Happy Fathers’ Day, American dads: our society still does a crappy job of encouraging you to be fathers! A new study from the Boston College Center for Work and Family has found that new dads take paternity leave only to the extent that they’re paid to--i.e., not a lot. As the Washington Post reports, the majority of men who get two weeks’ paid leave take two weeks, those with three weeks take three, and so on. And per the Families and Work Institute, those lucky guys are few; only 14% of employers offer any pay for “spouse or partner” leave, compared with 58% for maternity leave (mostly through temporary disability insurance and very rarely at full salary).
I can believe those studies because I lived them. When my first son was born, I took six weeks off--the one week of paid parental leave my company offered at the time, plus some accumulated vacation. I wanted to take more, but it would have been unpaid, my wife was getting ready to take leave from her own job at the time (as a librarian, so you do the math) and they’re not giving diapers away.
Spending those few weeks at home with a cranky, leaky, smelly baby was exhausting and overwhelming--and to this day I wish I’d had more of it. And I was one of the lucky ones, by U.S. standards; unlike most fathers, I at least had some paid leave, fairly generous vacation, and, once I went back to work, a reasonably flexible job that allowed working from home. (It's worth noting that the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave, and that a number of countries also require paid paternity leave.)
As the Post article says, dads’ choices about leave (and moms’) are largely pocketbook decisions--a lot of those fathers are principal breadwinners and don’t have the luxury to decide otherwise. But all that’s intertwined with social expectations. Women get mommy-tracked and end up earning less. Dads are considered providers first and nurturers second. A dad who wants to stay at home, or at least take more time off, is not just considered less of a man but less committed as an employee--a slacker, a scammer, a liability, a beta.
It’s true no matter how successful you are--say, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy, who missed all of two games from a 162-game season for the birth of his baby and got blasted by male sportscasters. (Some suggested he “hire a nurse” or tell his wife “C-section before the season starts.” Love you too, honey!)
It’s fitting that these studies should come along at the same time that pundits are debating “Can men be feminists?” because few issues so clearly answer that question: Yes, duh, no matter what Pharrell Williams says.
We have a habit of talking about feminism as if it’s something women do to men or men do for women--that feminism uplifts women at men’s expense. (See the Shailene Woodley “I’m not a feminist because I love men” argument.) If men identify as feminists at all, goes the corollary, they’re “allies” who are being altruistic (or trying to get laid). The cultural politics of this attitude aside, it just doesn’t square with the real world of running a household and paying the bills. Paternity leave is a practical lesson in why men should be feminists, not just because it’s right and fair but because feminism--in its simplest sense of treating people equally and not constraining them with artificial gender roles--benefits men too.
OK, to borrow the famous phrase: “Not all men.” Sexism hurts and limits women much more than it does men, and women experience forms of misogyny that men will never experience (see the #YesAllWomen hashtag campaign). As a man, you can profit handsomely from sexism--but you profit most if you want to be a certain kind of man as the culture defines it: one who derives his self-worth from work and money, who conforms to traditional masculine roles, who sees himself as the backup parent who “babysits” his kids occasionally but delegates most of that work to the little woman. Don’t like that setup? Man up, candyass! Get back to work!
Not everyone is in a heterosexual relationship and has kids, of course. But when you’re raising kids with an opposite-sex partner, the whole op-ed page, Internet-comments-section caricature of feminism as a zero-sum game looks especially silly and disconnected from nuts-and-bolts, bill-paying, time-managing life. When you're in a family, you're not an isolated representative of your demographic group. You're part of a team, and something that holds back your partner holds you back too. If women are paid unfairly, sure, that’s worse for women. But for a husband, that’s also a wife who’s bringing less money into the household. It’s less security if he loses his own job. A husband who can take paternity leave means a wife who doesn’t have to shortchange her career, which means more stable finances. Women who lean in give men the option to lean out, and vice-versa.
When women have more choices, in other words, so do men--including the choice to actually be present as parents to their own babies. A saner set of policies for parental leave and a more open-minded attitude toward parents’ roles would be the best Fathers’ Day gift we could give America’s dads. And for that matter, its moms and kids.