Why Working Parents Have It Hard in America

The United States is the only country of the world’s leading 34 economies to not offer paid parental leave

Work-Life Conflict

Balancing the demands of work and family have never been easy for parents. Despite the glacial progress on equality in the workplace and at home, the balance is harder to come by than in recent decades. The founding director of the Center for WorkLife Law, Joan C. Williams reported this in the Washington Post (2/11/13):

In a 2011 study, the Families and Work Institute found that 60 percent of fathers in dual-earner households say they experience some or a lot of work-life conflict, compared with just 35 percent in 1977. Meanwhile, the level of work-life conflict reported by similar working mothers has not changed significantly in three decades.

Maybe men are better at expressing themselves now. Or maybe women are more accustomed to the parenting stigma in the workplace. This stigma on parents in the workplace—especially dads—is exacerbated by an unparalleled lack of parental support in the private and public sector. Of the 34 countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development)—the most developed countries in the world—only the United States does not offer paid parental leave. No wonder there’s a stigma. Some states, like California and New York, provide for it, as do some employers, but the FMLA mandates 12 weeks of protected but unpaid leave for each parent. By not allowing paid time off to raise a newborn, the United States is effectively discouraging it. The effect, according to a 2009 study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, is this:

In the absence of paid parental leave policies, traditional gender roles that involve women as “caregivers” and men as “providers”, and the typically lower earnings of mothers (relative to fathers) in the labor market, create strong incentives for women to reduce their employment and take on a large majority of child care responsibilities. The most obvious problems associated with such outcomes are that women bear a disproportionate burden of child care responsibilities and pay both a short- and a long-term penalty in the labor market. A related issue is that traditional gender roles and labor-market outcomes work together to deprive men of the opportunity to participate actively in providing infant and child care.

This sentiment is echoed as by Williams in the Washington Post earlier this week. Referencing articles she’s editing for the Journal of Social Issues, Williams asserts that “Men face as many struggles when it comes to using flexible work policies — if not more — because child care, fairly or unfairly, is still seen as being a feminine role.”

Though men are spending more hours helping out at home, they’re strongly discouraged from working any less. The recessionary hangover has compounded the headache. The pressure of this workplace ethos puts working men in a bind. From the Washington Post article:

In 2003, one group found that men who ask for family leave suffer more negative reactions than women who ask for the same. The next year, another study found that men who took even a short time off for family reasons were given lower recommendations and poorer overall performance ratings. A few years later, researchers found that as long as a father can avoid looking like he has child-care responsibilities, having kids actually helps his career. He is given higher starting salaries than a childless man and is held to lower performance and punctuality standards.

The new research goes further by trying to address why men experience such stigmas. For instance, in one case, participants were asked to rate men and women who took family leaves and those who did not. If the employee was a man and took time off, he was less likely to be recommended for promotions, raises or high-profile assignments. What became clear was not just that men were penalized for taking leaves, but why. They were seen as bad workers precisely because they were thought to have traits traditionally viewed as feminine: being weak, insecure, emotional or naïve. In other words, the flexibility stigma is a femininity stigma.

Let me iterate: “researchers found that as long as a father can avoid looking like he has child-care responsibilities, having kids actually helps his career.” So be a dad but don’t act like a dad. Sounds like the 50s. How does such counterintuitive thinking, such a Catch-22, become commonplace?

It starts at the top. The lack of support for parents by the United States and most private-sector employers in effect reduces the importance on parent-infant bonding. Worse, parents as workers feel jeopardized when they do take the scant government support allotted them.

Alone and Not at The Top

To get an idea how other countries–the most developed in the world, not welfare-states on the brink of bankruptcy–here’s a graphic from the OECD report from last July.

Additionally, dual-earner households are the most common form of arrangement in the United States and in the majority of OECD countries, according to another OECD report cited by American Progress.

By comparison to our combined 24 weeks, Sweden—one of the most progressive and egalitarian countries in terms of gender—entitles its parents to 480 days of leave, well over half a year for each parent. While fathers only account for 20% of it, each gender is allocated 60 non-transferrable days of leave.  All but 90 days are paid at 80% of the salary, up to $65K.

There is no way American taxpayers would go for the 56.6% top tax rate in Sweden, which is often ranked at or near the top on quality of life polls. No way I would go for that, either. But we should still look their way as an example. Earlier this month, The Economist called the Nordic countries “the next supermodel.”

“The Nordics cluster at the top of league tables of everything from economic competitiveness to social health to happiness. They have avoided both southern Europe’s economic sclerosis and America’s extreme inequality.”

The economic benefits of paid parental leave are:

*greater attachment to the work force for women and more flexible arrangements for men

*increased wages for women (thus reducing the need for public assistance)

*greater freedom and encouragement of father-infant bonding time (which could lead to increased rates of paternal abandonment and all the societal costs associated with it)

Citing the efficiency of the public sector, The Economist said, “A Swede pays tax more willingly than a Californian because he gets decent schools and free health care.”

And more time off to tend to his family and lessen the stigma of parents at work, which creates a more equal and productive society, it has been argued.

Photo: Flickr/Lance Shields

About Robert Duffer

Robert Duffer (www.robertduffer.com) is the editor of the Dads & Families section of The Good Men Project. Winner of the Chicago Public Library's writing contest, his work appears in the Chicago Tribune, MAKE Magazine, Chicago Reader, Curbside Splendor, Time Out Chicago, Chicago Public Radio, Annalemma, New City, and other coffee-table favorites like Canadian Builders Quarterly. He teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago and lives in the suburbs with his wife, two kids, and their minivan. Follow @DufferRobert, Google+, facebook.


  1. There is no tolerance for neglecting the job itself, Aspire, I agree. And I hate when people (myself included) use their kids/childcare as an excuse. The women in your example was fired for a reason though, regardless of gender or being a parent. She was a poor worker. I wonder if more equality in the workforce, across genders not just for parents, would balance it out; if parents had more governmentally safeguarded time, maybe they’d be less inclined to take time off randomly. Wishful thinking, maybe.

  2. In my workplace, women have MUCH more flexibility to take time off work to care for their kids, leaving childless women and men behind to pick up the slack. I am not taking about weeks and weeks here but during the day when their kids gets the sniffles and they “have to get home right away”.

    I had the unfortunate job last year of firing a woman because she just couldn’t get her assignment in on time (not to mention the poor quality) because she was gone so much from work. I had talked to her several time about this problem and she assured me each time that it wouldn’t happen again. All she did was to try and find better ways of hiding her absence.

    Our company is extremely sensitive (read politically correct) and when I talked to my bosses about her, they told me to document everything. So I had to keep track of the hours she wasn’t at work and each time I talked to her I pointed out how much time she missed.

    When I finally fired her, I presented her with the spreadsheet to show just how much total time she had missed. I think she was really surprised just how large a number it was.

    Parental leave is fine and all but someone has to pick up the slack.

    • wellokaythen says:

      I know having kids can be a lot of work, and there’s always something that has to be done, but I wonder sometimes if “the sniffles” is an excuse more than a reason. It’s a three-day weekend coming up where I work. I know I would be sorely tempted to blow off today by inventing a family excuse. Gotta get junior to the doctor, so 4 day-weekend!

  3. wellokaythen says:

    In many places, I’m not so sure there IS a “stigma on parents in the workplace.” I know for many childfree or childless women (as well as men), the stigma actually goes in the opposite direction – the stigma is against people without kids.

    In any event, there may be even bigger challenges than the taxes needed to fund government-sponsored parental leave. The Scandinavian system is much more comprehensive when it comes to health management, and MUCH better at sex education. They are educated quite thoroughly about where babies come from, and very few politicians there want to stand in the way of that. Their system provides much more access to birth control options, which is part of the whole holistic package. The people there have children because overwhelmingly they have consciously chosen to have those children. Very few oopsies or teenage mothers compared to the U.S. And, it works in part because they have a very low birth rate – no Quiver families over there.

    It would be great, while we’re funding parenting, to tackle the fact that half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are UNPLANNED pregnancies. If the Scandinavian system works, it’s because they have a very different view of sex, birth control, parenthood, etc.

    I’m not actually looking to start an argument here, but I have to point out that people generally become parents by choice, whether society can admit that or not. Having kids is a choice, not something that happens to you. So, bear in mind that government support of parents as parents is a government subsidy of a particular choice that some people have made. It’s not support for a disadvantaged identity group, but support for people who made particular reproductive choices. It’s not an accident or a genetic condition.

    • @wellokaythen,

      You are correct “that government support of parents as parents is a government subsidy of a particular choice that some people have made.” So is sex education. And both investments reap social benefits to those without children and/or without active sex lives. Also, I’m not sure what world you inhabit, but in mine, parenthood–especially single-parenthood–is a definite stigma, a signal that a person might have commitments outside the workplace that take precedent over the 70+ hour work weeks demanded by the academy. I’m luck to have a great boss. Others aren’t so fortunate.

    • As a woman without kids, I’m expected to pick up the slack for parents all the time at work. My personal life is not important but the excuse “I have ‘X’ thing with my kid” is an all purpose excuse for leaving early, missing meetings and generally not getting your work done. It annoys the hell out of me.

      • As it should, Sarah. Like I said to Aspire, I can’t stand when parents use kids as an excuse. Poor workers will find excuses across the board. Would more egalitarian parental leave prevent these kinds of abuses? Depends on the worker. If there was more leave, I would expect that what you’re referencing would be less tolerated.

      • wellokaythen says:

        I think BOTH Ben and Sarah are expressing some common experiences out there. This is one reason for the big chasm that opens up sometimes between people with kids and people without kids. Both sides think the other side gets all the breaks and my people are the ones being discriminated against.

        In answer to your query, sometimes I’m not sure what world I inhabit, either.

      • I’m interested in seeing some real numbers here. In the good ol’ USA, how many days/hours of work are missed on average per year because of childcare responsibilities? Do parents, on average, miss more time than those without kids? I can tell you nobody picks up slack for me, and I’m certainly not expected to teach any less classes or add any fewer lines to my C.V. I’m paid the same amount, per section, as all the other contingent faculty at my workplace. Each spring, I am ranked by the same combination of teaching evaluations and scholarship as my childless colleagues, most of whom teach fewer sections and have more free time than the parents around here. The thing is, until you’ve been a parent, you have no idea how much it changes you. Parenthood has made me more empathetic, more dependable, and less likely to complain about covering for a friend attending a conference or skiing in the Rockies or sleeping off a hangover or whatever.

    • wellokaythen, if you’re not sure about the stigma, then read the sources and research cited in the article. The Nordic economic success is not solely because of paid parental leave. It’s a host of comprehensive reforms targeted at sustainable lifestyle choices. One of the most egregiously subsidized industries is farming, and that is a choice; a choice that is encouraged by the government to maintain food production and price levels and limit the need on imports, among other things. As are capital gains taxes, which are lower than income tax levels to encourage investments. Call it a subsidy, call it an incentive. There’s certain values we place on things; right now infant care/childcare is not one of them. When the population rate slows and shifts, there might be greater incentive, economically, to mandate paid parental leave.

  4. I’m taking my two weeks vacation next month when I have my first kid. It is not paternal leave, but my regular vacation time. I’d love to stay home with her longer without being at work, but it was hard enough to convince my job to let me leave for two weeks! I’ve worked here almost 7 years now and never taken that much time off in a row. We’ll see how it goes.


  1. […] on the benefits of paid maternity leave, it reinforces what we’ve been saying here about the work-life challenge for parents. Even with parental leave, men are less likely to use it than […]

  2. […] The Effect of Traditional Gender Roles on the Workplace […]

Speak Your Mind