Should new fathers get long parental leaves?

In the UK, there’s a proposal afoot to allow either parent to get a parental allowance for most of the first year of a child’s life. Currently, (if I’m reading the UK’s literature right) mothers get the first 6 weeks at 90% pay, and then can take the next 33 weeks at a state allowance (that’s the equivalent of about $200-250/week depending on exchange rate). They can transfer the allowance to fathers after 6 months. The new rules would fit more into the Marissa Mayer model of modern motherhood. If mom only wants to take a few weeks off, and dad is doing primary parent duty, why can’t he collect the parental allowance right away?

It seems like a straightforward bit of revising laws to be gender neutral, with some safeguards. In response to concerns from various non-profits that work with single mothers, the mother will have to actively assign the benefits to the father (you don’t get benefits just for having fathered a child; you have to actually be caring for the baby).

Interestingly, David Cameron is promoting shared parental leave partly to combat the most obvious side effect of the burden that long maternity leaves put on employers: you just don’t hire women in their 20s and 30s. In talking about the idea, Cameron termed this employment discrimination “completely unacceptable and one of the ways to make it not only morally, but economically, unacceptable is to have more shared parental leave.” While you might be able to avoid hiring young women, it gets difficult to avoid hiring men who might father children.

If one is going to have long parental leaves, I have no quibble with offering them to either parent. But what seldom gets discussed in articles on this topic is that long parental leaves are not an unmitigated positive for parents of either gender. The data are pretty clear in the US that when women take even a few years out of the workforce, they suffer quite a penalty upon return. Part of this is because they have trouble finding an equivalent job, which would not be a problem in a parental leave situation (like in the UK), where the job is protected. But part of that penalty is also that your skills and network start to decline the longer you are out of the workforce. If you have two children two years apart, and take a year off with each, that’s two years during a three year period that you could be out. Why wouldn’t this have an effect on your career trajectory? And indeed, while some folks see Sweden, with its long maternity leaves, as a feminist utopia, the proportion of female managers in the private sector is lower there than in the US.

Splitting leaves between parents might be one way to mitigate the damage. Each parent takes 3-4 months, which would not only lead to more equitable parenting, it would reduce the burden on any given business (covering a long leave is often tricky for small employers). But a father taking much of a year off for paternity leave would likely see similar effects to his career as a mother would to hers.

Some folks will find that trade off worthwhile. But in the long run, more flexible thinking about combining work and family might make the whole question of the exact length of leave less relevant for at least some portion of women and men. By working from home, I’ve been able to nurse my three kids for the first year of life. By setting my own hours, I’ve been able to spend lots of time with them while still working close to full-time after the first 6 weeks or so. Not all jobs can be done from home, of course, or at any particular time, but many more can be done that way than are. And as they are, certain notions of what it means to be at work, or at home, start to change — for parents of either gender.

Photo courtesy flickr user fruity monkey

22 thoughts on “Should new fathers get long parental leaves?

  1. I think the main reason women leave the workforce is lack of quality, affordable infant/toddler care. Most children aren’t really ready for large group care until 3 or so, and, as a colleague and I observed, most infant/toddler care isn’t “high quality.”

    Of course, only people with relatively high paying careers can afford quality child care, which is why so many women in both countries leave the workforce when they have children. SOMEONE has to care for the infants/toddlers.

    1. I cringe every time see a mother have to pick up a child under 10 months old from a daycare baby room. Nothing wrong with it; just that in a perfect world none of us would have to do this.

      1. Now that my kids are older (they are 9 and 13 now), I’m finding that in some ways it’s more important that I be available for them than it was when they were babies and toddlers. Back then we had group day care and then au pairs, and they provided loving, consistent care. Now, though, my kids’ needs are more complicated and specific, and they seem to need someone who is significantly older and more experienced than an au pair, and who is really invested in them and their specific needs in particular.

        I didn’t expect this when my kids were younger, and that’s not the dominant societal narrative, which is very focused on babies and toddlers, and on breastfeeding. I thought that once I was through with breastfeeding and my kids were in school I’d be more free to focus on my career, but that hasn’t happened. Looking back now, I don’t think that there’s anything magical at all about “under 10 months” or even 1 year. Kids need their parents at all ages, in different ways, and it doesn’t necessarily get any easier as they get older.

        1. I agree with this too! There are a lot of moms at my office who discuss leaving the workforce when their kids are older (pre-teen) because they feel like it would make more of an impact then.

          Until we can work flexibly (or school hours align better with work hours), I think it’s hard for parents of kids of all ages.

      2. No need to cringe on my behalf (or my child’s)…I don’t think I would take more than the 3 months that I did. I never wanted to be a SAHM, love my job and career and found great childcare at reasonable prices (in two states). I am not at all suited to staying home with young kids and am honest enough to admit that I would not do a great job at providing her with a structured, socialized, learning environment every day.

        Now that she is getting older, she is also benefiting from my continued success in my career…I have climbed the ladder to the point that I have the control and flexibility to be there for school events and to pick her up from the bus every day. Bonus: she will actually remember THESE years that I am able to spend so much time with her.

  2. YES, to all of it. I’d love the option of longer leave to be shared between the parents, OR the option to work-as-one-sees-fit. (ie not necessarily in the office, 8am to 5pm).

    A friend of mine lives in Sweden and is taking 3 or 4 months of her leave, then the rest will be done by her hubby. They’ve got some other provision in there that the husband has to take a certain amount minimum (2 or 3 months?) to avoid fathers foisting off the leave on the moms.

    I also read an article about Denmark, where there are tons of people, both male and female who work part time esp once they have kids. So it’s not unusual for dads to have one day off every week to do kid stuff.

    Not everyone *wants* to be a manager, so I’d love to see more options.

    Also +1 to what Twin Mom says about quality childcare. Infant care at our daycare full time is over $2000/mo. And there’s a HUGE wait list. Add to that the cost of preschool for older kids, and one better have a really well paying job for that to be worth it. (Not to mention great confidence in those child care options…)

  3. I’ve got a post brewing about how we are straitjacketing our thinking about how to make work and parenthood combine well because of the cultural baggage we bring with us- assumptions about what each parent does and how the workplace has to be organized, for instance. And how if we could lose that baggage we might come up with some better ideas. The post is half-written and should go up within the next week, so I won’t try to rehash all of that here!
    I’ll just say that I think having the dad take some significant chunk of time as leave, during which he is solely responsible for the care of the child, would probably go a long way towards improving the gender distribution of child care long term and of the overall “home work” part of work-life balance. I believe there is data from Sweden to support this- Nicoleandmaggie have left the link on my blog in the past, but I don’t have time to go find it right now. Also, as much as I am not a good candidate for a year long leave, I was really glad to have the three months I took, and the part time month I had after that. Caring for babies is challenging and frustrating… and sort of magical. I’m glad that my husband got to experience that first hand, too.

    1. @Cloud- I look forward to that post. But yes, because of the way I work, I don’t see all these choices as quite so stark. I feel like I have had an enormously productive past half decade, but have also been very present for my children’s early years. These don’t have to be either/or things.

          1. With freelance anything I’m not sure I could handle all the hassle of invoicing and keeping track of who hasn’t paid me. It’s bad enough right now trying to keep track of business receipts. I suspect they’ve lost one for $450 for me.

            I suppose if I made enough freelancing I could hire a personal assistant to take care of all that for me. And I know professors at Harvard who have someone taking care of details.

          2. The number of free lance writers who earn enough, after tax, to afford a nanny is quite small. You are exceptional.

            I don’t recommend people try to become medical lab researchers for the same reason I don’t recommend people become free lance writers- there are too many talented people for the positions available. This in no way affects my opinion of the minority who succeed, professionally and financially, in that area.

  4. Where I live the benefits are split up such that mothers get 12 weeks maternity leave(at 70% of salary), fathers get 5 weeks paternity (at 70% of salary) leave and then there are 32 weeks(at 55% of salary) that can be split up between the two. For my youngest son the demands on my time were such that my husband took most of those 32 weeks. It was wonderful, he absolutely loved being at home and it made sure that I wasn’t “out of the game” so to speak for a long period of time. As for the affordable daycare issue: we have subsidized daycare at 7$/day per kid which obviously makes it much easier to stay in the workforce.

  5. I think having the fathers more involved early on is great. As Cloud said, this would really help with the eventual childcare/household split. Because it’s normally mothers who get leave only, it’s natural that the woman ends being the main caretaker while the man “helps”. I think it’s important that both parents are up to the challenge of being home alone with the kids!

    1. OG – you are SO right about this. I think my hubby taking care of our 5 month old daughter when I went back to work (part-time, thankfully), made a HUGE difference both in their relationship today, as well as how he views his role in our household. It also changed the dynamic between US, for the better, as my way was not the ONLY way to do things.

  6. Laura:

    Interesting post, thanks for sharing it. I went to your website as I wanted to comment on your book about what successful people do before breakfast. As I type this, I am listening to it as I want to finish it before the second presidential debate. I am going to share this with my wife. With one kid who has an early jr. high and and even earlier bus/carpool, we are up pretty early to begin with. However, I am trying to get up earlier to write and do some more dedicated exercise. Great book, and I think it is great it is about an hour, it’s easy to get through and will be easier to go back through.

    As to this post, this is an interesting concept. I lived in London for four months and recall how the British approach live and childcare.

    Full disclosure- I am one of those guys who would be reluctant (at best) to volunteer to stay home with a baby/young child. However, I recognize that guys that are in their 20s and 30s are more open to this idea. Some might say these men are more enlightened and more self-assured. (I’d agree) Others would say that believe it or not their are men who value time with their children more than other things and would gladly step off the career track or shift jobs to have that time. In any event, it seems to me that there is both a macro and micro issue with this idea. The macro is the large, change the culture and get the business community support it. The micro level is for couples to have an honest discussion about kids and how childcare will be addressed. If the woman/wife/mother-elect wants to go back to work then she should tell her husband/dad-elect. I would strongly suggest this discussion be had well before marriage and kids come into play. I would also say that the husband/dad-elect better have the honestly to say, “I do not want to be a stay-at-home dad.” If an explanation is needed, give one. If there is a conflict, then the parties need to discuss compromise or if not possible, do not get married. Who knows, maybe in a generation (or two or three) our society will value this concept so much that both parents will get generous maternity/paternity time.

    Thanks for sharing this story and your thoughts.


    1. @Jeno – thanks so much for your comment, and for reading my book! Yes, it’s important to have these discussions early on in a relationship, and I’m guessing many people in the throes of early courtship don’t do so, thinking it will all work out. Maybe. But it’s often good to get things out on the table.

  7. I don’t really agree that the idea that long parental leaves impose a career penalty “doesn’t get discussed.” It may depend on the field. But in science, “gaps in your resume” are a huge deal. And I think that’s true in finance as well. The arguments given are the ones you mention above: an alleged decline in skills and networks, coupled with an unspoken assumption that decline can’t be remediated.

    My quibble on this issue is a bit different. In this down economy, people are taking lengthy leaves involuntarily because they can’t find work, and they suffer the same declines. At the same time, there are skilled jobs that aren’t being filled because hiring managers say they can’t find people with the right skills.

    A lot of this could be solved by companies being more willing to provide training on the job. I don’t understand why market forces haven’t made this happen. I’ve seen it in places where I’ve worked: positions going unfilled for months, people being hired, receiving no training, and then “not working out” and being let go for the whole process to start all over again while the remaining employees cover the position and it becomes the new normal to be chronically understaffed.

    And I’ve heard the same thing at career expos and symposia for engineers and other STEM careers: employers whine about not being able to find qualified employees but are unwilling to provide job training.

    I think if both sides–employees and employers alike–would come to see periodic retraining as an inevitable necessity of the modern economy, that would go a long way towards making this problem moot.

    1. I agree that periodic retraining is necessary, and I agree that employers should be willing to contribute to it. But I also think there is a limit to what we can expect employers to do. I routinely hire people who need to be trained, due to the nature of my field, and I am happy to train them. I am in fact about to hire two new employees. One has been out of the job market for awhile and will need training to get her skills current. The other is expanding into a new subfield, and will need intensive training in that area for several months. So we definitely hire and train. But the people we hire to train have to have the foundation upon which to train, otherwise it takes too long before there is a pay back of the time and effort I put into training. To take an example from a related field that is less obscure than mine: people are often willing to train programmers (or allow them to self-train) on new languages, but not so willing to train on the underlying knowledge about how to program. I.e., we’ll train a C++ programmer in Java, but do not have the time to spend training someone who doesn’t understand the basic tenets of object-oriented programming. So I think there is a role for some government programs here, too (as well as independent study). Especially in industries like mine (biotech), where timelines and budgets are usually very tight and a few months’ delay can literally mean that a company runs out of cash before it can realize its plans, it is completely unrealistic to expect employers to routinely invest months and months into people before we get useful work out of them. That would just drive us out of business… and do no one any good.

      1. Cloud, I absolutely agree. I am not talking about “months and months” of expensive training before you can get any useful work out of someone, what I’m talking about is mostly good mentoring and supervising, with well-defined expectations and clear follow-up.

        I was in biotech too and it was actually a biotech situation I was thinking of in which there was a lot of delay around hiring, followed by not enough training, followed by people then not working out and having to be let go and the process starting over again. If an employer doesn’t have enough cash or time for training, it doesn’t have enough cash or time to live through situations like that either.

        I was frankly a little surprised to see that happening, and then later I went to this symposium about STEM careers and heard that it was also a problem in engineering, both from formal speakers and from informal networking. People were talking about there being long lists of qualifications in job descriptions and people not being hired for lacking one skill out of a long list (like your example of knowing C++ but needing to be trained in Java).

        It sounds like you have a good balance.

        1. And I think in the context parental leaves, even ones of the length being discussed here, you aren’t creating a situation where someone has no foundation on which to build. You are more in the situation of having to learn a new language or platform as opposed to basic principles of the field.

  8. plus 2 or 3 make me to twin mom and your comment… when you are talking about asking a woman to spend more than the median salary of a worker in the us to have childcare that allows her to work..this may be the defining woman’s issue of our time and one of the more fundamental economic issues also… it shouldn’t have to be that way… to reframe in a positive way, since we can’t all be Laura ; ) what can we all learn about the best of our experiences as moms and working women — working from home is good. having less commute time is good. being able to work a bit on weekends to catch up is good. having a supportive spouse or trying to make child care more affordable closer to people’s work or home etc. there are solutions and incentives that can be worked on and we should try to push the conversation so we aren’t just talking about abortion and birth control and abortion but also the real things that american women and men and fathers struggle with every day ..

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