The Case for Paid Paternity Leave: It’s Not All About Cute Photo Ops (though we like those, too)

On Behalf of | April 27, 2015 | Gender Discrimination, Harassment

Many readers may have seen the popular story being shared on the internet, with the caption, “This Is What It Looks Like When Men Are Allowed To Take 480 Days Of Paternity Leave” (although that article could just have easily been captioned, “This is What It Looks Like When Humans Are Allowed to Take 480 Days of Parental Leave,” given that access to any extended period of leave to care for a new baby largely eludes both new moms and dads).  The piece by Johan Bävman, titled Swedish Dads, uses photography to capture every-day moments in households where fathers have taken around nine months of paid leave after the birth of their child.  These men are utilizing a Swedish law that permits new parents to take over a year of compensated leave, which can be split between both mom and dad.

Bävman’s photos reflect the love, care, and silliness that arise when dads have access to extended leave, and his photographs provide an excellent counterpoint to many stereotypes about fatherhood.  However, paid paternity leave is not just an opportunity to capture adorable shots of dad as a manicurist, morning party-goer, or clothespin-extraordinaire (although yeah, those things are pretty cute).

Instead, having men participate in child rearing beginning at an early age can have an important impact on families. Men who take paternity leave after the birth of their child end up taking on more of the childcare responsibilities later on in the child’s life.  This shift in traditional gender roles is not only an advancement for women’s equality—freeing up valuable time for women to pursue goals outside the domestic sphere—but can also promote better marriages; in fact, this phenomenon has been associated with couples having more sex and rating their sex lives and marital happiness higher than other couples.  And the impact doesn’t end with the home.  Indeed, increased access to paternity leave may also boost women’s participation in the workforce and promote a stronger, more equitable economy.  Yet, as we’ve covered in the past, paid paternity leave remains the exception and often even men who have access to such leave may feel pressure not to take the leave they are entitled to.

The good news is that we may be seeing the beginning of a shift in attitudes and policies affecting paternity leave.  Many prominent figures are taking paternity leave, which may help change cultural norms on the topic.  In 2014, Daniel Murphy, second baseman for the New York Mets, took paternity leave (allowed under the MBA contract since 2011) after the birth of his child, attracting the ire of some sports fans and commentators.  For example, sports commentator Boomer Esiason suggested Mr. Murphy’s wife should have had a cesarean section before the season opening to spare him from missing any games.  A week later, however, the commentator had apologized after public backlash, leaving Slate to remark “[t]hat Esiason felt he had to eat such major crow shows how far we’ve come in our cultural perception of a father’s role, and it also suggests a shifting of the tides when it comes to our feelings about paternity leave.”  And Mr. Murphy is not the only athlete to miss an important event for the birth of his child; Golfer Hunter Mahan left during the final round of a $1 million golf tournament in which he was leading to be at the hospital with his wife for the birth of his daughter.  Even Prince William is taking two weeks of paternity leave upon the birth of the newest member of the Royal Family.

And advances in paternity leave are not limited to the private sphere, which is important if paid paternity leave is to have a widespread impact.  Earlier this year, for example, a Massachusetts law went into effect that requires employers to give new fathers eight weeks of unpaid paternity leave, on par with what the state’s law currently requires for new mothers.  While nothing close to the enviable Swedish law, it is encouraging to see states beginning to enforce gender equity in parental leave.  And in January, President Obama signed a presidential memorandum that permits federal employees to take about 6 weeks of advance sick leave for the birth of a child, allowing both mothers and fathers to take paid parental leave.

As increasing attention is being paid to parental leave, it is a great time to advocate on this issue.  So, men, speak up in your workplace and talk to your employer about the benefits of paternity leave; but don’t stop there!  You can make your voice heard by reaching out to your congressional representative and letting him or her know that you support laws offering greater protections to new parents.