The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why all new parents need leave: He took unpaid leave to be with his newborn and his colleagues taunted him

Jef and Amelia. (Courtesy of the author)
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When our daughter was born two years ago, I took a three-month unpaid leave to help take care of our baby while my wife finished graduate school. A three-month leave is considered lengthy by American standards, and unheard of in the male-dominated blue-collar rock quarry industry where I’ve worked since age 18.

Although allowed by law, the leave was so lengthy that my boss and co-workers were taken aback. “No one takes that long. What could you possibly be doing?” my boss said, eyebrow raised. “I’m sure she can handle it,” said a co-worker. They imagined that while I was away, I would be glued to the couch, beer in hand. In no way would I actually be helping my wife.

I wish I could say my mistreatment at work was an anomaly, but many studies find that the stigmatization of devoted fathers who work is relatively normal. A 2013 Canadian study found that caregiving fathers reported the highest rates of general mistreatment at work among men, experiencing exclusion, isolation and humiliation for defying traditional gender paradigms. Other studies suggest that both genders consider men who take leave or have caregiving responsibilities to be poor workers. And a study from the University of California showed that even if men value work flexibility, they are hesitant to use it out of fear of being penalized and censured.

Because a large swath of the American workforce is unkind to men who seek work flexibility for family life, many men confine their roles as fathers to after-work hours. Case in point: paternity leave. Despite the stunning upheaval that occurs after the birth of a baby, 76 percent of fathers are back at work within a week, according to a survey by the Boston College Center for Work and Family. The same research found that 96 percent of men are back at work after two weeks, while 13 percent do not take a single day off.

This isn’t entirely men’s fault. Most companies fail to offer paid paternity leave at all, which is a problem. However, what’s more telling is that 9 percent of fathers who received paid paternity leave returned to work before the full two weeks were up.

Men are also less likely to take time off when a child is sick — that role falling to the mother. And they are reluctant to request flexible work arrangements to reduce work-life conflicts because of a femininity stigma: They fear they will appear incompetent and weak.

Though many men are reluctant to take it, paternity leave has many enduring benefits such as an improved relationship between mother and father, a stronger father-child bond and increased breast-feeding success for the mother. Furthermore, men who take leave often do more child care not just during their time off but throughout the child’s lifetime. And strong father-child engagement is linked to high cognitive development in the child, and fewer behavioral problems.

Being home during the first few months of my daughter’s life was essential to our family’s well-being. My wife struggled terribly with breast-feeding — battling poor latch and low milk supply — while I cleaned the house, baked lactation cookies and brewed mother’s milk tea. I sterilized bottles and prepared snacks — apple slices and peanut butter crackers — placing them at her bedside for when she pumped. I prepared all the meals and rocked, bathed and soothed the baby while my wife focused on breast-feeding and battled mastitis.

If I had returned to work after two weeks, as most men do, we probably would have turned to formula. And my wife’s postpartum depression and anxiety would have been left to bloom. By the time I returned to work, she had breast-feeding on lockdown, had finished her master’s thesis and was better equipped to handle her anxiety. Furthermore, my strong bond with our daughter ensured that I could lead the nightly bedtime ritual when I got home from work, which was a huge relief to my wife and a wonderful joy for both me and my daughter.

I wouldn’t take my experience with my wife and daughter back for the world, but when I returned to work, my co-workers, all men, teased and derided me, accusing me of shirking work for a relaxing vacation. Even my mother-in-law complained to my wife about all the time I took off, as though being at home taking care of my wife and daughter wasn’t work.

The mistreatment I received at work inspired me to find a new and better job, but one that’s still embedded in our male-as-bread-winner culture. We have a new baby due in May, and because I plan to keep this job for a lifetime, it’s unlikely I will take any substantial time off. This saddens me, because I would desperately love to bond with and take care of our new baby, but our culture doesn’t allow for that. In truth, work isn’t the only way a man can take care of his family, and paid paternity leave is essential to normalizing men’s roles as caregivers.

Right now only four states offer paid paternity leave — California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Washington. California’s law is the oldest, enacted in 2004. Before then, fathers on average took only one week off after a new baby. Now most take two. This is a sizable improvement. Furthermore, after California’s Paid Family Leave program offered six weeks of paid leave, there was a 146 percent increase in fathers asking for time off to bond with their newborns from 2005 to 2013. This is significant, and I wish it were the norm.

Only slightly more than half of Americans are eligible to take time off via the Family and Medical Leave Act, and of those only some can afford unpaid time. It’s time we offered a federally sanctioned paid paternity leave that allows fathers time to bond with their babies. We need to normalize men as caregivers so that more feel comfortable being one. If more fathers took leave, then doing so wouldn’t be considered strange, and devoted fathers wouldn’t be degraded for placing their families first. After all, society benefits when families are at their most functional.

Staying home with our baby was so important to me that I worked three jobs during my wife’s pregnancy to ensure we’d have the money when the baby came. What I didn’t realize was that I would also have to throw my reputation at my main job to the coals when I committed to the three-month leave. My reputation needn’t have been sullied for wanting to cultivate a lasting bond with our new baby. Our culture should affirm this level of devotion rather than disparage it, and to do that, we need to make taking leave an accessible choice for all parents — mothers and fathers, working poor and middle class.

Jef Beckley is the father of a beautiful daughter, husband to a wonderful wife, and a superintendent at a rock quarry in southeast Kansas.

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