When I had my son 3 years ago, I was nervous about a million things. Thankfully, my job wasn’t one of them. My company had a good parental leave policy, and I was able to take off 13 weeks to be with my baby, all of which were 100% paid. Even better? My husband’s company gave him 4 weeks of paternity leave AND a bonus payment to help cover some of the costs of our new addition. This was huge. We split up his time so that he got to spend those first two mostly chaotic weeks at home with us, and he took the final two weeks when I went back to work at the end of my leave.
Looking back, I can’t imagine what it would have been like to spend those first days alone with a newborn, and I feel so grateful that when I returned to work, I was able to focus on catching up with projects and colleagues and not worry about who was taking care of my son.
I know that not everybody is so lucky. The United States is the only developed country in the world that does not offer any type of paid leave for new parents, and the decision whether to offer leave and how much is mostly left to the discretion of businesses. For those companies who do offer leave (paid or unpaid), it’s not uncommon for mothers to receive more time off than fathers. The message this sends is clear: moms take care of babies, dads go to work. Perpetuating this gender dynamic is harmful to women in a number of obvious ways, including limiting their career prospects and hurting their earning potential. But, it also hurts men in really crucial ways, a topic we don’t discuss with nearly as much frequency.
Contrary to popular belief, fathers face high levels of work-life conflict. The expectations we place on men to be breadwinners and providers above all things leaves them with little time to engage in caregiving and to explore the more emotional sides of their personalities. When this happens, we all miss out on important benefits. Studies show that men who take paternity leave are more likely to take an active role in childcare tasks long after their leave has ended. They form stronger bonds with their children and strengthen their relationships with their partners. Men who take paternity leave also report being happier and having fewer health problems.
As you might suspect, children benefit from having more involved fathers as well. Daughters, in particular, show better performance in school if their dads have taken time off. Most importantly, both sons and daughters are exposed to a new, more balanced gender dynamic at home, which they are then more likely to imitate when they reach adulthood. It’s these small things that lead to the larger cultural shifts we need to see if we want to reach true equality.
Companies can do their part by improving their parental leave policies for mothers AND fathers and then giving employees permission to use those policies. Too often, men report fear of taking paternity leave because they (sometimes rightfully) worry their careers will suffer. Male senior leaders should set the example by not only taking leave themselves, but also talking about their experiences so that others feel permission to take their leave as well. Employees who take their full leave should never be penalized for doing so, and the successes of those returning from leave should be publicly celebrated so that others know that they are still valued after taking time off.
The new generation entering the workforce is more committed than any other to prioritizing paternity leave, and I am excited to see the long term benefits of fully engaged fathers finally take root.
Did you or your partner take paternity leave? How did it benefit you and your family?
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