By Jeremy Adam Smith
Need a good cry? Get a bunch of fathers together in a room and ask them about paternity leave. Youll hear about the first times they held their children, fed them, and bathed them. For example, listen to the DadLabs guys talk about their leaves in the three-minute video above. Youd have to be made out of stone to not be moved by their stories.
But if you ask a roomful of dads about paternity leave, you likely also hear heartbreaking stories about how they didnt get anyand the disasterous effects the lack of leave had on their marriages and self-esteem.
Id come home from work at night, and my wife just seemed broken by spending the whole day with our newborn, said one dad at one of my talks in Manhattan. I wanted to help her, but I had to go to work. I had already used up my sick time and my vacation. I didn't know what to do. As he spoke, this dads eyes were fixed on the floor, trying to hide a combination of shame and guilt.
But he learned a lesson. When his wife was pregnant with their second child, this dad got another jobone that offered a generous paid parental leave package.
That benefit is hard to find. The federal government doesn't require employers to offer paid parental leave, and only 13 percent of American companies do. Even when the leave is available, many new dads dont take it. One Michigan-based company that offers six weeks of paid leave reports that only 10 men a year, out of 2,000 total employees, take advantage of the policy. A bank in North Carolina found that in 2001 only 12 new fathers took leave, out of 70,000 employees. That same year, 520 mothers took parental leave.
The question is why. Is it because of an innate aversion to child care? An unwillingness to make sacrifices for their families? Or is there another reason?
Despite its obvious importance, there is little empirical data about this questionfew researchers have gone out and actually asked fathers why they dont take advantage of paternity leave, on the rare occasions when it is offered. One 2000 survey of mothers and fathers found that 78 percent of new parents did not take leave because they didnt feel able to afford the pay cut that usually comes with it. Forty-three percent said leave would hurt their prospects for promotion; 32 percent claimed theyd lose their job if they took leave; 21 percent said their employer denied their request. A 2008 Monster.com survey found that roughly half of fathers did not take paternity leave when offered. The reason? They couldnt afford it, because the leaves entailed either a pay cut or no pay at all.
These stark numbers are underlined by plenty of anecdotes and speculation by human resources directors and corporate spokespeople. One reason for not taking advantage of it is because they may perceive that it might hinder their climb up the corporate ladder, a spokesman for AT&T told HR Magazine. The best way for companies to promote usage of the leave is for senior management to use it. My impression is that parental leave will take off with fathers after some high-profile CEO stays home for a few days to take care of his children. His impression is supported by several surveys in the 1990s that showed a majority of managers believed that new fathers should not take advantage of flextime and parental leave policies.
In the rest of the world, of course, paid parental leave is normal. In Sweden today, fathers are entitled to 10 days of paid leave after a child is born, and 80 percent of them take it, often combining it with vacation time. Parents get a total of 480 days off after they have a child, with 60 days reserved for mothers and 60 for fathers. The rest can be divided according to the wishes of the parents. Of those days, 390 are paid at 80 percent of the parents incomes, with the remaining 90 days paid at a set rate. In 2006, 20 percent of fathers took their share of extended leave. That might not seem like a lot, but it compares very favorably to the minuscule number of American fathers who take advantage of the paltry amount of leave available to them. And after Swedish parents go back to work, high-quality day care is available to all parents, regardless of ability to pay.
The reforms had a sweeping impact on the culture of fatherhood in Sweden. By international standards, Swedish fathers take on a good deal of the day-to-day care of their children, writes the Swedish feminist Karin Alfredsson. Mothers still stay home longer with newborn children, but the responsibility for caring for sick childrenwhile receiving benefits from the stateis more evenly divided between mothers and fathers. It is almost as common for fathers as it is for mothers to pick up and leave the children at pre-school and school.
The upshot: We know from the northern European (and Canadian) experience that men will take more advantage of parental leave if policy, workplaces, and culture support them. In America the culture is changing in advance of workplaces and public policy, and a new generation of fathers is more willing to take advantage of leave and rebel against workplace cultures, even at the expense of careers. When the American University Program on WorkLife Law studied sixty-seven trade union arbitrations in which workers claimed to have been punished for meeting family responsibilities, they discovered that two-thirds of the cases involved men taking care of children, elders, or sick spouses.
In the meantime, more and more fathers are filing complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), claiming that their employers have discriminated against them because of their caregiving roles. In some cases, says the EEOC, employers have wrongly denied male employees requests for leave for child care purposes while granting similar requests to female employees.
I expect that the number of men coming forward to claim caregiver discrimination will increase, says EEOC attorney Elizabeth Grossman. Men are deciding to fight the stereotypes. Men are deciding they want to have a work/ family balance. And a warning to their employers: Jury verdicts in their favor have reached as high as $11.65 million.
As a result, more and more companies, large and small, are offering family leave benefits to men. A few years ago, I would have told you that paternity leave wasnt that beneficial in terms of recruiting and retaining, Burke Stinson, a spokesperson for AT&T, tells HR Magazine. But today, I would say these 20-something men are far less burdened by the macho stereotypes and the stereotypes about the incompetent dad than their predecessors. They are more plugged in to the enrichment of their children and more comfortable taking time off to be fathers.
Men today have caregivng as well as breadwinning responsiblities, but government and corporations act as though American men are robots. Want that to change, dads? Take the leave available to you, encourage other dads to do the same (especially if youre their supervisor on the job), participate in MomsRisings campaign for paid parental leave, organize in your community to educate people about the issue, and, if youre denied leave, think about changing jobs...or perhaps even suing the bastards. Youll help make the world a better place.
This entry was adapted from my book, The Daddy Shift.
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