Before working at my current law firm, I worked a large, international company. I was unmarried and not even thinking about kids, so I never stopped to evaluate the parental leave policy. I had heard from others that it was pretty good, and that was all I needed to know at the time.
Fast forward two years, and I was pregnant with my son. I immediately referred to the employee handbook to see what kind of leave I could expect. I was immediately struck by the fact that we had separate “maternity” and “paternity” leave policies. Of course, this shouldn’t have come as a surprise since this is the case for many companies. But for the first time, something about this distinction made me uncomfortable. Increasingly, it’s making others uncomfortable too, and we are seeing a shift to more gender-neutral leave policies, giving fathers more opportunity to share in the day to day responsibility of parenting.
This is great news for so many reasons. Let me count the ways:
- Today, women are not only more likely to be caretakers at home, they are also increasingly more likely to be the breadwinners as well. According to a study conducted by the Center for American Progress, 42% of mothers were the sole or primary family breadwinner in 2015. Among women of color, 71% of black mothers and 41% of Latina mothers are bringing home the majority of a family’s income. In order for them to continue supporting their families, they need partners who are able to share in the parenting responsibilities in a more equitable fashion than most “paternity leave” policies allow for.
- Consistent with changing social norms, gender neutral policies remove the implication that child-rearing is the domain of mothers, while the workplace is the father’s domain. Even a simple language shift from “maternity leave” to “parental leave” can signal that child rearing is the work of “parents,” i.e., both moms and dads.
- Research shows that when men engage in care giving, it activates the areas of their brains responsible for emotional processing and social understanding. It also increases their levels of oxytocin, while decreasing their testosterone levels, allowing for increased bonding with their children.
- Anyone who has ever had a child knows that bringing a new baby home is one of the most disruptive events in a family’s life. Mothers and fathers need each other’s support to manage through the sleepless nights, endless tasks, and emotional roller coaster that follows the birth or adoption of a child. They need the time to adjust – together – to the changing family dynamic and to bond as a family unit. Sending Dad back to work within a couple of weeks (sometimes within a few days!) can impede these important connections from forming.
All in all, gender-neutral parental leave policies are beneficial on just about every level. Women have their workloads at home reduced, men are able to more fully participate in the lives of their children, and families have the opportunity to bond and develop positive dynamics. When these things happen, people are able to more fully and successfully contribute to society.
What are your thoughts on parental leave policies?