Men are speaking up about paternity leave, but for all the protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act, it only provides for unpaid leave, which is simply not enough for most families.
We’ve all come through the other side of the ridiculous Daniel Murphy 3-day paternity leave controversy with some things to be happy about. First, if you express “neanderthalish” views on a father’s role after his child’s birth expect to be panned from every corner. It reveals that you have no sense of how involved many modern fathers are in their children’s lives – from day one. Second, a man wanting to take paternity leave is the norm, and at least for players in Major League Baseball such paternity leave rights are codified in a collective bargaining agreement. Unfortunately, the MLB is the only professional sports league that provides for parental leave. But, it’s a start.
There are other reasons to be happy. A chorus of men’s voices could be heard supporting the decision of a man in the public spotlight to put his family before his work. This is a good thing. And relatedly, men, including Murphy himself, are publicly discussing the personal decision each family must make about child care and parental leave.
So, what’s the outrage? Well, let’s begin with this: For all the protections provided by the Family and Medical Leave Act, it only provides for unpaid leave, which is simply not tenable for many families needing two incomes to survive. It also does not protect all employees. And, as of last year, only 11 percent of all private industry workers have access to paid family leave while only 16 percent of state and local government employees have access to some paid family leave.
Just think about those numbers and your head may explode. This means that the vast vast majority of women who become mothers do not have a paid parental leave policy in place and are not protected by any law in that regard. And we are talking about the people who physically give birth and sometimes have surgery, and who are in many cases either the sole or main source of nourishment for their children. Thus, it is no surprise that fathers are unable to take a significant paternity leave, or any leave at all. While a few states have enacted paid parental leave laws, and a similar federal law has been proposed, most families in this country have not yet benefited from them.
But, this monumental failure with regard to paternity leave means that gender roles become entrenched and there is little anyone can do about it. As Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the research group Families and Work Institute, explained: “When only the birth parent can take paid leave, you put people in a situation where they have to follow traditional gender roles, which doesn’t always make sense.”
The people who don’t believe in the wage gap, who believe that women choose professions that make less money, or that it is more “natural” for the woman to stay home with a newborn, also fail to see the impact paid paternity leave could have on equalizing wages, as well as on the career trajectories of men and women, and the accumulation of wealth and long-term financial security. Unfortunately, these people are our legislators.
Of course, as Scott Behson noted in one of his many excellent articles on paternity leave, when fathers are entitled to paid paternity leave, they take it. Sadly, as Behson has also discussed, a recent Boston College study revealed that 75% of the fathers in the study took one week or less off following the birth of a child and 16% did not take off any time following the birth of a child. Presumably, this is because men “naturally” want to be at work.
The truth is that the world has changed. There are many stay at home dads. Some women make more than some men. Men are more involved with childcare whether or not they take paternity leave. And, both working fathers and working mothers are concerned about work-life balance.
It is the policies and laws in place that are failing us and don’t truly allow for each family to determine which parent should stay home and for how long without suffering serious economic consequences and/or long-term career consequences. I have personally witnessed the financial and career consequences of having children, and also how little time friends of mine who became fathers took off after the birth of their children.
Three days? A week? This barely gives a parent of any sex time to start breathing again after a birth. How long should a father get to meet his child, to be with and support his wife, to settle into a new routine, to experience whatever emotions may come after such a momentous occasion? Why shouldn’t each family be able to decide which parent takes parental leave or even be limited to one parent doing so?
I was fortunate enough to be able to take five weeks off (paid) after the birth of each of my children. I did so using vacation time that I had accrued at my job. And, my supervisors did not question my choice to do so. I could not imagine not having been there for those experiences. I wish all fathers had a legal right to do the same because it would move us a long way down the road to equality and also because, in the words of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “part of being a man” is taking “some time with your frickin’ kid and . . . with the partner in your life who brought the kid into the world.”
Photos: Flickr/Brandon Atkinson