Paid leave changed these dads. Here’s why it’s crucial.

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The time Brant was able to spend at home was a gift — to me, to our son, but most of all, to him. While our baby was still in the NICU, he would drive from our apartment to the hospital at 3 am with tiny bottles of breast milk (“I feel like I’m doing my part,” he told me). When our son came home, Brant swaddled him, changed his diaper, unloaded the dishwasher 700 times. An important part of who he is as a father today is because he was able to be present during those early weeks.

As anyone who has followed the bumpy progress of paid leave in President Biden’s now shaky Build Back Better bill knows, the United States is the only developed nation without federally mandated paid parental leave. Only 23 percent of US workers have access to paid leave (89 percent can access unpaid leave), and a 2018 study found that fewer than 5 percent of dads take even two weeks.

But amid these depressing statistics are glimmers of hope. Many US companies now offer generous paternity leave and, more significantly, they actually encourage men to take it. This matters, because the more we can make it the norm for fathers to take leave, the better off America’s dads (and moms, and frankly everyone) will be.

Shahrouz Tavakoli, who leads a team at Pinterest in San Francisco, was able to take 16 weeks of paid leave when his third child was born in October 2020. Without that time, “I don’t think we would have survived as a family, ” he says. Because of the coronavirus, they couldn’t turn to grandparents for help, and his other children, ages 6 and 3, were also home. “We were incredibly lucky to have this support,” says Tavakoli. (On Dec. 8, Pinterest announced new policies that allow all parents to take up to 20 weeks paid leave, including 12 additional weeks if a child is in the NICU, starting in January.)

“Paternity leave lays the groundwork for your future relationship with your child. The more you’re involved in the beginning, the more it becomes the norm,” Tavakoli says. As a team leader, “I definitely wanted to model that it’s okay to take time for your family,” he says. He acknowledges how hard it is for parents who don’t have access to the kind of benefits he does.

When Oz Lang’s third daughter was born during the pandemic (he has a 3-year-old, and a 13-year-old from a previous marriage), he was able to take 12 weeks of paid leave. “That was such a deep and engaging period to be with my daughter because I saw everything — the first smiles, first laugh; she’d fall asleep on me all the time,” says Lang, who has worked as an executive at multiple tech companies. The time was also positive for his relationship with his 3-year-old daughter, who was at home because of the pandemic.

This was in sharp contrast with Lang’s first paternity leave in 2008, when he worked at a start-up and had two weeks of leave. “The transition to new fatherhood isn’t easy — you’re responsible for this living, breathing thing that’s yelling at you — and any serious attempts at parenthood [are hard] if you’re pulled back into work. It all comes at a cost.” Taking unpaid leave wasn’t a financial option, and when Lang returned to the office, “I found myself unable to be the partner I wanted to be, and as a father, I missed so much.”

Other fathers acknowledged this loss as well. “There was a huge contrast emotionally for me having taken leave with my older son and not with my younger son, in terms of bonding deeply in the first year of life,” says Chris Ray, who took 10 weeks of leave with his first son and then switched to an in-house counsel position at Amazon in Seattle, which did not offer paternity leave when his second son was born in 2015 (the company does now). “Years later, I realized I didn’t fully know what my younger son was like as a baby.”

Paternity leave also makes an enormous difference for mothers. When Matt McNutt, who works as a mental health clinician at Reliant Medical Group in Worcester, Mass., and his partner welcomed a son in November, McNutt began his planned 10-week leave — four weeks of paid leave through his company; one week of paid time off; and an additional five weeks paid through Massachusetts’s child bonding leave. When his partner had post-pregnancy complications and had to return to the hospital, he became the primary caregiver to their newborn son and 22-month-old daughter. “I don’t know what we would have done if I wasn’t able to be home,” he says. “It takes a lot of the stress off because my leave is planned, and my job knows and supports it.”

His ability to be present as a dad also allows his partner to focus on recovery. “I want to do whatever I can to allow her to heal, because she is recovering from a C-section and that’s an eight-week process,” he says.

Every father I spoke to said that paternity leave helped strengthen their relationship with their partner and allowed mothers to recover from childbirth. Marco Keiluweit, a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who moved to the United States from Germany in 2007, took his full 12 weeks of paid leave with each of his children, even if it raised an eyebrow or two among older colleagues.

“A lot of parenting routines establish themselves early, and it’s hard to break out of that because kids get so used to them,” he says. By being present and engaged from the beginning, Keiluweit and his wife were able to develop routines that felt more equal. “You avoid falling into those gender traps,” he says.

Keiluweit says he is grateful that his university has a generous paid leave policy and that for the most part he felt very supported, despite the occasional “Why can’t your wife take care of the baby?” teasing comment from male colleagues. “I’ve made it clear that being [an engaged father] is something I want to do and want to be,” he says. “We have grad students here that will have children. I want it to be normal to be a professional and a father who is involved.”

Paternity leave policies are also becoming more important to employees. Andrew Galli, who lives outside Sacramento and works at Oracle, was encouraged by his manager to take his full 10 weeks of paid leave when his son was born in 2020, which he split into two parts. Having that time at home was such a positive experience for his family that he now considers parental benefits as important as salary. “I would think twice about going somewhere that didn’t have leave,” he says.

Joe Byker, who took paternity leave twice at Intuit in the Bay Area, including a 12-week paid leave with his third child, says that support for parents “is a big part of what keeps me engaged and loyal and excited to work here. I get a little choked up thinking about how [my company] threw a baby shower for my wife and me. They celebrated with us.”

Which raises the question — as more of corporate America, plus a handful of states, recognize the importance of paid parental leave for fathers, what happens to dads who are employed elsewhere? The Build Back Better bill offers four weeks of paid family leave (which feels like crumbs but is better than nothing), but it’s unlikely to get through the Senate intact. Without even four weeks, most dads face a shoddy patchwork of options at a time when the pandemic has laid bare how important paid leave is for all parents.

It’s well documented how devastating it is for mothers not to have access to paid leave. But as more dads recognize the importance of being engaged fathers — both on a cultural level, in terms of shifting workplace norms, and on a personal level — it’s clear that paternity leave needs to be a part of the conversation. As McNutt puts it: “As a dad, I want to be seen as a caretaker. These are my children.”

Anna Nordberg is a writer in San Francisco. Find her online at annanordberg.com.

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