Dads barely take any time off after the birth of a child, according to a study of working fathers by the Center for Work and Family at Boston College. Three quarters of men who don’t receive paternity leave take off work for a week or less after the birth of a child, and 16% are unable to take any days off.
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Only 13% of employers offer paid paternity leave, according to benefits consulting firm Aon Hewitt. In April, Yahoo made a splash with their announcement that men will be offered a full eight weeks of paid parental leave, half of what the company offers new moms and a generous policy by U.S. standards.
But even when offered paternity leave, studies show most men won't take it. A 2012 study of tenured track college professors found that only 12% of fathers took paid parental leave when it was offered compared with 69% of mothers. When new dads in the study did take paternity leave, many were still involved in projects at the office.
Academia is different than other fields, but the question remains: Why are men still less likely to take all the time offered to them by their employers after the birth of a child?
We asked five dads who have taken leave for a new child to explain their decisions and share their anxiety about the time off.
Unspoken Pressure on the Job
The stigma of being the guy in the office who takes the maximum amount of leave haunts many dads. It's not the fear of losing a job exactly, but the unspoken disapproval—and questions about dedication—that can come with a long leave.
“I could have taken the whole week off after my son, Lyle, was born, but they said they really needed me, and they did, because it was the end of the fiscal year," says Joseph, a corporate accountant in Kansas City. "I could tell they weren’t going to look kindly on my taking the whole week, so I didn’t."
"But the truth is, they could have hired a temp without taking too much of a loss, and I would have been happy to put in some extra time when I got back," he says.
Instead, he only took two days because he felt guilty and was afraid his firm would put him "on the top of the list for layoffs," he admits. "But that was probably me overthinking it. I should have taken the leave, and if we have another baby, I am not going to pass it up this time. It was foolish.”
Roger, an information technology manager at a software firm in Fairfield, N.J., also regrets his decision to cut his family leave short.
“I could have taken three paid days, but the baby came on a Thursday. I am so conditioned to please my bosses that after the weekend I just showed up back at work. In my mind I’d had three days at home," he says.
"And then I realized, that was irrelevant, I could have taken two more days. I don’t even know why I didn’t take them at that point," Roger says. "Fear of looking like I was not committed to the job, I guess. Even though I do think they know that I am."
"I hate the idea of losing the equivalent of one whole paycheck, but I also know that my services will be needed at home."
Karen, Roger's wife and a professor at Montclair State University, understands his angst, but would have appreciated having him home for more than a long weekend.
"I think on some level all men are going to be anxious about how taking leave will be perceived by their bosses. Then baby shows up and dad becomes sensitive to the traditional role of provider and protector," she says. "Ironically, we could have used Roger home more after the first few days, or maybe even after the baby was a week old. There's just more to do at that point. But he went back to work. He felt having a job to go back to was more important than having a few more days off. How can I argue with that?"
Cobbling Together a Leave
Many men who don’t get any formal paid paternity leave sometimes rely on borrowed time.
“We don't have paternity leave or sick days or personal time at my workplace. We do get two weeks of vacation each year, which is effective on our hire anniversary date. What isn't used, or cashed in, by the end of a year's time is voided. It doesn't accrue," says David Coyle, a security guard in Chillicothe, Ohio.
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"Last year we were expecting a baby in June, but knew there was a likelihood that he would come early. My supervisor told me to fill out everything but the dates on my vacation request, and he would write in the dates when it was time," Coyle says. "Sure enough, three weeks before our due date, my wife was admitted to the hospital with low amniotic fluids."
"The next morning the doctor came in and said he wanted to deliver. I called my supervisor immediately and said, 'Hate to tell you this, but my vacation starts Monday.' I then took the next two weeks off as paid time with my son. And when I got my next paycheck, everything was in order," he says.
Coyle worries about what will happen when the second child comes.
"This year might be different. We are expecting a second child, and the estimated due date is October 25. My hire anniversary date is October 18. I already plan to use my vacation time again, but if he comes early, even by a week or so, I may be, as we say around here, 'sh*t out of luck' as far as pay is concerned," he says. "I hate the idea of losing the equivalent of one whole paycheck, but I also know that my services will be needed at home. Of course that also means I won't be able to take any time off just for the heck of it for a whole year.”
Will They Regret Going Back So Soon?
Sure, taking leave comes with a lot of anxiety, but the dads we spoke with who took all of the time available to spend with their newborn children were glad they did.
“I took the entire seven-day leave that our firm offers, and I’ve encouraged two men in my department to do the same, even though it was a bit of a stress on the team," says Ed, a marketing vice president at a clothing retailer in Harrisburg, Penn.
“When I took my leave my bosses did not complain outright, but I definitely sensed an air of disappointment," he says. "One asked me outright if I still intended to use my already scheduled vacation days during the summer. I don’t think he was happy with the ‘yes’ response he received, but I also know that my work is far above standard and I would fight any discrimination I got over taking the parental leave tooth and nail."
Aaron, who works at a Fortune 500 financial firm in San Francisco, used all of his available time without any hesitation.
“I took the maximum paternity leave allowed by California law. And to this day, I have no regrets. The time I was able to spend with my daughter was worth its weight in gold! It's time that you don't get back," he says.
Ed believes that when supervisors take paternity leave, their employees are more likely to follow suit, and he tries to set an example at his company.
"People are afraid to rock the boat and it’s understandable, but that’s exactly why I give my people the encouragement to use the benefits they're entitled to," he says. "Knowing that I used it myself made them less fearful that I would hold it against them as some sort of demerit.”
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