Editor’s note: This article originally ran as an op-ed in The News Journal. Read the original here.
I know I really should take some, maybe all, of the 12 weeks of paternity leave the law allows when my child is born sometime in the next few days. It would help my family adjust to a second child, and I could better show my toddler daughter the new responsibilities and joys that come with being a big sister. And crucially, it would cut down on the number of pungent diapers my wife would be obliged to change.
But instead I’ll probably take only a week or so off before getting back to work, while my wife makes full use of the 12 weeks off from her job. That’s what happened with our first child. Why, I’ve wondered, don’t both of us claim the most leave possible?
The biggest obstacle is the knowledge that any leave from my job (I’m a reporter here at The News Journal), beyond what I’ve saved up in vacation and sick time, would be unpaid. While the Family and Medical Leave Act permits me to not work for 12 weeks after my child’s birth and still keep a claim on my current position, it doesn’t require my employer to treat that time as paid leave. Instead, it’s unpaid leave.
Employers are welcome to offer paid family leave, of course, but few in the U.S. do. It’s not a benefit anyone expects to see in the HR packet when they land a job. Only three states (California, Rhode Island and New Jersey) have laws providing workers with paid leave, and they do so by counting the arrival of a child as a “temporary disability,” a qualifying event for disability insurance. It doesn’t feel right to treat a joyous birth and a broken leg the same way, work-wise, but that’s the way the table is laid right now.
Forfeiting about a fifth of my annual income, of course, would weigh heavily on the financial planning my wife and I will do for our impending four-member family. We both work full time, so our day care costs will soon go from about 9 percent of our take-home earnings to 18 percent, once baby No. 2 is in the home day care we use for our 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter now. If I invoked my full 12 weeks off, about 10 of those weeks would be unpaid. And my wife will, in fact, forfeit her salary for her 12 weeks of maternity leave.
We are lucky because my wife works in a public school, and schools seem to be better equipped to handle employees who invoke FMLA than most other workplaces. For one thing, her supervisors already have a system that can provide a qualified temporary replacement for my wife when she’s away from her classroom for 12 weeks: the substitute teacher network. But there is no back bench of sub reporters ready to step in for me and then bow out when I return, so I know my taking leave for so long would inevitably be a hassle for my bosses.
That gets at a real factor that discourages many fathers from taking paternal leave: They know it’s rare, that their employers don’t really expect it to come up, and they don’t always want to be the groundbreaking dad who invokes it. While some dads at The News Journal might well have taken the full leave the law allows them, I don’t know any of them personally.
New research in the American Economic Review suggests fathers in the workplace who see colleagues take paternity time are measurably more willing to take it themselves, when the time comes. When they see a boss take the time, the effect is even greater, the study found. That certainly rings true to me.
Finally, I think there’s a sort of stigma to taking unpaid leave for any reason that deters many men from claiming it. If paternity leave were paid, whether by employers as a benefit or through a social insurance program enacted into law, fathers and mothers could squint to see it as a paid vacation, albeit with more night feedings and vomit-mopping than your typical week at the beach. Taking unpaid leave, though, feels like a move of desperation, something you resort to so your life doesn’t fall apart at the seams.
As I said, we’re in a good place: My wife’s school doesn’t bat an eye when she takes maternity leave, and we have reliable, affordable day care lined up for when that’s done. But in a perfect world, I’d like to tag in when she goes back to work.