Opinion

‘A Moral Imperative, an Economic Necessity’: Parents Speak Out About Paid Leave

When it came time to prepare for the birth of his second child, Jason Whitney, 34, was not willing to negotiate with his employer over time with his family. “I realized I needed to find a company with a family-first culture, which led me to finding a new job,” he wrote to us. With 12 weeks of paid time off, he could be there to help his wife through postpartum difficulties and have time to bond with their new baby, “without having to get permission, make compromises or take vacation time,” he wrote. “It’s impossible to put into words how much it meant to me as a dad.”

Jessica Grose, who writes our parenting newsletter, recently asked men to start shouting about the need for paid family leave. With the just-passed House version of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan, which includes four weeks of paid family leave, about to be debated by the Senate, we thought the time was right to reach out to fathers and other non-birthing parents to ask about their experiences.

Hundreds of readers, including Whitney, shared how having paid time off — or not — affected their ability to be a caregiver, to help a partner recover from childbirth, to bond with an adopted child, to maintain financial stability or to establish a feeling of equity in the household, among other things. In some cases, even when leave was available, taking time off was frowned upon by employers. Grose shares some of these stories in her newsletter today and writes about the stigma surrounding paternal leave in particular.

You can read more stories about parental leave below. They have been edited for clarity and length.


‘People don’t know what they’re missing’

For my family to have child care covered for the first seven months of my son’s life, between my wife’s leave and mine, has been an incredible experience. Being in the thick of watching him grow has been so rewarding, but so has learning how to keep a home afloat with a newborn. I took him to various classes and events around the city, and 95 percent of the time it was “me and the moms” or “me and the nannies,” as I would tell my wife. I would have loved to meet other fathers.

I work in marketing for a pharmaceutical company, and my employer’s 12-week paid leave policy is relatively new. I tacked on two weeks of caregiver leave and added a few days of vacation for a total of about 15.5 weeks. Initially, I faced questions as to whether I could truly be out that long, but once the policy was clarified, people were very supportive. Most of my co-workers have older children, and they were actually envious of the time I received. Their advice was simply to enjoy it. People don’t know what they’re missing when they don’t have this time. — Michael Harris, 36, New York, N.Y.

My employer, a tech company, offered eight weeks of paid parental leave to me, a benefit I was thankful to have when so many get little or no leave. I took it all. The time was exciting, stressful, exhausting, exhilarating, and my wife and I got to experience every minute of it together. I wouldn’t change that experience for the world.

The thing that stood out to me the most was that I had time to really get to know my daughter in a way that usually only moms get to experience. I learned which blanket she liked best when she was in her swing; the secret way to hold her to get her to burp faster; which animal noises always made her smile. Once I went back to work, it was easier for me to keep up with my daughter’s developments because we’d developed that deep bond from the start.

I don’t see this as an economic issue — it’s a human rights issue. — Arjun Sharma, 32, Smyrna, Ga.

‘It would have been the same as asking for time off to play golf’

I hadn’t really thought of family leave until I had a child of my own. I really didn’t understand the need for it. When my wife and I adopted our child in 2006, I worked for a small marketing firm with no official paternal leave. I was a member of the senior leadership team, so I could have negotiated some sort of unpaid leave, but we really couldn’t afford it, having both been in graduate school in the years immediately before the adoption. We had no real savings.

The compromise was that I was allowed to work from home one day a week for a year so that I could be near my new daughter more often. My wife was able to work part time and extend her internship, which she needed to complete her doctorate in psychology. I can’t imagine needing time off for my body to heal. — Charles L. Greene II, 52, South Hadley, Mass.

I did not ask for leave. Our daughters were born in 1978 and 1980, and it simply was not done. It would have been the same as asking for time off to play golf every day for three months.

I was somewhat relieved that I wouldn’t have to be at home all day, every day, helping take care of this little creature. That was my wife’s job, and I thought it would be like the show “Leave It to Beaver,” where I went off to work and came home to dinner and my new family. In fact, I was coming home to a woman completely burned out and half-terrified that she was doing everything wrong. This led to anger and disharmony between us; I couldn’t (wouldn’t?) understand what the problem was. Dinner often ended up being eaten by myself, as the baby was already in bed and my wife was locked in the bedroom crying.

Our daughters now have children, the youngest of which is about to turn 1. They and their husbands have the incredible good fortune of working for employers who provide extensive parental leave as a benefit and have enjoyed extended paid time off. They have something my wife and I did not have when they were born and, to be honest, something the larger corporate culture told me I did not deserve. — Jim Castrone, 70, Placitas, N.M.

‘Habits of care that were equally divided from the start’

I took a total of 12 weeks of paid parental leave for both of my children, the same amount that my partner took. As a father who places a high value on being able to nurture my children emotionally, I consider those periods to be necessary time to develop those skills.

It’s also important to us that the domestic work of parenting be shared, and I needed my early parental leave to form habits of care that were equally divided from the start. I don’t think it would have been possible for us to share the work of feeding, changing, consoling, bathing and clothing them if she had taken months of leave and I had taken just weeks. — Jacob Snow, 42, San Francisco

I am the non-birthing parent to a 1-year-old (my spouse carried). My company’s policy offers 12 weeks of paid leave for primary caregivers and two weeks of leave for secondary caregivers, but it doesn’t define those terms. I explained that my partner was the one giving birth but I still requested the 12 weeks. “There is no primary caregiver in my house,” I told them. They granted it.

Since then, I’ve convinced a few of my male colleagues to do the same. This kind of leave is vital for all parents. The time off for recovery from birth should be a no-brainer, but how are you supposed to recover while keeping a brand-new human alive without any help? — Erin Learoyd, 40, Massachusetts

I wasn’t granted any parental leave (I work at a small nonprofit, so those types of benefits weren’t an option) but I made a concentrated effort to store paid time off during the pregnancy and was allowed to use two weeks when the baby arrived. I can’t imagine having gone back to work any earlier. Breastfeeding was an extremely stressful and frustrating process. Without my continuous emotional support, my wife said it was unlikely she would have continued with it. Our baby also struggled with acid reflux. If she was awake, she was crying, and she was always awake. It was absolutely critical that we had each other to pass her off to when our nerves broke.

People don’t like to talk about just how frustrated and full of rage you can get at your own baby, but it is enormous and it’s frightening, and everyone needs someone to share that burden with. It’s an imperative that would lead to dramatic improvements in our culture and our way of life. — Sean Gilligan, 29, Anoka, Minn.

‘An investment in the business sector’

I am the sole provider for our family and was able to take one week of vacation for the birth of both my sons. My wife endured an emergency C-section to bring our first son into the world in 2015. Although young and healthy, her delivery and recovery was traumatic, including a trip to the emergency room several days later when her incision popped open. She had a raging infection. Caring for the wound was so complicated that they implored us to hire a nurse to come pack it four times a day for a month so she could recover. Although we are a middle-class family, we couldn’t afford a nurse and I took on the responsibility of caring for my wife, who could not physically walk to the bathroom solo for several weeks. We were barely home from the hospital when the office started calling. We were both completely frazzled, burned out and depressed with juggling the stress of work on top of this huge change.

We’ve since had another son and are currently expecting a third baby. All of these births have required me to bully my way into having a week off to tend to my wife and hold my sons. Both parents need family leave. I am convinced that we would return to work happier, healthier and more productive. — Adam Denton, 36, Louisville, Ky.

My wife and I were both allowed to use five days of sick leave when we adopted our child in 2011. Any other paid leave had to be vacation. We saved vacation days and money scrupulously for years — we were always thrifty — but this was a big lift on top of adoption-related expenses. Still, my wife was only able to stay home for a month and I was home for four months, most of that unpaid.

I would have loved to have had at least 12 weeks paid off so we didn’t have to spend so much of that time worried about money and staying covered by insurance. We spent every last cent we had in those months. I am still mad about it. It has always felt like adoptive parents are given the short end of the stick because no one in our family gave birth, but early bonding time is critical. — Paul Hillstrom, 40, Minneapolis

My wife and I are partners in a small business. Her last entry in her Day Runner the morning of the day she gave birth was Friday’s payroll, so I would only have to write and sign the checks. Ten days later was her next entry, after a C-section and a little less than a week in the hospital (that was fairly standard back in 1984). Because paid leave wasn’t on anybody’s radar then, it made an incredibly challenging phase in our lives that much more difficult. And it had a direct impact on our decision not to have a second child.

Years later I was asked to testify before a committee of New Jersey’s legislature in support of paid family leave; I did so enthusiastically. Paid leave is a moral imperative, an economic necessity and an investment in the business sector. Under Build Back Better the extra income for small-business owners would have allowed us to hire temporary help.Four weeks leave won’t last long — it will be replaced by 12 weeks leave when enough American families and businesses experience the benefits first hand. — James K. Conklin, 69, Glen Ridge, N.J.

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