My Paternity Leave Was Not Gratuitous

06/14/2017 07:15 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2017
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This Father’s Day, I’ll be thinking back to Thursday, March 16, the opening morning of March Madness. I’d always wanted to watch the games entirely from my couch, and this year, I finally did it.

Or, at least, I kind of did it. What really matters are the two things that helped me get close.

The first was sitting in my arms at the time: Felicity, my 5-month-old daughter. The second, less cuddly but perhaps only slightly less miraculous from our current political vantage, was the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993.

The FMLA lets eligible workers take up to 12 weeks off work for an illness or to care for a family member. Because I met the requirements (generally your employer has to have at least 50 employees and you have to have worked there for a year) the law meant I couldn’t be fired or demoted for staying home. It doesn’t, however, make employers pay workers for that time, so many can’t afford FMLA in the first place.

I was privileged in that my employer allowed me to use some sick time to soften the financial blow, but as my leave approached second thoughts creeped in. With the heavy demands of nursing, my wife had been with Felicity seemingly non-stop since birth, and while I had soaked a lot in, when fussiness, tears, or even baby-wear were involved, she was the backstop. Now my advisor was going back to work.

I also couldn’t shake the sense that with outside childcare lined up, people might judge the whole endeavor as either some sort of performance act or even a gratuitous scheme for an extended spring break.

It turned out I was right to be nervous, but it’s the ways I was wrong that will stick with me.

For starters, Felicity had never developed much affinity for naps or bottles, and one-on-one time with a tired, hungry baby who won’t agree to either of the obvious fixes really did make for some rough going.

But it also made for an especially quick-study. No safety net in sight meant a harried dive into the stack of development books I’d previously ignored, where a dog-eared page on sleep cues prompted an obsessive focus on eye rubs and half-yawns during playtime. A Google search led to a YouTube sub-genre of beaker-fed babies and some very messy—but ultimately effective—drinking experiments.

Slowly but surely, a nap schedule emerged, and if Felicity wanted to be fed like a baby bird, so be it.

I was also right to think of my leave as somewhat “performative,” but in a sense that surprised me. Walking around with a baby strapped to my chest led not to strange looks or scoffs but to wide eyes, smiles, and, frankly, a lot of plaudits, as if I was out to delight the public with a magic trick. “She has such a good daddy,” was a refrain.

This mostly led me to feel like I was doing something abnormal or at least unconventional. If so, that hurts everyone: women’s childwork gets taken for granted, and men have to overcome a cultural barrier—or outright mocking—to make that exploratory call to Human Resources. Research suggests that more and more daddy “show offs” might end up being a solution to both problems.

But my main takeaway was that my paternity leave was not gratuitous. It was an incredible amount of physical labor. In her best mood, Felicity is good for about 15 minutes in one spot. From there, she has a heavy preference for constant, human-propelled motion while at least four feet off the ground (technically I orbited the couch that special day in March). While Felicity likes naps, that’s only if she’s held throughout. Otherwise, she screams. Not one moment of our time together felt like a “break.”

And yet, through the magic of human nature, these experiences only deepened the bond I felt with my daughter. It made me feel needed. A Canadian study found that dads who took paternity leave picked up more childcare and even housework slack later on, and I believe it. Other scholars suggest that when parental leave is viewed as a “mom thing” men take a step back. That often means “back” to the office, which marginalizes fathers at home and contributes to gender-based pay disparities at work when mothers return.

Of course, when it comes to the right to time off, the fine print matters. The reason 95 nations provide paid paternity leave is so that partners will actually take it. Eighty-six percent of U.S. men say they would need at least 70 percent of their regular salary to even consider taking leave after a newborn, making the FMLA’s 0 percent laughable in comparison. Indeed, the Canadian study didn’t just examine the effects of paternity leave policies, it looked at what happened when Quebec upped the “paid” part of paid leave. Daddy-care jumped by a whopping 250 percent and average stints off work more than doubled in length.

To be fair, there are some recent bright spots here in the United States. Big law firms and tech companies like Facebook, Microsoft, and Netflix now offer some form of paid paternity leave. Those, though, are well-heeled businesses stocked with relatively high-earning professionals—slivers of the already tiny 14 percent of domestic companies that have already stepped up. Government action will probably be needed for the numbers to meaningfully grow, but three states have already shown that good plans are possible through a mix of employee contributions and existing disability programs. Whatever happens with the Trump administration’s surprising interest in a federal program, that millennials see equalized family care as an important value suggests the list could expand.

Until then, my Father’s Day proposal to new dads is this: think about taking some FMLA leave during your baby’s first year. For now there’s no pay, but if you can figure out a way to afford it, the benefits are amazing.

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