When my second son was born, I was working as an assistant U.S. attorney in Washington, D.C. It was a dream job for a lawyer looking for trial experience on serious cases but a nightmare for a new father who wanted to be an equal partner at home.
Within a few months, I’d lost so much weight that my suits hung on my already-slight frame. I suffered from chronic sleep deprivation and was prone to occasionally bursting into tears. My doctor sent me to a psychologist, who prescribed sleep aids and antidepressants.
Still, I continued to get high marks at the office, even winning an award for my work on domestic violence cases. I kept my struggle with work-life balance under wraps, afraid of looking weak in front of my childless coworkers.
I now run my own law firm, specializing in cases involving pregnancy discrimination and other legal issues in the workplace. After working with so many women who have been mistreated, I’ve come to realize that my silence was a mistake.
The only way that we’re going to have a better work-life balance, end the motherhood penalty and reduce pregnancy discrimination in the workplace is if men speak up, too.
Here are four things every father can do to make a difference in this issue:
1. Open up about being a dad
When I was at the U.S. Attorney’s Office, I certainly understood the importance of being present for my children. But I didn’t think of it as something that I needed to work at like I did with my career.
That changed when I read the book A Modern Dad’s Dilemma, which detailed men struggling with what it means to be a good father and working at becoming better fathers.
That’s when it first occurred to me that fatherhood was a job that I could improve at, involving studying, practicing and struggling. That helped me see parenting as more than just a to-do list involving diapers and laundry.
At work, that means opening up a little about your family. If you have photos of your children, don’t keep them behind your computer; put them facing out, where coworkers can see them. You don’t need to overdo it. Just let the people you work with know that you take parenting seriously.
On your Twitter page, you can add the word “father” in your bio description to remind your professional network that you have more responsibilities than the ones revolving around your work.
2. Become part of the “working dads” community
More and more fathers are sharing their stories online on so-called “daddy blogs,” and there are even a number of books on working and fatherhood. I’ve found that taking part in this conversation, if only by listening in, helps me stay grounded. These writers remind me that I am not alone in my efforts to make sure work is not my only identity.
3. Take paternity leave and other time off
There has been much written about how men negotiate in the workplace more effectively than women. Yet men seem reluctant to apply these same negotiations to asking for time away from work.
Don’t give in to that tendency. Understand that leave is important, commit yourself to taking it and then have a proactive discussion with your boss or human-resources department.
Understand that this may mean saying no to important work opportunities. After the birth of my second son, I took time off from the U.S. Attorney’s Office. The first week I was out, a big case came in and the victim was coming into the office to be interviewed.
My supervisor called and said that she could have another attorney cover the interview but wanted to check with me in case I wanted the opportunity. (These initial interviews of the victim by our office were often critical for the case.) Things were very busy at home as my parents and my wife’s parents, who had served as vital extra sets of hands, had to return to their homes out of state. I was tempted to go in because I knew there was some possibility that the case would be reassigned if I didn’t. But ultimately, I declined.
Everything worked out fine. I got to spend important time with my new son to help him adjust. And the case was later successfully resolved.
4. Know your rights
Many workplaces, with the tech industry leading the way, are providing generous paternity leave. But this is not yet universally true. Therefore, you need to know your rights for family leave.
FMLA: The Family Medical Leave Act is the only federal law that requires employers to provide leave to new fathers to spend time with a newborn or a newly adopted child. It requires employers with 50 or more employees to provide up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to employees who have been with the company full-time for at least one year. (Yes, lots of catches there.)
State laws: Some state states allow for additional—in some instances paid—leave for fathers requiring time off from work to care for a child. California, for instance, allows new fathers up to six weeks of paid leave. The District of Columbia is considering legislation that would allow new fathers up to 16 weeks of paid leave. Other states, like Hawaii, allow new parents to take paid leave under state disability insurance policies.
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act: Although it does not require employers to provide leave, it does disallow employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against men based on gender stereotypes—including that men should not take time off from work to care for a child because “that woman’s work.”If you have a question for a lawyer about your rights but are wary of spending money on a consultation, a service called Avvo is one option for getting individualized, free legal advice. I wouldn’t make Avvo the end of your legal search (you won’t necessarily get the most qualified person answering your question), but it’s one of the best places to get a no-cost, individualized response to any legal question that you might have.
In addition to Avvo, two other fantastic online resources to learn about leave rights and to find an attorney, if necessary, are The Center for Worklife Law and the National Employment Lawyers Association.
Company policy: Some companies have a leave policy, which may allow part of the leave to be paid under a disability policy. But you can’t always count on your supervisor to know this. Reach out to your HR department for more information on this.
Fortunately, a cultural shift is taking place making it more acceptable for working dads to take time away from work to be with family. As women have realized for some time, however, being a good employee and good parent is not easy. Being intentional about it and taking some of these steps can help.
Tom Spiggle is author of You’re Pregnant? You’re Fired: Protecting Mothers, Fathers, and Other Caregivers in the Workplace. He is also founder of the Spiggle Law Firm based in Arlington, Virginia.