Skip to main content

If she weren’t already aware, any American mom-to-be soon learns this truth: The United States is one of the only developed countries with no universal system for paid maternity leave. Fewer than one in five private sector workers has access to paid time off to care for a newborn.

While many more have access to unpaid leave, many young families have trouble bankrolling months off. Policymakers have proposed various plans to fund at least a few weeks off for new moms, but while the country (and world) argues over how much mothers should be paid to stay home and by whom, there’s evidence that maybe we should be having a much bigger conversation altogether—that is, how to add dads to the mix.

In conducting research about how women organize their time and manage busy lives, motherhood has been a core conversation topic (as you might expect). Many women I’ve spoken to report that the emerging conversations surrounding paternity leave—giving dads more consideration for work leave in the immediate aftermath of a childbirth—have almost as many positive outcomes for a working familial household as the more traditional focus on maternity leave.

Here are a few ways families I’ve spoken to have seen paternity leave to be a game changer. And for anyone considering a job change or having a baby, it’s important to think about what your options are—and to know it doesn’t just come down to the mother.

For some women, paternity leave makes the newborn days bearable. Suzanne Tanner, who is currently in a Ph.D. program, reports that her husband, a lawyer, had access to eight weeks of paternity leave when two of their children were born, but not when they had their third child. Since all three kids had colic—which peaked around six weeks—she felt the difference. “With the eight-week leave, he was around to help with the brunt of the colic nastiness. I was able to get a few nights out to cope and take naps during the day, and life felt manageable,” she says. “With this most recent baby, he was back at work for the worst of the colic, and I was unable to get any naps during the day, plus there were two older kids to care for, which made life with a newborn that much harder.” Caring for a newborn around the clock is tough for anyone; having someone else to share the load makes it much more bearable.

Paternity leave helps women who need to go back to work for financial reasons before they want to. While daycare is a great option for many families, leaving a 6-week-old child in someone else's care feels very different from leaving a 6-month-old child. Nestlé recently instituted a gender-neutral policy allowing any primary caregiver to take fourteen paid weeks and twelve more unpaid weeks. The company found that hourly male employees were 40 percent more likely to take paternity leave than salaried ones. The reason? Likely these men’s wives, who may have been hourly workers somewhere else, didn’t have access to much leave. Nestlé’s policy allowed these women to feel more comfortable going back to work knowing a parent was still at home until their babies were a little bit older.

Other women report it helps them avoid being mommy-tracked. While some fathers who have paternity leave take it all right when the baby is born, some elect to split it, using at least a few of their weeks right around the time their partners return to work. Those first few weeks back on the job are hard for many women; having a caregiver who is there 24/7 opens up a lot of flexibility. Jessica Wiesak, an attorney who had her second child in March, says, “I don’t know if this was real or just my expectation, but I got the feeling that I was being watched when I got back to work—not in a malicious way but to see how I was adjusting.” With her husband on leave and able to care for their baby, she didn’t have to race out for day-care pickup, and could spend time building relationships. “I was able to be more ‘at work’ than I would have been otherwise,” she says. By the time her husband was back at work a month later, the novelty of Wiesak’s return had faded, and she didn’t feel so closely observed.

Many men feel more intimately involved with their families. Tim Hackbarth notes that for his first job out of school, he never thought to negotiate for paternity leave. When his first child arrived, he cobbled together sick time and vacation time, and still had to come back much earlier than he wanted. He switched jobs before he and his wife had a second child, and made sure to choose a firm where he would be supported in taking leave. He was quite cognizant of the difference in experiences. “The birth without paternity leave left me feeling resentful and disconnected from this major change in my home,” he says. “I think the non-maternal partner always struggles to figure out their role and responsibilities in this new reality. Immediately being forced back into a regular routine, while comforting for some, made me feel even more disconnected. I didn’t experience this at all with my [second child's] birth—I believe in large part due to the time I was able to spend with her. The time I spent at home helped me gain confidence as a parent.”

Men report appreciating what goes into caregiving more. Thomas Wiesak, Jessica Wiesak’s husband, says that taking leave “was a good change of pace from the working world and I’m glad I did it. I have more appreciation for stay-at-home moms (and dads) as well as anybody who works at a daycare.”

Some men get valuable time with their older children. If a couple has particularly generous paternity and maternity leaves, they might take most of the leaves concurrently. If mom focuses on the infant, dad can spend time with older children, easing them into the new family situation. Elizabeth Spencer, an adjunct professor of English, says that having her husband around to care for their 2-year-old daughter “was the biggest upside. They've always been close, so it was a treat for her to get that much one-on-one time with Dad. I think it helped to at least delay the impact on her of welcoming a new sibling. I enjoyed being able to more or less stay in the bed with the new baby for the first week or so.” Christopher Kim, an associate dean at Chapman University, reports that during his semester-long paternity leave after his third child was born, he volunteered frequently in his older children’s schools.

Men on leave become ambassadors for the idea of competent dads. Men on paternity leave sometimes leave the house with their infants. Many have told me that they then encounter much surprise in the grocery store aisles: Does Mom have the day off? Look at you—you are such a good dad! Kim normally just states the obvious—the family needs groceries, so there he is—but “When I have the opportunity to be a little more brave, I try to inch forward the normalization of this kind of occurrence to something not so special, not so exceptional, not so noteworthy,” he says. Men on paternity leave show that men can take care of babies without looking like bumbling idiots. Dads advocating for positive co-parenting? Sounds like a feminist victory to me.

Image Credit: Andrew Branch