Paternity Leave

I’m typing this one-handed while I hold my son, so excuse any typos.

As a teacher, I’m lucky enough to enjoy six weeks off over the summer. (Believe me, I worked for over ten years in the corporate world, and I can honestly say I never worked harder–or needed the break more–than when I started teaching.) Wolfe was born just a few weeks before school let out for the year, so I’ve had a great opportunity to spend quality time with him and my wife.

Speaking of my wife, she happens to teach at the same school as I do. We’re lucky in that our employer offers paid maternity leave, and so she was able to be off from mid-April until the beginning of next year and still get paid.

This is not a legal requirement. Legally, employees are only entitled to 12 weeks of FMLA leave for a birth. It doesn’t have to be paid leave. It’s just a guarantee that your job will still be there when you get back. For my family, because my wife and I both work at the same place, we have to share the leave (if we choose to take it).

I took a total of five days off for my son’s birth. I was only planning on taking off three, but my wife had a C-section, so I thought it might be helpful for me to be home with her the first few days when she wasn’t supposed to lift anything heavier than air. Two of those days were unpaid, but my supervisor was very understanding and did not give me a hard time at all when I asked to take off extra time (I burned a couple of personal days on prenatal testing we later found out was pretty much useless).

Marva Soogrim suggests dad might consider taking up to two weeks off. She offers advice like “your wife will love if you can squeeze in cooking a meal from time to time.” Come on, Marva, what am I? A woman? In all seriousness, I did all the things Soogrim lists (and probably more–it’s a bit of a haze), while working. But it wasn’t easy.

And this is where I start to get cranky. Not necessarily for myself (although of course I’m the most important person in the universe), but for those people who don’t have the luxury my wife and I did in caring for a newborn. If a single mother uses FMLA, that’s fine–but how does she pay for her food, mortgage, electric bill, diapers, and everything else while she’s not working for 12 weeks? Out of 178 nations, three don’t require paid maternity leave (besides the United States, the other two are Papa New Guinea and Swaziland).

In terms of sex, it’s even rarer for males to have leave. Although some employers in the US do offer paid maternity leave, very few offer paid paternity leave. And if forward-looking organizations do offer it, men are criticized for using it. Of course the impact is worse for mothers–see this story, this story, this story, or Google it for yourself and read about a bazillion stories.

I don’t necessarily support more government regulations imposing paid leave requirements on businesses. I think a company with good management that respects its employees will come to the conclusion on its own that it should respect employees enough to offer paid parental leave (at least maternal, and preferably both). However, it does strike me as odd that folks in government and the business world who claim to be concerned about “family values” don’t raise this issue more. What could be more valuable to a family than creating a strong, supportive environment with both parents when a new child is born?

The article “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle” describes the environment in the United States as “an American workplace perfectly designed for the workforce of 1960.” Even in well-meaning articles, like Soogrim’s above, we operate under the assumption that Mom  is able to stay home and take care of the kids while Dad bravely goes to work and brings home the bacon. The world doesn’t work that way any more, and businesses that want to succeed today should adapt to the times.

It’s too late for me, unless we decide to have another little bundle of joy at some time in the future. But I still think fathers are parents too, and they should get some time to adjust to their new family and role as well. If that’s not possible, at least do what my employer does and give mothers some paid time so they don’t have to worry so much during those first few weeks.

New parents have enough to worry about–like trying to remember what they did with junior’s umbilical stump and when they last showered. They shouldn’t have to worry about their job/financial situation at the same time.

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