Paternity Leave: The Rewards and the Remaining Stigma
New York Times – November 7, 2014 by
Claire Cane Miller
Five months after Todd Bedrick’s daughter was born, he took some time off from his job as an accountant. The company he works for, Ernst & Young, offered paid paternity leave, and he decided to take six weeks — the maximum amount — when his wife, Sarah, went back to teaching. He learned how to lull the fitful baby to sleep on his chest and then to sit very still for an hour to avoid waking her. He developed an elaborate system for freezing and thawing his wife’s pumped breast milk. And each day at lunchtime, he drove his daughter to the elementary school where Sarah teaches so she could nurse. When she came home at the end of the day, he handed over the baby and collapsed on the couch.
“The best part was just forming the bond with her,” said Mr. Bedrick, who lives in Portland, Ore., and went back to work in June. “Had I not had that time with her, I don’t think I’d feel as close to her as I do today.”
Social scientists who study families and work say that men like Mr. Bedrick, who take an early hands-on role in their children’s lives, are likely to be more involved for years to come and that their children will be healthier. Even their wives could benefit, as women whose husbands take paternity leave have increased career earnings and have a decreased chance of depression in the nine months after childbirth. But researchers also have a more ominous message. Taking time off for family obligations, including paternity leave, could have long-term negative effects on a man’s career — like lower pay or being passed over for promotions.
In other words, Mr. Bedrick is facing the same calculus that women have for decades.
Women’s role in society and the economy has been transformed over the last half-century. Today, 70 percent of women with children at home are in the labor force, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But only recently have men’s roles begun to change in significant ways.
Paternity leave is perhaps the clearest example of how things are changing — and how they are not. Though the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 requires companies with more than 50 employees to provide 12 weeks of unpaid leave for new parents, it requires no paid leave. The 14 percent of companies that do offer pay, like Ernst & Young, do so by choice. Twenty percent of companies that are supposed to comply with the law, meanwhile, still don’t offer paternity leave, according to the 2014 National Study of Employers by the Families and Work Institute. And almost half the workers in the United States work at smaller companies that are not required to offer any leave at all.
Even when there is a policy on the books, unwritten workplace norms can discourage men from taking leave. Whether or not they are eligible for paid leave, most men take only about a week, if they take any time at all. For working-class men, the chances of taking leave are even slimmer.
“There is still some stigma about men who say, ‘My kids are more important than my work,’ ” said Scott Coltrane, a sociologist studying fatherhood who is the interim president of the University of Oregon. “And basically that’s the message when men take it. But the fact that women are now much more likely to be at least a principal breadwinner, if not the main breadwinner, really changes the dynamic.”
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