During the last two weeks, I’ve replied to exactly three emails, I’ve sent four Slack messages, and I’ve called into zero meetings. I’m not on vacation.
Two weeks ago, I became a father and started paternity leave. Our son showed up four weeks ahead of schedule but otherwise healthy and adorable. At home, I’ve become Chief Bottle Washer, I change upwards of twelve diapers a day, and I sleep in two-hour bursts between feedings.
I’m fortunate that my employer provides 16 weeks of parental leave to all parents. I’ll stretch those 16 weeks out over the next 6 months so that I can care full-time for my new baby and support my wife’s recovery and eventual return to work. Paid parental leave means that I can bond with my child with fewer distractions, which I expect will help get our relationship off to a good start. Taking this time allows me to help raise a better human, which we desperately need more of in the world.
When offered in significant and equal amounts to both parents, paid parental leave also reduces the lopsidedness of childcare, an area where expectations have traditionally fallen on mothers. Unequal expectations for childcare start at the very beginning – feeding, diapering, laundry, scheduling doctor’s visit, midday nose boops and afternoon snuggles – and they before long, the roles are set.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., paid parental leave is still spotty for mothers, and it’s a luxury for fathers. In 2019, approximately 34 percent of U.S. companies offered paid maternal leave and 30 percent offered paid paternal leave to their employees, according to the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM)1. Or, put another way, about two-thirds of U.S. companies don’t offer paid parental leave of any type to their employees.
If I had a job where I was expected to return to work full-time in a few weeks or less, it would be more difficult for me to take my son to the doctor, or support my spouse during her recovery, or even get to know and bond with my son. Still the responsibilities of early parenting fall harder on mothers and contribute to pressure for mothers to pause or halt their careers to raise children. It shouldn’t have to be this way.
It’s common in many European countries for parents to take 16 weeks, 20 weeks, or even more time away from their jobs temporarily to raise families, while knowing they’ll have a steady paycheck and a job to return to when it’s time to come back.
Without a state or federal paid parental leave policy, the only real pressure on businesses to offer paid parental leave is competition from other companies. Here in Nashville, Tennessee, many local businesses have started offering better benefits to their employees because of an influx of tech companies from the West Coast, many of which offer 12-16 weeks of paid parental leave.
This pressure only really exists for a subset of businesses, though. Amazon coming into town with decent job benefits for their white collar workers doesn’t affect the benefits for folks working in factories or fast food restaurants.
Paid parental leave shouldn’t be a benefit that only a fraction of workers in the U.S. can claim. It should be a basic expectation that any parent in the U.S. has access to as part of starting and growing and supporting their families.
1 SHRM: 2019 report, click on Leave and Flexible Working. https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/trends-and-forecasting/research-and-surveys/pages/benefits19.aspx
TN.gov: Tennessee Offers State Employees Paid Family Leave – While this is a good start, it only applies to state employees, and isn’t a mandate for employers in the state to offer anything.