American society often romanticizes fatherhood. See: the embrace of the "dad joke," the quirky rise of "dad jeans" and "dad caps," the mystical allure of a "dad bod." Absent fathers and "deadbeat dads" are portrayed as everyday supervillains, whereas present dads are praised for doling out life's tough lessons with humor and grace.
And in June millions of people take time to celebrate their paternal figures. Outside of Father's Day, however, the U.S. offers little in the way of support for fathers, especially regarding parental leave.
The Family and Medical Leave Act does provide dads — or, more broadly, non-birthing caregivers — the option to take unpaid, job-protected leave for a child's birth. The FMLA also provides job-protected leave for other caregiving responsibilities, like the adoption or foster care process or caring for a sick child. No matter what it is used for, FMLA leave remains unpaid and stretches to 12 weeks in a 12-month period.
When it comes to private sector support, 1 in 10 U.S. workers have access to paid family leave through their employer, according to a 2017 Pew Research study.
On top of these disparities, a cultural malaise exists around non-maternal parental leave. One in 7 Americans on average feel that fathers shouldn't be allowed to take any paternity leave, data from Pew Research Center suggest. And when dads do decide to take time off, 70% of them take 10 days or fewer, as highlighted in the U.S. Department of Labor's paternity leave policy report.
Gendered caregiving roles discourage dads
So what gives? The United Nations' International Labour Organization wrote in its Maternity and Paternity At Work report that there is often a "neglected urge to recognize men's right to parenthood." University of Illinois Assistant Professor Karen Kramer, who researches caregiving in the School of Labor and Employment Relations, told HR Dive that gender norms continue to hold dads back.
Slowly, gendered caregiving expectations are slowly phasing out, she said. But the work continues to be distributed unevenly. "Some fathers and mothers enjoy greater egalitarianism, but most, after some progress in the 1970s to 1990s, are stalled. Fathers are supposed to work full-time their entire life, and only be 'back-ups' for children's care and needs," Kramer told HR Dive.
Lauren Brody, journalist, speaker, and head of The Fifth Trimester movement, made a similar observation, saying that traditional gender roles are at play in the U.S.'s view of pregnancy, birth, and parenting.
"In heteronormative relationships, mom is learning everything firsthand. She's doing basically baby boot camp. And dad — or partner — may want to be super involved. But if they're not physically there, they're not able to learn it all as efficiently, as quickly, as confidently," Brody told HR Dive.
The Fifth Trimester movement, based on Brody's book of the same name, posits that the "fourth trimester" of a pregnancy is the postpartum period. The "fifth trimester" is the learning curve of becoming a parent. In coaching new parents, Brody found that this one-sided "baby boot camp" creates a lack of faith in fathers or non-birthing parents, and their ability to care for the baby.
When the mother or birthing parent goes back to their job, that education gap lingers. "At the end of the [work] day, two parents arrive home and only one parent knows how to do what's referred to as the second shift which is [in this case] baby things." Notably, even when fathers can shoulder some of the baby responsibilities, they're apprehensive about doing so.
Kramer, who studies the social effects of parental leave globally, said that the wariness of expecting fathers experience is two-fold. Simply put, the social repercussions would be that fathers-to-be are viewed as "not masculine enough."
"Career-wise, fathers fear that if they take more than a few days of paternity leave, they will send a signal to their employer or supervisor that they prioritize family over work," Kramer said, adding that it would be perceived as a violation of gendered roles. "Their career might suffer in different ways: slower wage growth, less promotion, less challenging assignments, and less training and development opportunities," Kramer said.
Twelve unpaid weeks leaves parents behind
Mike Reynolds, a communications professional and parenting advocate @everydaygirldad on social media, said that opening up a company-specific dialogue on parental leave is key to easing some discomfort. Their advice for HR managers? Be candid about employees, who weren't birthing mothers, who have taken time off.
Something Reynolds did after returning from their leave was write about their experiences in their company's employee newsletter. "I'm not saying that sharing their story is what everyone should do," Reynolds told HR Dive. But it can be beneficial, they said. "It continues to be something that I think should be more kind of normalized." For example, an accessible piece of text HR professionals can share is Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian's New York Times op-ed on the importance of paternity leave.
For the record, Reynolds is Canadian. They collectively took a few months for the birth of each of their children. In Canada, not only do birthing parents get the opportunity to take (unpaid) "pregnancy leave" for up to 17 weeks and "parental leave" for 61 weeks. Both parents can get paid leave through Canada's employment insurance plan. They can split up to 35 weeks of this paid leave between them, receiving 55% of the parent's insurable wage or up to $562 a week.
Reynolds firmly believes that 12 weeks wouldn't have given them enough time to support their partner post-partum and truly explore what it meant to be a new parent.
"Twelve weeks in, we were still adjusting. We were still going through breastfeeding, going out for midwife appointments," Reynolds said. "We certainly weren't in the phase of sitting down just for tummy time, or feeding, or reading books to the kids, or practicing steps. It was still so much that really practical, how-do-you-make-them-be-alive phase. It was a lot of the learn-how-to-parent status in the first 12 weeks."
Other countries that are on par with Canada include Iceland, which offers three months of paid paternity leave, and Finland, which offers 54 days of paternity leave. Still, despite some countries setting a global precedent for paid paternity leave, the U.S. has a ways to go until it reaches what many would call their ideal caregiver leave situation. Only eight states — California, Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Washington — and Washington, D.C. offer their residents paid family leave through local government
An expert's advice: Consider all parents the primary caregiver
Through her work, Brody has developed pro-tips for new parents who only have access to FMLA leave. Both parents take leave for the first few weeks, while the birthing parent recovers and gains some physical ability back. When the birthing parent returns to their job, the non-birthing parent takes their leave and spends some quality time with their kid. Something Brody urged HR managers to do is to recognize all employees who are expecting as primary caregivers.
"It doesn't work to think of it like 'primary caregiver' leave versus 'secondary caregiver' leave. We're all primary caregivers. It's not about who produces milk," she said. "We're all primarily responsible for taking care of the next generation.
For HR pros looking to fill in the gaps, Kramer also offers a few solutions. First, check the data on your employees. "Are women taking longer leave than men? If so, think about how you can change that. For example, top-management should role-model leave taking," Kramer told HR Dive. Additionally, she said to ask, "Are those who took leave or longer leaves seeing their career stall? Are their wages not growing as much?"
She also recommends following the global example by forcing employees to take at least a week of leave. "I know this sounds extreme in the U.S. context, but many countries around the world force mothers to take leave. For example, Korea forces mothers to take 90 days of leave after giving birth," Kramer said. "This should be framed as a time to adjust to living with a new child and to bond with them. In the long term, bonding will make employees more satisfied and hopefully, better."