Major Parenting Issue

Parents in the workplace: Why is taking time off for your kids so controversial? America's backwards system

Parents in the workplace: Why is taking time off for kids frowned at?

paternity leave father sleeping with newborn baby
Even when companies do offer paid leave for both men and women, new fathers are often less likely to take full advantage of their time off than working moms — a lingering stereotype that keeps many fathers at their desks. NakedLaw.avvo.com

Americans are known for having a prodigious, deeply ingrained work ethic. Our love of industry and productivity is so culturally embedded, in fact, that you might even say Americans learn it at birth — or shortly thereafter, when most new parents go back to work. Unlike the overwhelming majority of other developed nations, the United States doesn’t require workers to take time off after welcoming a new baby.

In fact, the U.S. is one of just four countries in the world that fails to offer its workers paid parental leave.

The United States’ closest attempt at legalized job leave — the Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) — is a far cry from the post-partum time off mandated in other western nations, such as Australia or Sweden, or in poorer countries like Afghanistan, Mongolia, or Brazil. While many other countries offer new mothers an average of 15 to 16 fully paid weeks off —with ample leave for new fathers as well— the FMLA gives employees the option to only spend up to 12 weeks away from the office following the birth of a child.

That is, up to 12 weeks unpaid.

 In fact, the U.S. is one of just four countries in the world that fails to offer its workers paid parental leave. 

For a large number of Americans, taking an unpaid three-month leave means taking a huge financial hit. Because only a small proportion of employers offer paid parental leave (about 16 percent), many employees are forced to rely on public assistance or take on substantial debt when starting a family.

And even when companies do offer paid leave for both men and women, new fathers are often less likely to take full advantage of their time off than working moms.  Why is that?

Lauren Weber of the Wall Street Journal suggests that lingering stereotypes keep many new fathers at their desks when they could be with their babies. She found that many men who openly identify as active parents “face pressure or resentment from co-workers” and can be “seen as distracted and less dedicated to their work.” The stigma these fathers face in the workplace, Weber points out, originates with “the same perception that harms career prospects for many working mothers” as well.

Weber isn’t alone in her thinking: as one writer for the Guardian points out, the notion of women as primary caregivers hasn’t gone away, despite the ever-increasing number of dual-income households in the U.S. and across the globe. And, it seems, when female breadwinners are the ones expected to leave the workplace — but new fathers simply don’t have the option — American workers lose a lot of flexibility.

The U.S. Parent Solution

So then, what’s the solution? We can’t know for sure what’s good for every employee, but we can look at the statistics.

As Weber writes, “a growing body of research shows that longer paternity leaves carry long-term benefits” for workers and families; men who get to take advantage of paternity leave tend to be more involved in their children’s lives, while women are more likely to return to their jobs when policies are equitable.

 Democrats and Republicans alike feel a need to reform the current system. 

In addition to the gains associated with expanding parental leave opportunities, companies can make up for the losses they suffer not offering it: current policies come at an indirect, inefficient cost to employers that they could instead address strategically, by making family leave a deliberate part of a company’s financial planning.

And, on top of everything else, it looks as if family leave might be one of the few things on which we can get legislators from both sides of the aisle to agree. Democrats and Republicans alike feel a need to reform the current system, and both California and New Jersey have enacted changes on the statewide level. So, in voters’ view — the view of American workers — parental leave for women and men is something we should be talking about, at the very least.

With that in mind, we might consider how the miracle of bipartisan agreement can help employees celebrate the miracle of life.

Jenny Kutner is a writer, Texan, and recent transplant to New York City. Her work has been featured on Salon.com and can be found at www.jennykutner.com. Follow her on Twitter @JennyKutner.

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