THE BLOG
11/30/2012 06:49 pm ET | Updated Jan 30, 2013

Why Men Need to Leave Now

Hey guys, there's the door... use it.

It's not that I don't like hanging with you. (You're particularly useful as headrests during long movies.) But here's the deal -- it's time to hit the workplace exit when fatherhood comes a calling. I realize that not every new pappa is lucky enough to have paternity or parental leave. (The Society for Human Resources Management 2012 Employee Benefits report indicates that 16 percent of responding companies offer paid paternity leave. But if you have the benefit, you should absolutely use it -- all of it.

I've heard story after story of men barely taking a few days of their paternity leaves before sprinting back to their desks. Sometimes, these new dads put pressure on themselves to return to work; they don't want to look unprofessional or miss any big opportunities. Other times, the workplace itself is to blame. Sure, the paternity leave benefit is there -- at least, it's in the marketing brochures touting the employer as family-friendly. But in practice, actually taking the leave is frowned upon. After all, there's a mom at home to handle that child rearing, isn't there?

When I ask my guy friends why men don't fight more for their leaves, they just shrug. "Well it is his career," they say. And I get it. For many, a solid career is the barometer for success in life, and they don't want to rock the employment boat, especially when they are still moving up the ranks. Not to mention, having a steady income is obviously important, especially with a new baby.

In a recent op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle, Joan C. Williams and Anne-Marie Slaughter shared the following eye-opening research on paternity leave:

Three-fourths of U.S. men take leave after the birth or adoption of a child, but most take off a week or less. And no wonder.

The ideal worker in the United States remains someone who begins working in early adulthood and works, full time and full force, for 40 years -- in other words, a breadwinner. The provider ideal is not only a prerequisite to being seen as a go-getter at work, but it's also seen as a key component of being a good father, according to Nicholas Townson's 2002 study.

These work and family ideals are perpetuated by the flexibility stigma that often affects men who take family leave or request flexible work. An experimental study by Laurie Rudman and Kris Mescher found that men who requested a 12-week leave to care for a child or elder were more likely to be demoted or downsized because they appeared more feminine than other men.

So societal ideals of masculinity and fear of professional repercussions pressure men to cut short their paternity leaves. But here's the problem: When men don't fight for paternity leave and when businesses don't respect and support men's family responsibilities, not only are fathers negatively affected, but women get a raw deal too.

For starters, it's just plain unfair to the dads. Last time I checked, a father is just as much a parent as a mother, and birth is a pretty life-changing event for both of them. That baby face may not look much different from the hundreds posted on your Facebook timeline, but to the parents, that little one is magic. Why shouldn't a father enjoy time getting to know this new person and helping take care of the baby?

This speedy return to work is also pretty unfortunate for the mom. People seem to forget that the stork doesn't actually come and drop a perfectly bundled baby into new parents' laps. They don't call it labor for nothing. Mom has been stretched, torn, stitched and who knows what else -- her body need a vacation, stat. But there is no vacay when you have a new baby in the house, especially when momma is doing everything by herself.

And lack of paternity leave puts more pressure on the moms to make sacrifices in their careers. That's not to say that moms don't enjoy their maternity leaves or don't want to maximize their time with their babies. (I'm sure many do.) But taking a full maternity leave or using extended leave options may require new moms to forgo professional opportunities: promotions that come up while they're out, career development, major projects, special events, etc. Once the caregiving pattern is established, she may continue to shoulder these responsibilities throughout her career -- leaving early to pick up the kids, calling out to care for an ill child, opting to work part-time because both parents' hours are too grueling. (And hey, you can't possibly expect the guy to work part-time -- it's his career, right?).

It's not only the father's partner who is affected, though. When a man refuses to take his paternity leave or is discouraged from taking it, the idea that childcare is a woman's job is reinforced in the professional world. It's expected that women will take maternity leave, and it may be accepted that women will be the ones to pursue part-time and flexible hours. Because of these sacrifices, women may experience lower income potential, fewer promotion opportunities and limited career options. And perpetuating these traditional gender norms may result in women being viewed as mothers first rather than professionals or could potentially lead to sexism in the form of "protecting" women by not giving them certain opportunities.

Taking care of the little bundle isn't a female thing. It's a parent thing. But if men continue to back down and employers persist in dissuading fathers from taking leave, children will remain a "women's issue," which can be detrimental to both men and women.

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