Is Paternity Leave Working for Working Dads?

Lack of Paid Leave and Supportive Environment Still Obstacles for Many Fathers

By Jim McGaw

The federal Family and Medical Leave Act has given working fathers more opportunities than ever to take time off to bond with their children, but many men are still not opting for paternity leave. At the same time, many fathering experts say paternity shouldn’t be the sole barometer for measuring a man’s commitment to his family.

Chipper Bro wasn’t about to miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime when his son Nathan was born four years ago. For him, spending a couple hours with his newborn before and after work or even taking a few days off wasn’t good enough.

Luckily for Bro, he had the right employer. Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company in Ventura, Calif., grants employees up to eight weeks of paid leave when a child is born or adopted.

“My two months off was the most awesome experience ever,” says Bro, a receptionist at Patagonia. “I got so much out of it – the bonding, the close relationship I still have now with my son. Plus, it allowed me to give his mom a break.”

Not only was his boss supportive of his decision to take time off, Bro says it didn’t hurt productivity at work or his job status. “I never did check into work. I never had to.”

If Bro’s story sounds too good to be true, that’s not surprising. Countless studies have shown how both father and child benefit from early bonding. But due to many factors – sacrificing income, a strong work ethic or fear of hurting their careers among them – most men still opt against taking an extended time off to be with their newborns.

To be sure, men have had more opportunities since 1993, when the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) was enacted. The FMLA requires any company with 50 or more workers within a 75-mile radius to grant up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually to an employee for the birth or adoption of a child, or for other family or personal medical problems. Anyone who’s worked at least 1,250 hours for the company in the past year qualifies.

The company must continue paying benefits during the leave and allow the employee back to work at the same or a similar position. The FMLA covers about two-thirds of the labor market and about half of all working fathers in the United States. Some states have their own family leave laws that are more generous than the federal act; check with your company’s personnel office for specifics regarding your state’s laws.

It’s difficult to gauge how many men are taking advantage of FMLA because the Employee Benefits Survey stopped asking about separate provisions for maternity and paternity leave in 1994. According to the National Partnership for Women and Families, an organization that promotes policies to help parents meet the dual demands of work and family, women outnumber men by nearly three to one in the number of parental leaves requested.

But confusing the issue is the fact that only about 15 percent of men eligible under FMLA make a formal request for paternity leave, according to James A. Levine, director of the Fatherhood Project at the New York City-based Families and Work Institute and author of Working Fathers: New Strategies for Balancing Work and Family.

Levine says many men resist taking formal leave because they’re afraid their managers or co-workers will disapprove.

“Informal or ‘underground’ leave is still more typical,” says Levine, referring to men’s practice of accumulating sick or vacation time.

Why Men Don’t Take Longer Leaves

Even though most men do take some time off – whether they scrape together sick or vacation time or request a formal leave – many can afford to take only a week off at best. Although an increasing number of companies are offering some sort of paid paternity leave, the vast majority do not and are not required to do so under FMLA – a real conundrum for working fathers who are usually the main breadwinners in the family.

“Many men can’t afford to take paternity leave,” says Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, a Maryland-based organization focused on promoting responsible fatherhood. “When that baby comes, most men won’t be saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got another mouth to feed so let’s give up some income.’ It’s just the opposite. That’s against being financially responsible for most parents.”

Bro readily admits he wouldn’t have taken any time off had paid leave not been an option. “I am a highly paid receptionist, but not to the tune of taking two months off,” says Bro, adding that Nathan’s mother is a stay-at-home mom.

A family’s economic situation isn’t the only reason many men aren’t taking longer paternity leaves. Taking a long family leave simply goes against the nature of many men brought up with a strong work ethic, says Henry Biller, a psychology professor at the University of Rhode Island and author of numerous books on fatherhood.

“Work is part of their identity of being a breadwinner,” says Biller, adding that many “expectant” men deal with the stress of preparing for a new family member by actually putting in more hours at the office. “They don’t work just for the money. (Not working hard) is a threat to their masculinity.”

Even when fathers are offered paid leave, they don’t always take it. A case in point is the male workforce at Merrill Lynch. The Wall Street powerhouse, which has been responding steadily to its employees’ needs over the past decade, now grants 13 weeks of paid paternity leave.

“But most men are taking an average of two weeks even though they’re offered more,” says Levine. “It could be a number of factors. He may be saying, ‘Financially I’ll be covered but culturally maybe not.’ But it may not even be the stigma thing for them. If there’s a mother home, many men simply don’t think they need to take leave,” says Levine.

More Peer Support

The good news is that the stigma Levine alludes to seems to be fading away in many workplaces. “It used to be that many men were afraid to take it,” he says. “We’re seeing a shift away from that.”

Bud Fishback, a human resources manager at Seattle-based Boeing Co., took off four weeks of unpaid leave in the summer of 1996 to care for his children, then 4 years and 7 months old.

“When our second daughter was born, my wife had 6 months off from work. I essentially took over from her,” says Fishback, adding that his colleagues were supportive of his action, including his manager. His time off also didn’t affect productivity, as his co-workers showed their support by covering in his absence.

Even a generation gap between co-workers doesn’t necessarily mean there will be resentment when a father takes time off. When his two daughters were born, Roger Rousseau of Burlington, Conn., used two weeks of vacation time each. A purchasing agent for UConn Health Center at the time, Rousseau was much younger than his co-workers.

“They didn’t know what family leave was,” says Rousseau. “To them I was ‘new age.’ They were used to a guy dropping his wife off at the hospital and then going to the bar until the baby was born. Still, they were very supportive.”

That’s important, Levine says, because men are more likely to take leave if they have the support and encouragement from fellow workers. Still, fathers need to take the initiative.

“We should be encouraging more peer support, but men have to step up to the plate individually,” says Levine. Many men don’t realize how flexible their company is willing to be unless they push the issue.

Indeed, many workplaces have come a long way since 1991, when the Catalyst Foundation in New York City asked 1,500 chief executives what was a reasonable amount of time for a father to take off upon the birth or adoption of a child. Sixty-three percent said “none.”

“We are now seeing more and more companies implementing either paid parental leave or extending their paid leave,” says Levine.

Beyond Paternity Leave

While paternity leave is a wonderful way for fathers to bond with their babies and to assist in child-rearing duties, experts stress that it’s not the only barometer in measuring a father’s devotion to his family – far from it. Levine says many in the media are guilty of harping on this one issue; he calls it “paternity leave preoccupation.”

Horn agrees. “What (the media) is implicitly saying is, if fathers really wanted to be involved with their kids then they’d be taking paternity leave,” he says. “I fear that we’re sending the message that this is the only way to be committed, and it’s not.”

Fathers who are unable to take family leave can still find time to connect with their child before or after work, Biller says. “The bottom line is to spend a couple of hours of quality time with your infant each day and share the responsibilities of basic infant care with Mom. It’s a great way to get to know and connect with your baby.”

Benefits Shared by All

Dads who chose to take time off can certainly attest to that. Roger Rousseau says it allowed his wife Ann some much needed rest, plus it helped get them both accustomed to their new life. “It allowed us to share some responsibilities of early parenting and gave us a chance to get to know our baby. We got our lives acclimated to a whole new environment. The rules had completely changed,” he says

Bud Fishback says he was grateful for being able to spend time with his kids during his leave. “They grow up so fast and it allowed me to connect with them,” he says. “I also developed an appreciation for all the work full-time caregivers do.”

Both parent and child reap the benefits of connecting early on, says Levine. “Many studies have shown that children seem to do better in all areas when they have a close relationship with both parents,” he says. “And fathers are constantly saying they want a different relationship with their kids than what they had with their own dads.”

Bro, for one, is determined to maintain a strong and loving relationship with his son. Reminiscing how he let Nathan stand on his belly, he says the positive repercussions of his paternity leave four years ago are long-lasting. “I can still feel the imprints from his feet,” he says.


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