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I'm a new dad. Here's why I'm taking more parental leave than my wife.

Mohamed Hassan
/
Pixabay

My wife and I just had a baby. And, thanks to a generous parental leave policy hammered out between my union and my employer back in 2021, I'm about to take six months of paid leave. It's a once-in-a-lifetime chance for me to help our new son thrive during the critical early months of his existence.

For you, Planet Money newsletter readers, this means the newsletter's frequency of publication will be temporarily scaled back — from once a week to once a month — until I return.

For me, it means I'm going to be spending a lot less time reporting and writing, and a lot more time changing diapers, rocking my crying baby to sleep, and being the best father (and husband) I can be.

Even before I started looking into the numbers on paternity leave, I knew, anecdotally, that my ability to do this was an incredible privilege. It's a shining opportunity to bond with my new child, support my recuperating wife, develop critical parenting skills, and, honestly, cope with inevitable sleep deprivation. Given the exorbitant cost of childcare in this country, it's also, frankly, a huge money-saver for our young family.

After looking at the numbers on paternity leave in the U.S., however, I feel more than privileged. I feel like a unicorn who won the lottery under the glow of a solar eclipse. I mean, it's really rare for any American worker, mother or father, to be able to get this amount of paid time off to take care of their newborn.

Only about a quarter of American workers — regardless of gender — have access to paid parental leave, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most new parents in America have to cobble together other leave, like vacation or sick leave — or simply take unpaid leave — if they want to take time off to care for their newborn. This is particularly the case for fathers, as only around 13 percent of private employers provide paid paternity leave. While there are clearly other factors at play, including traditional gender norms and stigma against male caregivers, the lack of paid paternity leave is one crucial reason why more than 70 percent of American fathers return to work, full-time, less than two weeks after the birth of their child.

The United States is literally the only rich country in the world without a national paid leave program for new parents. Even many poor countries have paid parental leave programs. True, the U.S. does have a national policy, called the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which was signed into law in 1993 — but that only provides up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. Even if workers are eligible for this program — and that's no guarantee, because you have to have worked for your employer full-time for at least a year and "work at a location where the company employs 50 or more employees within 75 miles" — the unpaid part makes it a financial non-starter for many American families.

As a result, many parents are forced to divide and conquer, with one parent quickly returning to work while the other — almost always the mom — forgoes income, puts their career on the back burner, and stays home for an extended period to care for their newborn. According to one study, the average American mom takes parental leave that is three times longer than the average American dad.

From a health perspective, of course, the fact that mothers take more leave, on average, makes sense. Those who give birth must recover from it, after all, and, if the mother is breastfeeding, that comes with its own physical and logistical demands. This gendered division of labor often makes rational economic sense too, especially since women, on average, have lower-paying careers than men. In a system without paid leave, families need to get by somehow.

However, a mountain of research finds this age-old pattern of mothers spending much more time to care for kids than fathers is one of the causes — if not the main cause — of the gender pay gap. It's a big reason why a host of countries have been working to incentivize fathers to take leave and contribute more when raising kids. The theory is this policy will rebalance the division of labor at home and give women a more equal opportunity to focus on their careers, put men and women on more equal footing when it comes to employer perceptions of their likelihood to take leave during childbearing years, and help close the gender pay gap.

Paternity Leave Around The World

As a father, while I may be a unicorn in the United States for getting a long period of paid parental leave, I'd be more like a somewhat average horse in many other rich countries. Nations overseas have long provided generous leave benefits to new mothers. But, driven by concerns about gender inequality as well as plummeting birth rates, countries in Europe and Asia have been increasingly expanding paid paternity leave and trying to persuade fathers to take it.

In 1974, Sweden became the first nation in the world to offer fathers an extensive period of paid parental leave. It axed its maternity leave program and adopted a parental leave program that was more gender neutral. Both mothers and fathers were given an equal opportunity to exit the workforce and divvy up between them, as they saw fit, what was then six-and-a-half months of paid leave. Other Nordic countries soon adopted similar policies.

By the mid-1990s, however, it became clear that, despite adopting this gender-neutral policy, fathers were opting out, and mothers were still using the vast majority of their family's allotted leave. Whether it was because of traditional gender norms, or stigma, or anxiety that leave would damage their careers, most fathers were choosing to go quickly back to work, and hand paid leave and childcare to their wives.

For the equality-minded Scandinavians, this was a problem, because it meant that women were still systematically shouldering the burden of raising a child and interrupting their careers for much longer than men. That, they believed, was perpetuating gender inequality at home and in the labor market.

So, in 1993, Norway led the charge and introduced what's known as a "daddy quota." The government gave fathers four weeks of paid leave that only they could use. They could not transfer it to their spouse. If they didn't use it, their family would lose it. This proved to be a powerful incentive. Before the introduction of the daddy quota, only about 2.4 percent of Norwegian fathers took paternity leave. After its introduction, however, more than 70 percent started taking leave. Since then, Norway has expanded its daddy quota from 4 weeks to 15 weeks (after this 15-week period, fathers and mothers can divvy up a much longer period of parental leave, which is gender-neutral). And more than 70 percent of Norwegian fathers are now taking their full 15-week paternity leave benefit, or more.

Since Norway introduced the daddy quota, many other countries around the world have adopted a similar use-it-or-lose-it leave program targeted at new fathers. These countries have seen similar surges in fathers taking leave after adopting the policy. After Sweden and Iceland adopted the daddy quota, for example, they saw a "doubling in the number of parental leave days taken by men," according to the OECD. Quebec, Canada, saw a 250 percent increase in fathers using paternity leave after it introduced a daddy quota in 2006.

In 2019, the European Union issued a directive to all its member states that they establish a minimum of four months of parental leave — with two months reserved specifically for each parent. "The purpose of ensuring that at least two months of parental leave is available to each parent exclusively and that cannot be transferred to the other parent, is to encourage fathers to make use of their right to such leave," the directive states. This directive, which encourages new daddy quotas across Europe, took effect last year.

A De Facto Daddy Quota

Even though NPR's parental leave policy is gender neutral, in a way, my family is seeing the power of the daddy quota. If I don't take this paid leave, my family will lose it. Moreover, my wife is only entitled to six weeks of paid parental leave through her employer — and I can't transfer any of my ample NPR leave to her. So, in effect, I'm facing a sort of daddy quota: this large chunk of non-transferrable paid leave that only I, the daddy, can take. It's an incredibly powerful incentive to step up to the plate, care for our child, and save our family thousands of dollars in childcare. As a result, I will now become part of the rarefied group of fathers who will take a much longer parental leave than their baby's mother.

Of course, economic incentives aren't the whole picture. Japan and South Korea now have the longest paternity leave programs in the world, yet fathers there continue to take leave at very low rates. Even in progressive Scandinavian countries, there is still a sizable population of fathers who don't take it. In Norway, for example, more than 20 percent of fathers still take no leave at all.

Traditional cultural values and gender norms surely play a role. But research on these fathers reveals that a huge reason they don't exercise their right to leave is because they're anxious about losing goodwill with their employers. This is especially the case in Japan and South Korea, where, despite government policies, workplace cultures often strongly discourage taking leave. Fathers, often quite rationally, fear that their careers will be damaged if they take time off (after all, as the research shows, the careers of many mothers have long taken a major hit).

To be honest, when my wife got pregnant, and we began thinking about me taking leave, it did cross my mind that taking this time off could be bad for my career. However, that anxiety was mostly ameliorated by the fact that I'm far from the first Planet Money staffer to take parental leave. In fact, we've had something of a baby boom at Planet Money over the last five years, and many of our staffers, including two of our managers, have taken the maximum allocation of leave offered by our organization. My managers personally encouraged me to take this leave.

So, yeah, facing powerful economic incentives, an encouraging workplace culture, and a desire to take care of my infant son, I'm taking leave for the next six months.

Interestingly, some countries have focused on expanding paternity leave with the hope that it will lower the cost of having kids and thereby reverse their plummeting birth rates. However, two recent studies in South Korea and Spain, which have both pursued expansion of father-specific leave policies in recent years, find that those fathers who take extended leave are less likely to want to have more kids. Apparently, caring for a baby is no walk in the park. Wish me luck!

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Since 2018, Greg Rosalsky has been a writer and reporter at NPR's Planet Money.