White House Tries To Get Working Dads Some Time Off

6 minute read

When the New York Mets third baseman Daniel Murphy missed opening day in April to be present at his son’s birth, talk radio pundits were derisive. “You can hire a nurse to take care of the baby if your wife needs help,” said WFAN radio host Mike Francesa. “I would have said C-section before the season starts. I need to be at Opening Day, I’m sorry,” former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason said on his radio show.

But Murphy doesn’t regret his decision. “When Noah asks me one day, what was it like when I was born,” Murphy said on Monday, “I think it will go so much farther that I cut his umbilical cord. Long after I won’t be a baseball player any more, I will still be a father and a husband.”

Murphy and his nine-week-old son Noah were the poster boys at the first ever White House Summit on Working Dads on Monday. Of course, fathers have been working forever—indeed, surveys show that men’s careers tend to take off after fatherhood, whereas the opposite is true for women—but the White House gathering put a new spin on an old story. The goal was to highlight the challenges and stigmas men face at the workplace when they seek to spend more time with their children. “These challenges are not new at all for women but they are pretty new for men and not yet widely recognized,” White House Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough said, while opening the summit.

As more women have entered the workplace, up from 50% in 1970 to 75% today, men have taken on larger roles at home over the past thirty years. The amount of housework men do has doubled from 4.4 hours a week in 1965 to 8.8 hours a week in 2012 and the number of hours they spend on childcare has risen from 2.5 hours a week to 7.1 hours, according to Labor Department statistics.

At the same time, the number of men reporting work/family conflicts has risen from 35% in 1977 to 60% in 2008. “We need to do more to give people the tools they need so that they can be responsible employees and responsible parents,” Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez said. “We need to make sure parents can put food on the table for their kids and ensure that both parents are at the table to eat dinner with them.”

The summit focused on identifying the various challenges facing men who want paternity leave, examining the science that says it’s healthier for men to take time out to look after their kids, and analyzing the companies and countries that are getting it right.

Currently, the U.S. is only one of four countries, alongside Lesotho, Swaziland and Papua New Guinea, that doesn’t mandate paid paternity leave. “A recent ad council survey found that 86% of current fathers want to be more involved with their children than their fathers were with them,” Kyle Pruett, a clinical psychiatrist at the Yale School of Medicine told the crowd gathered in the auditorium in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. “That is a huge change and a big reason why this meeting is happening. A few years ago coming to this meeting would cost you career points.”

Once upon a time, Pruett said, in the pre-industrial 1840s, men spent a lot more time with their children in the fields and going to market. But fatherhood in the modern era has come to simply mean being a good breadwinner. However, he noted, a recent spate of studies have shown that men who bond with their infant babies in the days and weeks after birth are 90% less likely to abuse the child and that expectant fathers are also awash with hormones that enable them to fall in love with their child and interpret its needs. When one parent is providing everything to a child, the other one is always lagging at home. Men, Pruett said, should be expected to excel at home as they do work; nurture and provide.

“My father was a great provider. He simply grew up in the period when providing was what you were supposed to do,” said Carl Cooper, a working self-described “retired working dad” and former Chief Diversity Officer at K&L Gates. Cooper was captain of his high school football team and all-state in track but his father never attended any of his sporting events. “He never put his arm around me in all my life and I didn’t want that to be that way with my kids.” Cooper either worked from home or ensured that he had Mondays or Fridays off so he could spend time with his kids.

While the summit highlighted the good work being done by firms across the U.S., such as Catalyst, Caliper and State Street Bank, which offer paid paternity leave, it did not endorse any policy measures to address the problem. That, presumably, will come in the June 23, 2014 Working Families Summit the White House plans on holding in Washington. Meanwhile, there are no fewer than five bills from both parties before Congress this month offering various solutions to make work more flexible for parents and to extend paid and unpaid leave for both women and men. Mandating paid leave for men is unlikely to pass the House, but an update to paid leave laws and workplace flexibility is something Democrats and Republicans both seem to agree on.

Why the sudden interest now? This is all part of the Democrats’ women’s economic agenda, which they’re rolling out hoping to appeal to female voters ahead of the congressional midterms. Other topics have included equal pay, childcare, raising the minimum wage and, this week, student loans, all of which affect women disproportionately. But Monday’s summit was unique in its attempt to appeal to female voters through men. It was a complete turnabout from 100 years ago, when politicians often appealed to men get their wives to vote for them.

“These are often identified as women’s issues, and they are women’s issues and I understand that and that’s important but they’re also men’s issues and family issues,” Perez said. “We’ve got to have a modern era of workplace with flexible rules versus the Leave It to Beaver era. But I understand this is going to take time. Civil Rights, which passed in 1964, was first introduced in 1928.” So in forty years time, perhaps Noah Murphy will be able to do what his own Dad did — but without risking the contempt of his peers.

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