I’m part of a group of women who come together to discuss current issues in feminism and gender equality. At a meeting a few years ago, we discussed paternity leave and discovered that many of the husbands of group members with adult children had taken little or no time off when their kids were born. When I got home that night, I asked my husband if he would take paternity leave if we had kids – and he immediately and reflexively answered “no.”
While his answer might be different if I asked him today, the swiftness and surety of his response startled me. Since then, many of our peers have started having kids of their own, so it’s a natural time to re-examine this issue and take a close look at how and why men make their decisions about parental leave.
Today’s post is a roundtable: we asked five participants (all friends of ours who are dads) to share their candid thoughts on paternity leave – whether to take it, for how long, and what the impact (both at home and at work) can be. [One note about our sample: we recognize that this group is small and has no statistical significance for the population at large. All respondents are heterosexual men with kids that range from almost born to nine years old.]
- Dan: PhD student with a nine month old son.
- Dimitri: computer programmer at large tech company who just had a baby girl.
- S: father to a 9 year old daughter and 4 year old son.
- Matt: computer programmer with 7 month old son.
- Tim: film editor expecting his first child in March 2016.
How much leave did you take?
Dan: Writing a dissertation and having a kid is pretty great. My time is flexible and most of the time I’m accountable to no one. This is often a problem when it comes to getting work done, but it’s perfect for having a newborn!
Dimitri: My employer is a large tech company that has the incredibly generous (by US standards) policy of offering 7 weeks of fully paid leave for parents, regardless of gender. They also offer an additional 5 weeks (12 weeks total) of paid leave for a parent who considers themselves to be taking an equal or primary role in their child’s life. I think that being equals in our parental duties will benefit our entire family, and so I’m taking the full 12 weeks off.
S: I planned to take time off for the birth and time following for each of my kids. I can’t remember what the employment policy was with my first child; I’m not sure they had a paternity leave policy. I think I took about a week of vacation time but I really don’t remember. When my son was born I was working for myself and thus didn’t have a formal paternity leave, but I had more flexibility with my schedule and with my ability to work from home. I recall going to an all-day meeting just days after he was born. I think I had better perspective at this time and realized that, since we had support from family, “paternity leave” was best spent more spread out over time, weeks and months instead of days.
Matt: I was originally going to take 2 weeks off and maybe work part time for a while after that, but as the date got closer, that just seemed too short, and I end up rounding it to a full 3 weeks. There was some sort of internal debate going on at our company about whether to give 1 or 2 weeks of parental leave, so I just let them know that I was taking the 3 weeks off regardless and to take the balance out of my vacation time as needed.
I remember hearing rumors that you could take up to 6 months or a year of unpaid leave, but I was never planning on taking that much time off, so I didn’t really look into it. I think I would have felt horribly guilty taking much more time that I did. My friend just got married in Germany, and they were talking about how they can take a whole year off anytime within the first three years of the child’s life, and that it’s common to take the year to go travelling. I just can’t imagine showing back up to the office after a year. You may as well be starting a whole new job.
Tim: I’m planning to take paternity leave, although my current work situation is non-traditional. I’m working with two other people on an independent documentary feature. We just completed a successful crowdfunding campaign (yay!), so now we can resume post-production. I’m the editor on the project and have a desk at one of the co-director’s offices. I have committed to at least six months of work to get us to a rough cut. My wife and I are expecting our first child on March 21. I’m planning to take a six-week hiatus from the project when our son is born. What my return to work will look like remains to be seen. Possibly I will work from home at first and go to the office for face-to-face meetings. There is no employer policy to follow on a project like this. I’ll discuss the plan further with the the co-directors.
How did people react to your decision?
Dan: My advisers all have kids and were very supportive. “As far as your career goes, there’s no right time to have a kid,” one of my dissertation committee members told me, “but this is as good a time as any.” The sad fact is that research shows that males in academia tend to benefit professionally from having kids while females suffer. Probably, to some degree, it makes people take me more seriously as a professional.
Dimitri: My previous employer (a startup) had a 2-week leave policy, which had been our original plan (plus 2 additional weeks unpaid for 4 weeks total); more time would have been financially infeasible. Joining my current company was largely a surprise: we were acquired by the larger company with significant parental leave benefits. The first reaction many people had was “oh this must be especially good for you!” While they were being incredibly supportive, this also bugged me, as I didn’t want to be viewed as simply “the dad” by my co-workers. I didn’t want them thinking that I was just going to kick my feet up and overuse the perks of this new job.
I was fairly nervous about telling my bosses. I’m very new to the company and understood the leave policy before joining, but was concerned that work obligations and cultural norms would prevent me from taking the planned time. I was worried that taking the maximum leave would be somehow viewed as greedy and unnecessary. While I haven’t started the leave yet, my bosses have been extremely supportive of my plan (5 weeks after birth plus the remaining 7 weeks starting around 16 weeks). Being so new to the company, I’m concerned that it might stunt my career growth some, but that risk being worth the reward of spending this critical time with my child and wife.
S: The one decision that was hard for me was returning to work and not being part of the caring for my wife and baby during both of the 3-6 month windows following their birth – the fourth trimester. I found the paternity time to not only be important in terms of connecting with my child, but almost more so in terms of supporting my wife.
Matt: People reacted the same way they usually do when you tell them about your time off well in advance: they forget about it, and then they are mildly surprised when the time comes to leave. The baby was also a week late, so that eventually morphed into “why are you still here?”
Even when I am really sick and shouldn’t go to work, there is still that twinge of, “Maybe they won’t believe me,” “Maybe they will just think I’m hung over,” “Maybe they will be right about that”, but with a baby, there is some pretty solid evidence there, and it would take a special kind of jerk to think, “Quit slacking off with your baby”.
Tim: I expect my colleagues on the project will react well to my decision. They are both flexible and one is a father who has worked for decades as a freelance cinematographer. As long as we can be clear in our communication, I believe we will find a solution that works for all of us and for the film.
Did paternity leave change your relationship with your kid? With your partner?
Dan: I’m not sure it changed my relationship with my kid — I would have loved him to death no matter what, plus, like all babies, the first few months were like carrying around a log that vomits, poops, and pisses on you. (Okay, it’s a lot more fun than that.) I do think it strengthened my relationship with my wife. Nursing babies is relentless and being around meant that I could help do the dozen other things that needed doing at any moment. It sounds cheesy, but was glad I was able to take the time to be there, not just for the baby but for our new family.
Dimitri: I don’t know yet how much impact my being around more will make on a newborn. I’m guessing not much. I think it will have a much bigger impact on me. I have no idea how to be a father, but I know that not being around isn’t the right thing to do. One of my biggest fears since we started trying to get pregnant was that I will be an absentee father due to my tendency to work long hours. Striking the balance between spending time with my daughter and my career will be difficult, but my hope is by taking leave and setting a baseline of spending a lot of time with her initially will help calibrate me for the future.
My relationship with my wife will probably benefit the greatest from this time. We’re currently very happily married, but we know that the first years of raising a child can put a strain on the relationship in new ways that we can’t anticipate. I hope that by taking on a lot of the work, she can spend more time resting, healing, and spending time with our daughter.
S: With each birth, the connection and support was unique. The first was such a wild ride – full of surprise, the biggest surprise for me being how much thought and effort we put into the birth process and how immediately that was gone and we were left with newborn to care for. I was really caught off guard by that abrupt transition. My relationship with each is not significantly impacted by the “paternity leave” yet the bond with my wife has certainly grown stronger through the childbirth/parenting process.
Matt: It’s hard to say. I just wanted to be around him and see him and help out in a practical sense. I’m sure there is some primitive bonding value to me being around in those early days for him to hear me and smell me and generally get used to the lumbering sight of me, but who knows. I don’t think it changed anything with my wife. She did give me all sorts of credit for doing very simple things like changing diapers and making sure that she didn’t starve.
Tim: I expect paternity leave will impact my relationship with my son. It’s hard to say “change,” since I haven’t met him yet. I feel lucky to have the opportunity to be present when we bring him home and begin the lifetime adjustment of having him in our lives.
Anything else to add?
S: The thing I reflect on most about that time was how fast it all happens and really how long and challenging it is to care for and support a newborn. There is really no amount of paternity time that “feels right” or feels adequate. The challenges and the joys are great and it takes much more than a week or two of paternity to adjust to the new world order of having a newborn to care for in your home. This all assumes that mother and child are healthy. If there are any complications, for either the mother or the child this can make a really wonderful and challenging time even more difficult.
Even today I always wish for more time with my kids. There is an interesting dynamic where I often seek out time alone, time for work or time with my wife away from the kids – and I believe they need their own time as well. However, I can quickly see how that time is becoming more and more precious with each year they grow older. There will be less and less of their time spent with us as they become teenagers and eventually start their lives outside of our home. Family vacation can be for me a bit of paternity leave in a way. We all connect together in really wonderful ways that help to define why we take vacations and stop doing what we each typically do to be together and see each other again, with new perspective and new focus.
Tim: I’m excited to be a dad. Also totally freaked out. I don’t know what to expect. I’m sure it will be different and more emotionally intense than anything I’ve experienced before.
Image: “Sitting up with a Sick Friend” by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1903)