Taking Father Time

Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005

Paternity leave issues.

WebMD Feature

Oct. 9, 2000 -- Alex Garcia (not his real name), tucks his 6-month-old daughter Mia into the crook of his arm and starts to feed her an evening bottle. Back from a long day at the office, Garcia uses his free hand to rub his eyes. He looks down at his daughter adoringly, and the tension of the day seems to melt away. "The easiest thing is coming home," he said. "It doesn't matter what happens during the day, you see that face and it all goes away."

From the moment Mia was conceived, Garcia and his wife began preparing for her arrival. He'd read every book on pregnancy and parenting he could during his wife's pregnancy and was eager to take time off to be with his new baby. Though the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 allows both parents to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, he soon realized that the California district attorney's office where he worked had a different "policy."

His co-workers informed him that the unofficial office rule allowed for a maximum of two weeks off. No father in his office had ever taken off more time, and although Garcia was disappointed, he valued his job and decided to make do. "If I'd had my druthers, I would have taken off as much time as I possibly could," Garcia said. "But I didn't want to be the one who decided to push the envelope."

The Working Dad's Catch-22

Alex Garcia is not alone. Studies show that the majority of fathers do want more time off from work to be with their families. However, fear of losing their jobs or suffering reprisals at work keeps many fathers in the traditional breadwinner role. This leaves dads with little time to be equal partners in the parenting process -- a fact that experts say can be a loss for both father and child.

Part of the problem is that employers have yet to embrace the concept of paternity leave, making the FMLA a de facto maternity leave policy, says Armin Brott, author of The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year. When he asked executives, human resource administrators, and CEOs how much time they thought was reasonable for a man to take off after the birth of a child, 40% answered, "no time at all."

In the conflict between work and family, what they want remains clear to most fathers, even if they feel their employers don't support it. According to a recent study released by the Radcliffe Public Policy Center, 71% of men ages 21 to 39 say they would give up some of their pay for more time with their families.

Taking the Time

Leander Kahney, 34, is among that 71%. He says his boss was supportive of his decision to take four weeks' unpaid paternity leave from his job as a reporter at San Francisco-based Wired News so he could be with his wife, three children, and newborn baby. But he doesn't dismiss the possibility that it might have set him back. "It's a crazy workaholic society, where it has more to do with the hours you put in than your talents."

Brott says fathers like Kahney risk a career penalty for taking paternity leave as long as American society equates being a good father with financial success. "There is a lot more pressure for a man to earn," he said. "It's how we value what a good father is, and the potential damage to his career if he takes off is far greater than for a woman."

Still, Kahney doesn't have any regrets about his decision to both help his wife recover from childbirth and spend quality time with the rest of his brood. "The more time you spend with the kids, the better. Better for the child and better for you, too."

The Pros of Early Participation

Kahney's sentiments are strongly supported by the research of Kyle Pruett, MD, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Yale University Child Study Center. Pruett says spending time early on with a newborn is important for everyone -- dad, mom, and baby.

One advantage: Those early interactions can help boost a new dad's confidence. "Parenting is not in your gonads and not in your genes; it's something you have to learn at the hands of your child and vice versa," he says. "If you don't take paternity leave at the beginning, you will always feel like you're joining the journey in the process, instead of having started off at the trailhead together."

Early participation also strengthens the spousal relationship, says Pruett. "A lot of women talk about feeling more attracted to their spouses when they are competent parents," said Pruett. "To have their spouse be a confident, nurturing father is pretty irresistible to most women."

And even at this young age, a baby benefits from the father's presence as well, says Pruett. The results of his long-term study on the role of the father, published in the Nov. 1998 issue of Pediatrics, found some special strengths in children whose fathers were actively involved in their daily lives. "The children were very competent developmentally," says Pruett. "They tended to have social competence, problem-solving skills, all of which seemed to make them good adapters to the world."

The Paycheck Pop

Possible work discrimination isn't the only issue -- taking three months of unpaid leave is another very real barrier for most dads. Pruett concedes that until paternity leave is paid for, it will remain largely a privilege of the wealthy rather than a viable choice for lower- or middle-class families. "To have 12 weeks of unpaid leave not only drops them into a different tax bracket but also into a different social bracket," he says.

The Clinton administration agrees. In an effort to help working parents afford time off when they have or adopt a child, President Clinton announced on June 10 the publication of a Labor Department regulation that encourages states to provide unemployment benefits to both mothers and fathers taking parental leave.

But until the states support the rule or another solution is found, time off will remain unpaid -- leaving most families deciding to have Mom take the time off while Dad brings home the bacon.

For Alex Garcia, the biggest obstacle is making the most out of the limited time he has to spend with his baby daughter when he comes from work. "The recurring challenges," he says, "are having a particularly hard day at work and wanting to keep up my end of the bargain at home." That said, he gets up to attend to the most pressing matter at hand: a full diaper.

Daniella Brower is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, Calif.

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