Dripping with sweat, arms throbbing, head swirling, I knew this would be the toughest negotiation of my legal career—though smaller, the other side’s passion for his position was limitless. As midnight approached, I realized not even Goodnight Moon or Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” would persuade my son to sleep.
My wife, a pediatric dentist who owns her practice, and I discussed the financial and career implications of either of us taking an extended leave. A prolonged leave would have been catastrophic to the practice my wife built and difficult for her staff, whom she supported, and to our household finances.
My parents are a generation-early in terms of two-working parents—my mom is a 40-year trailblazer in health-care administration, and my dad, who spent 35 weeks per year on the road in a family business until age 50, switched careers so my mom could pursue a new job. My parents were also pulled in two directions: providing financial support for their families and those of their employees and raising their children.
My decision was simple: “lean out.” Is this a cute turn-of-phrase a take from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg’s call-to-arms? Perhaps. But it is directed not to women but to fathers to push for and to take paternity leave.
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Fortunately, my law firm offered paid paternity leave, a unique benefit. But my wife was unsure if I would take it—and at times, so was I. Although my immediate supervisor was supportive, friends questioned my sanity and told me I was committing career suicide. One asked: “How do you go from law review editor in chief to tummy time connoisseur?”
Even my parents worried about career implications. Although I will never be able to appreciate the struggles of motherhood, I soon empathized with professional women facing the challenge of taking leave, as males and females alike kept saying things like: “Enjoy your vacation!”
Let’s be clear. Paternity leave is NOT vacation. To call it such is insulting to every stay-at-home parent. From when I woke up until I passed out, I was taking care of my family—from supporting my wife through breastfeeding struggles, to rocking my son asleep, to the black hole of sanitizing bottles. This was not a vacation; this was parenthood.
Paternity leave is also not another millennial excuse not to work. Prior to my leave, I was the top-billing associate in my law firm. This is about redefining societal norms and gender roles, not millennial apathy.
Beyond the indescribable emotions I felt while caring for my son—from his first smile to his learning to grasp his hanging giraffe, my appreciation for working mothers and stay-at-home parents continued to grow. I watched as my wife struggled to balance work and home—pumping seven times per day after a C-section and crying during midday Facetimes with the baby. Although my wife and I always shared household duties, I soon took on the majority of them and experienced the stress of getting everyone fed, even if it meant pulling into a random parking lot to feed a hungry baby.
Paternity leave is rare. Understandably for small businesses, paid leave is too difficult financially to implement, but for larger companies, it should be discussed as a benefit. Yet, according to studies, paid paternity leave dropped 5% from 2010 to 2014, and, in fact, only 12% of private U.S. workers receive paid leave.
Beyond paid leave, we must address the “flexibility stigma.” Fathers fear societal and workplace ramifications of taking leave; hence, many will take only a few days, fearing being labeled unambitious or unmotivated—the same provincial aspersions that wrongly have been cast against working mothers.
As corporate citizens, businesses should view paternity leave as investment in human capital. Studies have shown increased paternal engagement have improved children’s developmental outcomes and cognitive test scores. Anecdotally, it redefines gender roles for the next generation, just as my parents did for me.
As a government, we must do the same. Congress is considering a bill to increase paid leave for government employees. As a former congressional aide, I am calling on my former colleagues to push this legislation. Friends, 10 years from now, when you no longer are debating between going to Tortilla Coast or kickball but rather your son’s swim lesson or a corporate event, you will see the fruits of your labor.
Will my son remember those first four months of Daddy reading Curious George or singing off-tune to the latest Adele hit? Maybe not. But my wife and I have now set a tone for how gender does not define familial roles in our household or society.
Jon M. Philipson is an Associate at national law firm Carlton Fields and a new dad.