- First-time fathers transitioning back to paid work after paternity leave may experience an identity crisis different from working mothers.
- Extended paternity leave is a cultural shift that rattles working dads with strong breadwinning expectations.
- We live in a time where social change has occurred more rapidly than cultural change, and this also impacts new dads.
When my psychotherapy client arrived at his appointment, he appeared dazed, as if he'd just deboarded from a red-eye flight.
"I guess my paternity leave ends after this week," he began tentatively, trying to figure out how he felt. "My 16 weeks are up."
As he flattened his wispy hair, the half-moons beneath his tear-glossed eyes seemed more pronounced than ever. It's a look that I've begun to recognize in first-time dads facing the end of their parental leaves, especially the growing number who've served as primary parents for months.
It can be one of sadness, anticipatory grief, and gratitude for the time spent, mixed with relief and guilt for feeling that way or a pang of shame about not feeling that way—a bewildering blend that working mothers recognize. In fathers, there's often a dash of well-practiced emotional control that might look like indifference.
Lurking beneath my client's expression were revelations: he would no longer witness his infant's minute-to-minute maturation upon his return to the office. He now had two demanding preoccupations as a company man and family man and had no choice but to rethink his relationship with perfectionism.
Extended Paternity Leave: An American Experiment
New dads in the U.S. (who take a median of one week of paternity leave) sometimes miss out on the crucial, internal tug-of-war that comes with more extended time on the home front.
Over the last half-century, dads have tripled the amount of time they give to child care per week. And the number of men in straight couples not participating in the labor force to be stay-at-home dads has recently risen.
Fortunate New Yorkers (a state which now offers generous family leave policies) can sometimes take several months to be full-time caregivers. While this is promising, in the U.S., only 20 percent of employees have access to paid family leave, making this a privileged conversation based on geography, company, position, or industry.
In the U.S., where families work longer hours than other industrialized nations with fewer laws to support them, more dads fully participating in care work represents even more of a fundamental shift. And in ways we don't always acknowledge for those born into families with breadwinner expectations, leaning into caregiving can seem as if it's coming at the expense of a sacred call of duty to provide financially.
First-time fathers aren't immune from postpartum depression. Brand-new dads contemplating a shift from paid to care work fear failing the financial provide-or-die cultural mandate preset in their paternal lineages and the general sense of subjugation that fatherhood might bring. They worry about repeating their fathers' failures or not surpassing their economic successes, growing soft in mind, body, and spirit, or getting stripped of their masculinity (whatever that looks like) and social life, which often is already slipping away.
First-time dads often don't know how to make sense of these inner stirrings. Why would they? So, they silence their blues, which can seem quaint next to new moms who passionately fight for equal rights and pay and have orchestrated brilliant social movements to do so.
I meet new fathers who are part of this unwitting American experiment: an upcoming generation who've served extended time on the care front and are in the throes of identity confusion: I'm a dad. I'm a working dad. I'm a dad who doesn't know how this all can work.
In his book Of Boys and Men, Richard Reeves discussed the impact of "cultural lag," the time it takes—often generations—for a society to catch up to new norms. We are in an automated age where technology and social change have occurred more rapidly than cultural change. For instance, the college-educated labor force of the U.S. has more women than men, yet the societal expectations that men be breadwinners persist. In his recent book, Reeves discusses the failures of our education system and the labor market. He also points to "old modes of masculinity," including men's role as breadwinners, becoming obsolete with no straightforward replacement.
"The problem is not a lack of incentives in the narrow economic sense," he writes, "but a loss of identity in a broader, cultural one."
We are in a cultural gray area with glimmers of sunlight.
Fathers taking parental leave may be the norm elsewhere, like in Nordic countries. Still, in the U.S., where it isn't so customary, it can be a disorienting transition that reshuffles the family's division of labor and men's interior lives. With little delay after birth, many new dads graduate from the passive title of having a kid like their fathers before them to the cortisol-spiking, oxytocin-producing theater of infant-rearing and the daily backstage grinds of managing a helpless human's life.
How do we help dads navigate through this fog? How can we fire them up to embrace caregiving?
When we talk to new dads or attempt to motivate them, we often neglect to acknowledge how pivoting to care work can be a rebellious upending of their family's status quo. And while we rightfully focus on paternity leave's role in infant bonding and mother support, we don't tend to emphasize how it is also an opportunity for men to grow more multi-dimensional.
Reeves, R. V. (2022). Of boys and men: Why the modern male is struggling, why it matters, and what to do about it. Brookings Institution Press.