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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Work-Life Balance

Paternity Leave: Why We Need it—and How to Do it Right


You probably know that paternity leave is becoming much more common, and that it’s been shown to be beneficial for the whole family. But I was recently surprised to learn why it’s so advantageous—and who reaps the rewards.

Liza Mundy of New America Foundation and the author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Our Culture helped push the concept of paternity leave into the ongoing national conversation about “having it all” as working parents with her Atlantic article, “The Daddy Track.”

Mundy points out that fathers who take paternity leave and play an equal role in the difficult first few weeks with a newborn tend to stay more active in the child’s life as he or she grows up, creating a more even distribution of household and baby responsibilities and avoiding the “second shift” paradox (when working mothers do most of the household work, even though they work full-time). Mundy further concludes that the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women and the businesses and nations that employ them, since paternity leave has been shown to “boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.” In other words, it’s a smart economic strategy for governments, because it shrinks the gender pay gap and helps ensure that women, who, in many countries, are often better educated than men, return to the workforce after having children.

I’d urge all parents (and managers, executives, and professionals of all kinds) to read Mundy’s piece in its entirety, but the gist of it is that increasing access to paternity leave and making it the rule, not the exception, will lead to more equality at home and in the working world. To really make paternity leave stick, though, early adopters need to make sure they’re doing it right.

So, dads (and managers of dads), take a few pages from the mom-to-be-playbook and follow these guidelines for a successful, effective leave.

1. Start Planning Early

While the last few weeks before the baby is born can seem overwhelming—finishing up the nursery, attending birthing classes and hospital tours—it’s essential to have a solid plan in place for your leave to both demonstrate your commitment and ensure that you can actually take leave (not spend a few months fielding phone calls while changing diapers in an exhausted stupor).

My friend and neighbor, Eric, and his wife, Jodi, decided early on in Jodi’s pregnancy that Eric would take a full month off of work when their first son was born. While Eric, a director-level IT professional, was lucky to have supportive staff and colleagues, planning for his absence required extensive planning: “I had to put in a lot of hours to make sure everything was ready and to wrap up a lot of things before the baby was born. We planned a lot of projects around my absence to make sure my leave didn’t have a huge impact.”

2. Work Until the Absolute Last Minute

When I was pregnant, my co-workers often asked me when I was going to “begin” my maternity leave, and my answer was always, “When the contractions are less than three minutes apart.”

It seems counterintuitive, but leave is a precious resource, especially for dads, who are just now beginning to take advantage of it. While it may seem prudent to begin leave on your baby’s due date, or even a few days before, “just in case,” it’s a good idea to work until the last possible minute in order to maximize the time you can be off with your baby once he or she is actually in the world. Due dates can be wrong, babies can be late, and it’s best for the mental health of both mom and dad to stay busy until baby arrives, not sit around idly worrying about everything that could go wrong. Sure, have a plan in place in the event of a fast-and-furious labor, but don’t squander your leave prematurely.

3. Be Available, But Don’t Work

Sheryl Sandberg famously writes in Lean In that her co-workers bet on how quickly she’d be back on email after she gave birth, and she admits that it wasn’t long. Personally, I think it’s unrealistic for either moms or dads to go completely dark during leave. Especially as a dad who’s not actively recovering from pushing a baby out of your body, it’s tempting to do some work because, after all, you’re still an able-bodied human being.

Answering a few emails or listening in to an occasional conference call will likely make your re-entry less turbulent, so, by all means, make yourself available. But I do caution against actually doing work. Any downtime you have, like when the baby is napping, should be spent on family-related activities. You won’t get this time back, so use it wisely.

4. Consider Alternative Schedules

During her research, Mundy found that some men who took paternity leave weren’t taking consecutive weeks, but were spreading their leave over several months to make the mother’s transition back to work less stressful. “Companies like Deloitte,” Mundy writes, “which offers three to eight weeks of paid paternity leave, are finding that many men prefer to stagger their time off, taking a few weeks when the baby is born, for example, and then more time when their wives go back to work.”

Talk to your partner about the type of leave that would be most advantageous for your family. If the mother is concerned about going back to work and leaving the baby in daycare, consider staying home for the first few weeks yourself to ease into a new routine. If grandparents have offered to come help, consider going back to work part-time while they’re in town to bank more leave.

5. Set the Record Straight

After “The Daddy Track” was published, I had the pleasure of seeing Mundy speak at an event in DC with another Atlantic contributor and former stay-at-home-dad, Ta-Nehisi Coates. During their discussion, Coates commented on the amount of over-the-top praise he received as a dedicated father, explaining that he was often acclaimed for taking care of his newborn son (“You’re such an amazing father!”), when he felt like he was “just doing his job.”

It’s true that this type of double standard continues to exist for mothers and fathers. Our culture tells mothers that they’re never doing enough, while fathers are worshipped for simply being engaged. This holds true in the workplace, too: Fathers are often praised for taking time off to be with their children, while women are tacitly punished.

As a father taking paternity leave, one of your jobs is to set this record straight. You are being a good father by taking paternity leave. But it’s in your best interest, and in the best interest of everyone who believes in gender equality, to take paternity leave for granted—to consider it a normal part of life, not a revolutionary act. Doing so will help ensure that paternity leave transforms into a right, not a luxury.

Like many child-raising rites of passage, paternity leave can seem inconsequential. You may return to work after a few weeks, exhausted and un-showered, and think to yourself, “What did I just accomplish, exactly?”

But case studies show paternity leave lays important groundwork. Returning to my friend Eric for a moment: When I asked him how he thought his leave has shaped his family, he responded, “I think the tone set by my taking paternity leave has carried forward. My wife and I are a team. We parent together, back each other up, and know that the other is there to step in if things get too stressful or we need a break. I think kids benefit from having both strong male and female presences in their lives, of course, and I think the strong bond I formed with my son that first month has been wonderful.”

Mundane or not, rest assured that the routines you establish before and during paternity leave are building a strong, distributed foundation for your lifelong parenting partnership.

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