Oh, Dad, Poor Dad! What to Do About Skimpy Parental Leave?
How dads’ leaves affect newborns’ development and their marriages.
Posted Oct 21, 2020
Guest post by Michael Schroeder
Working professionals in the U.S. who are starting or growing families face a unique challenge. Unlike their counterparts in every other industrialized nation, Americans have no federally guaranteed paid time off to be with their newborn children.
Employees may be able to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year and still have a job to come back to under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. But not all workers qualify for this, and many who do simply aren’t in a financial position to take that time off. (FMLA allows states to provide more coverage than the federal law does, and a handful of states have their own provisions; but only California, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island offer paid family and medical leave.)
As a result, parents rely heavily on paid parental leave policies from employers that provide it. But the vast majority of employers don’t offer paid parental leave; and those that do provide far less compensated leave for fathers than mothers. This, experts point out, creates added hardship for working dads and moms.
“I think these policies imply that mothers are and should be primarily responsible for childcare and for raising kids,” says Richard Petts, Ph.D., a sociology professor at Ball State University who has closely studied parental leave policies. He adds that the imbalance makes it even harder for fathers to take leave, as they may face stigma, as well as the career penalties mothers encounter. Others say such an imbalance in policies providing time off for parents leaves working mothers unsupported and sends the message that fathers are unnecessary.
That’s because a traditional male-centered employer model treats men not as working parents but employees without family obligations. Women who take time off may also miss raises, advancement opportunities, or for those who take extended leave, struggle to successfully reenter the workforce or find themselves underemployed when they do. In parental leave policies, women are commonly viewed by default as primary caregivers. And experts say these company policies, in offering less parental leave for men, assume their partners—commonly working mothers—will handle the lion’s share of child care responsibilities.
Survey data finds, accordingly, that new fathers tend to only take about one week off after the birth of a child, while women take less than three months. Neither is working from home during the COVID-19 pandemic a solution for dads or moms, given the hands-on care (read: undistracted parenting) newborns need.
One recent study that provides a snapshot of the gender disparities in parental leave looked at the exemplars in industry: Fortune 500 companies. These U.S. firms with the highest revenues set the bar for all others to follow. As such, Petts and David College sociology professor Gayle Kaufman, Ph.D., thought it worth evaluating what precedent these top companies set with their parental leave policies, and specifically with regard to gender differences in these policies.
“The good news is that a majority of Fortune 500 companies do offer some form of paid parental leave,” notes Kaufman, who led the study published online in Community, Work & Family in August. Kaufman, who has also done extensive research on parental leave policies, and Petts, who co-authored the research, found 72% of companies they were able to obtain detailed information on had parental leave policies. But only 17% of all Fortune 500 companies captured in their research provide the same amount of paid parental leave to fathers and mothers.
Of the companies that offer paid parental leave, half offer at least twice as much leave to mothers as to fathers. That equates, on average, to about 10 weeks of leave for moms and five weeks for dads, Petts says.
Understanding the Importance of Dads
All of this is based on a Mad Men-era idea that women can take time off after the birth of a child because they have a husband who’s the breadwinner, says John Badalament, director of programs for The Fatherhood Project at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. It ignores the modern reality of women in the workforce and the science that supports the powerful impact of involved dads.
“The hard research is that dads in the early years make a huge difference,” Badalament emphasizes. “The quality of their relationship and the time they spend with their infant … it makes a huge impact on the child’s development (and) on their marriages." There’s still a gap in understanding how important fathers are, he says.
Commonly gender unequal paid parental leave policies put parents at odds. “Companies that offer lesser policies for dads are doing themselves a great disservice—along with adding fuel to the fires of gender inequity—by pitting moms and dads against each other, instead of looking at the research about workplace retention,” Badalament says.
He adds it’s been shown employers that are family-friendly and offer equitable paternal leave policies and take leadership in encouraging employees to use those policies have increased employee retention and satisfaction rates, not to mention being viewed as more socially responsible. But fathers in the workforce often have a far more strained experience when it comes to their perceptions—and often the reality—of what employers expect of them. Experts say that flies in the face of a work-home life balance and is out of step that can be with the parent fathers want and need to be.
For her book, Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution, Kaufman talked with some fathers about obstacles to taking parental leave. (Per the book’s title, she ultimately suggests a leave policy that allows all working parents to take six months off to spend with a new child.)
One father, Gabriel, who worked part-time at a movie theater while going to school, detailed having a sick baby and dealing with an impatient boss. His boss pressured him to return to work even while his son was still in the hospital. “With part-time work you don’t get any benefits, you don’t have paternity leave at all,” he told Kaufman. “I was obviously really emotionally unavailable for work in every sense.” He worried about losing his job for taking time off to be with his newborn son.
Even when men have paid parental leave, they often feel pressure not to take it.
Finn, a physician, opted to take two weeks off, and wanted to work part-time for several additional weeks to spend more time with his child. As Kaufman detailed in her book, Finn said it did not go well with his supervisor and friend who pushed him to return, even continually contacting him while he was on leave about coming back. “I felt pressured to come to work,” he told Kaufman.
Ultimately, what’s needed, many experts say, is not only a change in parental leave policies. Rather, a culture shift is required where working fathers and working mothers are treated as such—not pigeonholed in one capacity or another, but supported in all they do.
Copyright @2020 by Michael Schroeder
Michael Schroeder is a freelance writer, former health editor at U.S. News & World Report, and father of four in Westfield, Indiana. He has always taken the full paternity leave his employers offered, while still wrestling with how to best balance home and work obligations. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.
Kaufman, Gayle and Richard J. Petts. (2020). “Gendered parental leave policies among Fortune 500 companies.” Community, Work & Family.
Kaufman, Gayle. (2020) Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution. New York: New York University Press.