Stay at Home, Dad

Paternity leave in the United States

by Hannah Westerman, editor


In 2011, Colby Lewis took a couple days off from work to spend with his family after the birth of his second child. The radio waves erupted in anger, questioning how the man could abandon his professional duties and scorning the idea that a father has any kind of role after childbirth. As a pitcher for the Texas Rangers, Lewis became the first Major League baseball player to ever take paternity leave and the first to take advantage of a recent policy granting players 24-72 hours off for the birth of their children. A maximum of 72 hours seems a trivial amount of time to embrace a new child and to adapt to the changing familial structures, yet the decision sparked outrage among some in the sports media. Because of the timing of the birth, Lewis missed the first two games of the season. Richie Whitt, a columnist for the Dallas Observer, found the idea of a baseball player taking paternity leave comical.

“In Game 2, Colby Lewis is scheduled to start after missing his last regular turn in the rotation because—I’m not making this up—his wife, Jenny, was giving birth in California. To the couple’s second child,” wrote Whitt.

Whitt also suggested that births should be “scheduled” so that they occur during the off-season. His entire piece carries a dismissive tone, implying that not only is it ridiculous to miss a game for a birth, but the fact that it was a second child makes it even more so. According to Whitt, once you’ve had one child, the rest aren’t really that significant.

Radio host Mike Francesca added his two cents, questioning what role a man would even have post-birth. “What are you gonna do?” Francesca said. “I mean, you gonna sit there and look at your wife in a hospital bed for two days?” One of his callers scorned the idea of “maternity leave” for baseball players as “ludicrous.”

While the men faced heavy backlash for their comments, their behavior reveals underlying attitudes towards the roles of men and women in child-care that still impact the prevalence and use of paternity leave today. Maternity leave, while also arguably inadequate in the U.S., is at least more available and accepted. These attitudes cast women as the nurturers and men as the providers. By ignoring the importance of paternal bonding and fathers’ contributions within the home, antiquated gender roles are reinforced. What proponents of increased paternity leave, and parental leave in general, want is a focus on partnership, where the workload of a family is split fairly regardless of gender.

The numbers show that many men across America want to have a more active role in their children’s lives and care. According to a survey taken by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) in 2012, two million U.S. fathers were stay at home dads. The DOL also reports that 9 out of 10 fathers took time off of work for the birth of a new child or an adoption. Men want to be more involved in the home and, in many cases, women are capable of financially supporting their families. Despite this, economic and societal pressures obviously continue to influence the length of parental leave for fathers. 7 out of 10 fathers took ten days or less of leave.

Economics are a significant factor when it comes to parental leave for both mothers and fathers. Most U.S. workers don’t have access to paid parental leave. If their place of employment is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), then employees may be entitled to twelve weeks of unpaid leave. This is an employee’s parental leave for the entire year. So if an employee uses all of those weeks to stay home after the birth or adoption of a child, then they’d better hope they don’t have any other family or medical emergencies that year. And not everyone qualifies for FMLA. In order to receive those weeks of unpaid job-protected leave, an employee must have been at their job for at least twelve months and work at a location that employs at least 50 people. Only three states, California, New Jersey and Rhode Island, have additional laws that mandate paid parental leave.

All of the red tape is ridiculous considering that the United States is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee paid time off, not even for maternity leave. In a nation where women can be expected back at work immediately after giving birth, the battle for paid paternity leave is even more of a struggle. In 2012, only 13 percent of men who took parental leave received pay compared to the 21 percent of women who did. And just a mere 10 to 15 percent of U.S. employers offer paid paternity leave. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most positions that do offer paid leave are white collar or salaried positions. This can leave the blue collar or hourly employees without many options.

Even as moves are made to increase both fathers’ and mothers’ access to paid parental leave, hourly and part-time workers are left out in the cold. Last August, Netflix made headlines by announcing their new “unlimited” paid parental leave policy. What the policy really means is that mothers and fathers would have access to unlimited paid leave during the first year following the birth or adoption of a new child. It was an impressive move by the company and heralded as the new progressive standard that other companies should strive to. Then it was revealed that there was actually one very large limit in this limitless policy: it only applied to Netflix’s salaried workers. Suddenly the public response turned, calling out Netflix for ignoring the needs of its hourly workers.

Netflix has since corrected their “mistake.” The DVD-by-mail division now gets up to 12 weeks of paid leave, customer service gets 14 weeks and the streaming division gets 16 weeks. But even this solution leaves significant distinctions between salaried and hourly workers and their access to parental leave

Despite these inequities, working for a private company like Netflix that offers paid leave is the best option for most parents. Without paid paternity leave in place, employees may have to save up their vacation and sick days in order to spend time bonding with their children. Many important U.S. leaders have realized that this system needs to change.

“For the good of our families and the strength of our economy, we need to lead on leave,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez.

It’s an admirable goal but the U.S. is still far behind other developed countries. Colorado College Professor of English Steven Hayward has three children but has never taken paternity leave, paid or otherwise.

“As to the reason why, my understanding is that it’s because I work in the United States, which has a totally regressive policy on this issue,” said Hayward. “I’m from a country called Canada where most parents can take up to a year of leave, with pay, and with the guarantee that they will be hired back by their employer. It’s not mandated paternity leave, but the possibility exists for it to be the father who takes the leave.”

And it’s not just that country called Canada that has the U.S. beat when it comes to paid parental leave policies. Europe is definitely taking the “lead on leave” much faster than the U.S.

“Recently I spent a good deal of time in Sweden with relatives there, all of which did have to take paternity leave. It was the subject of much joking, but at the same time it was clear that a) they loved it, and b) it was good generally for the country and the society,” said Hayward.

Sweden certainly has cause for poking fun at the U.S.’s slow crawl towards paternity leave. Over forty years ago, in 1974, Sweden became the first country in the world to offer dads the right of taking paid leave from work after the arrival of new child. In 2013, 75 percent of Swedish fathers took a paid paternity leave of ten days and 88 percent took paid parental leave which averaged at 91 days.

With other countries maintaining such progressive parental leave policies and succeeding both socially and economically, the reasoning behind why the U.S. hasn’t followed suit becomes even more curious and potentially damning. Despite progress, society still treats the home as the woman’s domain and men who want to enter are seen as arbitrations rather than the new norm.

But when fathers do take parental leave, those rigid gender roles begin to break down. The same DOL study showed that working dads who took two weeks or more of leave were actually more likely to continue being actively involved in child care even nine months later.

“Fathers taking parental leave helps not just children but moms, too, by changing who changes the diapers and the whole culture around work and family,” said Perez.

Paternity leave doesn’t just help dispel gendered attitudes towards child-care. A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) found that children whose fathers took longer paternity leave scored higher on cognition tests.  And companies that offer paternity leave are able to attract the best job candidates. Paid parental leave and day-to-day schedule flexibility have become strong appeals for Gen Y men and women as they search for careers, revealing the increasing desire to maintain a work-family balance.

It feels obvious. Paternity leave is good for everyone. Through their fathers’ presence in their lives, children benefit socially and mentally. It improves gender equality within the household and the workplace. To increase the amount of fathers in the home helps to increase the presence of mothers in the workplace. It gives companies a competitive edge to lure in prospective hires. Quite simply, if dads want the chance to be at home with their children, then the system needs to change. The prioritization of maternal relationships over paternal is telling fathers that they don’t matter at home. Men like Colby Lewis shouldn’t be mocked for wanting to do something as intrinsically natural as spending time with their newborn. Equal and adequate paid parental leave for all genders is a goal that the U.S. needs to meet. In the international race to “lead on leave,” the U.S. is being left behind. With our over-reliance on FMLA and individual states’ and companies’ initiatives, our country is stuck in a system that costs parents, children, and society as a whole.