In preparing for the arrival of his first child, my brother-in-law mentioned that he planned to take advantage his company’s paternity leave program for the first six weeks of his infant’s life.
“That’s great,” I assured him. Then I suggested an alternative.
“I’d take a couple of days at first and some more time when your baby is doing more – like in six months, ” I said.
My brother-in-law was dumbfounded, likely the same reaction you might be having as you think, Is this dad really saying paternity leave is shortsighted?
I said this because I’ve come to realize this: Paternity leave, while valuable, provides precious time to care for and bond with our infants, however, it fails to guarantee us more time with them as they grew.
The business world’s sponsorship of fatherhood cannot end after 12 weeks of doing what is truly our most important job – raising great children. The statistics about dads and paternity leave are lackluster – showing that 80% of new dads spent less than 10 days at home under the federal Family Medical and Leave Act. Key to this under-utilization are two facts: (a) the time is often unpaid and (b) men feel stigmatized for taking leave and rushed to return given heavy workloads.
With these statistics in mind, employers have little incentive to support paternity leave programs — men have not proven they will use them! A company offering a program they know few will use (and use only sparingly) is a nothing more than a hallow pat on the head. So much for corporations driving a better work-life balance among male employees.
It is time to get serious.
It is time to think bigger and longer term.
It is time to expand the idea of parenting past the first few weeks of our kids’ lives.
It is time for dads to pivot, shifting our focus from advocating for paternity leave to demanding a no-questions-asked policy of allowing parents to work from home more often. This pivot could be, in fact, the legacy for post-COVID-19 fatherhood.
The novel coronavirus has forced most working dads to be work-at-home dads. Shuffling between class lessons and conference calls can be frustrating, sure. I cannot escape, though, the certain aspects of my quarantine life that I will truly miss when I have to return to the office, such as:
- Helping my children get ready for school.
- Eating lunch together.
- Watching my 4-year-old independently play with her dolls.
- Avoiding my daughter’s daily requests to make a TikTok with her.
The list, of things big and small, that I will miss on a normal day by returning to work away from home could continue endlessly. I have come to realize that I am a better, more attentive partner to my wife and father to my children when I can work from home. I know the “return to the office” bell will soon toll. That thought depresses me.
Ideally, dads should be have the ability to take paternity leave AND the ability to work around their kid’s schedules from home. Realistically, though, dads will probably have to give up the former to achieve the latter. I would make that trade any day.
This pivot, though, does not mean advocating for the unquestioned ability to work from home would yield meaningless the hard work done by paternity leave advocates. In fact, the relative failure of men to fully utilize paternity leave for more than the first 10 days of their kids’ lives can provide a blueprint for other items important to working dads that need addressing, like:
- Continuing to earn a paycheck while tending to our children.
- The continued importance of being perceived as the family’s “bread-winner.”
- Keeping up with work responsibilities while parenting.
The improved ability to work from home checks all these boxes that matter to dads.
Paternity leave is about detaching from professional life for a very short, intense period. Pushing for a great flexibility to work from home is the opposite – it has a long-term goal of proving a father can maintain a productive career while simultaneously taking the kids to school or attending a noon hour PTA meeting.
The time to pivot away from pushing for paternity leave is now, while the wounds of COVID-19 remain open and the legacy of American ingenuity generated from the living room couch is fresh in the minds of our superiors.
While the abandonment of paternity leave as a mission for dads seems to fly in the face of popular opinion, I’d ask all fathers to ask themselves a simple question:
Would you rather be given the first ten days of your child’s life off, or spent the next decade picking them up from school?
I would choose the latter. Why?
Because I have learned so much during this pandemic lockdown. Aside from the refresher on elementary math and middle school biology I’ve gleaned from helping my kids with distance learning, I’ve realized that I won’t be the same dad if I am forced to return to a full work week away from them.
I love seeing my kids’ smiles for more than in passing moments of daily busyness.
I want more.
Dads deserve more than 10 unpaid days with a newborn.
I would much rather work from home.