would have dawned on me that if anybody had gotten the short end of the “parental-leave stick,” it was my husband. But the man I married is a stoic, non-complainer. So, true to form, he made the most of what he had and used his allotted paternity leave to its fullest—all 24-hours of it! And then he moved on. I, on the other hand, can still pretty clearly reconstruct my anger more than 20 years later.

Fast forward to 2019, where the maternity/paternity leave situation is much improved, though far from perfect. According to a 2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, 88 percent of workers in the private industry are now offered some form of unpaid family leave (which includes maternity and paternity leave, amongst other options); 16 percent had paid-leave benefits. Typically, however, far more women than men apply for these parenting leave benefits. For example, a study of fathers’ paid-leave taking in California notes that only 30 percent of all California paid family leave claims were filed by men.

Not Using Parental Leave Is a Crying Shame!

Any underutilization of a policy that enables parents to take care of a new baby (especially a relatively well-paying one like California’s) should—aptly—be called out as a crying shame. Studies of what happens after parents take leaves underscore a long list of positive outcomes. For babies, these include lower infant mortality rates and better health.

For mothers, the good news includes reduced depressive symptoms, quicker return to the workforce, and greater likelihood of returning to the job they had before they gave birth. For dads, paternity leave-takers were more likely to be engaged with their children and to take on more childcare and housekeeping. The kids of these fathers were also more likely to perceive greater parent-child closeness.

Why Dads Take Abbreviated Leaves

Given all these benefits, why are dads underutilizing leaves? For one thing, they may simply not know what they are entitled to. Studies have repeatedly reported poor awareness of leave policies. (See reports from California and New Jersey for example.) Both the federal, unpaid leave (FMLA) and the state-sponsored paid leaves do have some restrictions. But expectant fathers should not write off the possibility of filing for a leave without doing some research. It’s well worth taking a few minutes to investigate available benefits. For information on paid leave coverage by state, visit the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Issues Unique to Dads

There may also be a few potentially negative side effects of parenting leaves for fathers that are unexperienced by mothers. One study in Spain, for example, found that fathers who took leave waited longer to have the next child than fathers who didn’t. The study—“Does Paternity Leave Reduce Fertility?”—also found that after a two-week paternity leave was instituted in Spain, men reported wanting fewer children than women (a reversal from before the policy).

There have, however, been no similar reports in the United States. What has been found in American studies, however, is that men who are able to take paternity leaves take short ones (under two weeks). This is likely because many of these leaves are unpaid or only partially paid and fathers simply can’t afford the lost wages.

Stress may also play a role in abbreviated leaves. Some fathers have also reported that pressures on the job—such as work volume and deadlines—make them limit the time they take off. And one recent, thought-provoking study suggests that men who request family leave may get stigmatized. In this Rutgers University study, “Penalizing Men Who Request a Family Leave,” college student-participants were presented with (fictionalized) transcripts of male employees and human resources personnel. The fathers who requested leaves were characterized as poorer workers and more effeminate than those who made no such request.

Still, this handful of studies aside, nearly all the news is good news. The large majority of the research suggests that when dads use their paternity leaves, everyone benefits. So if you’re a new dad with paternity leave benefits, use them to their fullest—which, hopefully, is more than 24 hours. To utilize the lingo your future third-grader might use: Make like a tree—and LEAVE!

Copyright @2019 by Sima Bernstein