In the Mindful Return course for new moms, we spend a week talking about how parental leave – both maternity and paternity leave – can serve as a leadership opportunity for those who have the experience of going through it. There are so many “rooms where it happens” that could benefit from hearing the voices and stories of engaged working parents. And one of our goals at Mindful Return is to inspire new parents to use their voices to advocate for others who face similar challenges.
One of the challenges new moms in our recent cohort raised was paternity leave. Or rather, a reluctance by their partners to take it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it matters a LOT to new moms if their partners are willing and able to take time off to participate actively in the care of their newborns.
In heterosexual couples, a father’s taking paternity leave reduces the gender wage gap within households. How? By increasing mothers’ wages in the short-term and helping to increase total household financial well-being in the long term. (See A Fresh Look at Paternity Leave: Why the Benefits Extend Beyond the Personal.) Studies also show that men who take paternity leave are less likely to get divorced. And their partners are less likely to require anti-anxiety medications. (See Paternity Leave Has Long-Lasting Benefits. So Why Don’t More American Men Take It?)
Yet also perhaps unsurprisingly, dads are often reluctant to take more than a few days off upon the arrival of their child. The recent Pete Buttigieg “controversy” is all the evidence we need that it is not yet socially acceptable for dads in the United States to take a paternity leave.
Leadership on the Subject of Paternity Leave
A mom in the most recent Mindful Return cohort expressed an interested in being a leader in the space of encouraging dads to take their leave. But she wasn’t sure where to start. Here was her question to the group:
We have made progress, but still have a long way to go, in terms of accepting moms taking and returning from leave. But in some ways, I think we have even further to go on paternity leave. (Or non-primary caretaker leave in general.) I’d like to try to be a leader in this, to the extent I can be, by persuading my male/non primary caretaker colleagues to actually take the leave they are entitled to take, and to let go of the worry that they will be considered somehow unserious about their work for doing so. I guess my question for the group is, other than making it a habit to ask my male colleagues about their kids and families, what else can I do to encourage and support my colleagues in taking paternity leave?
I was so happy to see this question come up, as taking a “longer” leave is still so culturally fraught for many dads. Moms alone can’t solve this problem (and shouldn’t feel on the hook for doing so). But I do think there are specific things we call can do to support dads in taking paternity leave.
6 Steps toward Encouraging Paternity Leave
Here are six concrete advocacy steps you can take if you’re interested in leveling this playing field and encouraging more dads to take leave:
- Advocate for *truly* gender-neutral parental leave policies. Take a look at your employer’s parental leave policy. Does it still contain a distinction between “primary” and “nonprimary” caregiver, in determining how much leave someone gets? If so, lobby to eliminate this distinction. (More thoughts on this specific topic here: Want to Encourage Gender Equality in Your Workplace? Don’t Adopt THIS Family Leave Policy.)
- Study your data. Consider encouraging leadership at your organization to study the data on how many fathers have taken leave, and for how long. Compare that to the data on leave that mothers have taken. It’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t understand its contours. Once you have the numbers, start digging into the reasons for any discrepancies. Is there a particular department or practice group where dads take more leave than others? Find out what factors contribute to that success.
- Ask leadership to speak out. Is anyone on your organization’s leadership team willing to speak publicly to the topic of paternity leave? Encourage them to say explicitly that any negative comments about men taking parental leave are inconsistent with the values of the organization.
- Ensure that you have male and female faces of parental leadership. If your employer has a parent affinity group or employee resource group (ERG), ensure that both a mom *and* a dad are at the helm of it. And if it’s sitting under a women’s initiative, work toward moving it out from under that structure. Caregiving needs to take its rightful place as a gender-neutral issue. (Also see 5 Lessons for Launching a Successful (Gender Neutral) Working Parent Group at Your Office.)
- Encourage the dads in your lives to reframe paternity leave as an act of leadership. To the extent men still believe that “leadership” is diving right back into work after baby arrives, gently encourage a re-frame. What if leadership is making it possible for every new parent who comes after them to feel more confident in taking a parental leave? Often, when one dad in a leadership position within an organization takes his full leave, others will follow.
- Provide dads support in navigating tough conversations with colleagues. If the dad you’re talking to needs help in framing leave conversations with his colleagues, encourage him to sign up for the Mindful Return Working Dad Course. It’s a perfect time to tune in, even during the period when an expectant father is just toying with the idea of whether to take leave or not. The program is run by a dad who took two extended paternity leaves from Bank of America (at a time when that wasn’t exactly the normal thing to do). And there is a whole group of lessons in the course about how to navigate the decisions – and cultural stigmas – around taking leave as a dad.
Like so many issues of equality and justice, this is one we can’t fix overnight. But step by step, little by little, we can make progress in the right direction. The more dads who ultimately take a paternity leave, the less family leave-taking will be stigmatized for all of us.
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave