After four weeks of burping, changing diapers, and pulling tiny arms through even tinier sleeves, I’ve finally found my rhythm as a new father. But just as I’m perfecting bottle feeding, it’s time to go back to work.
I’m thankful that I was able to be so involved in my daughter’s development and that I was able to help my wife in those early baby days. I’m even more grateful to know that I still have 12 weeks of paternity leave left, which I’ll take later this year. Four months of paternity leave, let alone four weeks, is incredibly uncommon in the United States. That’s because the U.S. is the only developed country in the world that doesn’t require some form of paternity leave.
Paternity leave? I haven’t heard of paternity leave.
This is striking because experts show there are tremendous benefits to paid parental leave. A 2013 report by the Human Rights Watch showed that millions of U.S. workers “are harmed by weak or nonexistent laws on paid leave, breastfeeding accommodation, and discrimination against workers with family responsibilities” and “U.S. employers miss productivity gains and turnover savings that these cost-effective policies generate in other countries.” According to research by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 16 percent of U.S. workers in the private sector are offered paid family leave through their employer.
It’s hard to be a man and not be intimidated if you want to have children, help raise your infant, and keep your job. Fortunately, not everything around paternity leave is bleak. In 2016, at least 17 big employers either introduced or expanded paid leave options for new dads. Of these employers, tech companies led the charge. Facebook, for example, extended their paternity leave from four weeks to four months and offers a $4,000 “new child benefit.” Microsoft extended paternity leave from four to 12 weeks and maternity leave from 12 to 20 weeks.
It’s hard to be a man and not be intimidated if you want to have children, help raise your infant, and keep your job.
Zendesk revamped their parental leave in 2015 and offers all parents 16 weeks of paid leave when a child is born or adopted. I recently sat down with five fathers who work at Zendesk to discuss the challenges of paternity leave, what it was like to be home with their newborn, and how that translates into being an equal parent.
Paternity leave: the more the better
Despite not providing paternity leave, a 2017 Pew survey shows that 69 percent of U.S. adults believe that fathers should have paid paternity leave. However, fathers currently only take an average of one week of leave and more than half said they took less than they needed or wanted to.
Raymond Roth, Senior Customer Advocate, spoke to me about the birth of his pre-Zendesk child. At the time, Roth’s employer only offered one week of paid leave. “It was difficult because I wanted to be there for those new moments,” says Roth. “With a brand new baby, there's so many [moments] and they grow so quickly. You just want to be with your baby as much as possible. Being away from that and trying to focus on work when I went back was very difficult.”
When Raymond and his wife were expecting their second child, he was employed at Zendesk. “The difference with the amount of time I got to spend at home and not have to worry about work was awesome because I really got to be there both physically and mentally for my wife and baby. It made my leave more special because I could be there for all of these moments instead of just the ones that weren't during my work time.”
Micah Fisher-Kirshner, Senior SEO Manager, had one month of paternity leave at his previous employer and also wished for more. “One of the things I realized was that one month wasn’t really enough,” he says. “Things are crazy and you’re trying to readjust during the whole gamut of getting the baby to sleep at a consistent time that works for the whole family and then you’re back at work. Two months is where things actually start to settle down.”
Having more time allows a father more opportunities to make an impact in their baby’s development. Brian Reuter, a marketing manager, took two months off to be with his son. “I had a blast with it. It's so much fun and I could hang out with him all day long, playing with the same couple of toys. One of my favorite things that I got to do was give him his first bottle.”
It’s not just the father who benefits either. The U.S. Department of Labor shows that longer paternity leaves are associated with increased father engagement and bonding, which leads to improved health and development outcomes for children.
Jakub Glodek, Senior Product Enablement Manager, is preparing for the birth of his second child. “Your kid develops so quickly in the first year. They learn so many things and week-by-week things change quickly like, ‘Oh my God, he’s now able to do this.’ The first time, we got updates from our nanny because my wife and I had to go back to work. Now, I’ll be home for the first 12 weeks and will actually be able to be more a part of my kid’s development.”
Paid paternity leave is also important because the traditional roles of parenting are changing. A 2013 Pew Study shows that the number of households that have dual incomes has risen over 35 percent since the 1960’s. In addition, traditional dad and mom roles are converging with fathers doing more housework and childcare and moms doing more paid work outside the home.
Traditional dad and mom roles are converging with fathers doing more housework and childcare and moms doing more paid work outside the home.
Glodek states, “I think the role of dads in households has really changed. My wife and I are both working parents so it's not a household where the man works, the woman doesn't. That is not the household that we live in and not the way we look at it. I really do look at it as an equality where we're both part of the family and we're both responsible for raising this kid.”
During my leave, I found myself not only helping my wife with the baby but also taking over cooking and laundry duties. Being able to help my wife in any capacity was incredibly rewarding and I was thankful that she could focus on her recovery and our daughter.
Parenting as a partnership is most evident in Sweden, where parental leave is gender neutral and entitles parents to a pool of 480 days of parental leave when a child is born or adopted. Parents can share these days, but 90 are specifically reserved for the father. This approach has encouraged nearly 90 percent of fathers to take paternity leave.
The effects are apparent, too. A 2010 study shows that in Sweden, mothers’ incomes increase almost seven percent for every month of paternity leave their husbands took. The U.S. Department of Labor also found that when men increase their use of paternity leave, the amount of household work between fathers and mothers may become more gender balanced over time, with men spending longer amounts of time per day on household chores and childcare. Although I’m back at the office, I find myself cooking more often.
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Two father families most benefit from gender-neutral policies as they are especially at risk of not being able to stay home with a newborn. David Hanrahan, Zendesk’s VP of People Operations, suggests employers “embed equality in your parental leave and take a holistic approach to it.” He continues, “Avoid distinguishing ‘types of parents’ in your paid leave benefit. As much as possible, approach your parental policies and benefits beyond the leave itself. What else matters for parents before or after birth? Thinking about it beyond leave will reinforce that the company understands parental concerns broadly.”
Beyond paternity leave
There’s more to being a good employer than just offering paternity leave. Employers need to have a work culture that supports fatherhood. Some men feel that taking paternity leave puts them at risk in their careers. A recent Deloitte survey revealed that of the 1,000 participants, one-third felt that “taking leave would ‘jeopardize their position’ at work. Meanwhile, more than half of total respondents said they thought spending time with their newborn would be perceived as a lack of commitment, while an additional 41 percent said they feared losing opportunities on assignments at work.”
It’s sad that being a good father would make others perceive men as a bad worker. I was worried that others might even resent me for not being there to help out with the work. It turns out I wasn’t alone either. Reuter shared his thoughts when he was deciding to take his paternity leave. “I really struggled with how much time I should take off. On one hand, I was managing a sales team and playing a big role in their careers. But on the other hand, I wanted to make sure that I was there for my family."
It’s sad that being a good father would make others perceive men as a bad worker. I was worried that others might even resent me for not being there to help out with the work. It turns out I wasn’t alone either.
Luckily, Reuter was reassured by his team. “My team was really helpful with reminding me that other people are going to be available to help out and that the whole world doesn't stop when Brian's not online.” My own manager and team were also supportive and excited for me to take paternity leave. Not only did this make it easier for me to take time off, but I felt more motivated when I returned to work.
Others are modeling good behavior as well. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, famously announced that he was going to take two months of paternity leave. He posted, “Studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, outcomes are better for the children and families.”
It turns out a lot can matter for parents well after birth, so creating a supportive environment for fathers should go beyond paternity leave. Tod Brown, a Customer Advocate, spoke to me about his first son who was born with cystic fibrosis.
“When he was like four or five, I'd have to stay home an hour or two every morning to make sure he had his treatments,” he said. And if things weren’t hard enough on his son, the child was hospitalized at the same time Brown’s wife was ill. “So that being the case, I was the only one that could watch him and my employer [at the time] told me, ‘Tod, if you don't come to work we're going to fire you.’”
Brown’s lack of support not only affected him but his relationship with his family. “I used to come home from work, go into my room and sit there for a half hour before I talked to my kids. I’d just sit there on the bed and stare up at the ceiling.”
Since working at Zendesk, Brown and his family have seen a big change. “I come home and I'm excited to see them because I'm having a good time at work. My kids told me they want to work at Zendesk and that was huge to me. It had a lot to do with how the people in this office are.”
There’s an app for that
When I found out that I was expecting, I was eager to connect with other fathers at work. However, no community existed. Looking through Zendesk’s Slack channels, I found a mother’s group but not one for fathers, so I created “Zendads.” Within an hour the channel had three times as many members as the “Zenmoms”.
Fathers come into the group sharing sentimental stories, helpful advice, and of course, dad jokes. Brown, who is a member, states, “I love it. It's kind of neat to see the things we all go through because I can’t really think of any other place where I've talked to dads from other countries.”
It’s a cliche, but children grow quickly. Even today, my daughter is already beginning her first smiles and is outgrowing her newborn onesies. As fast as those four weeks went, to not have had them would have been heartbreaking. But this is the situation most U.S. fathers are in. Hopefully, in the future, both men and women will be guaranteed time off to be with their newborns. As Brown told me, “They’re only this young once, so just enjoy the living hell out of it.”
We don't believe in being one-sided, so you can find a returning mother's point of view in "Working moms need a new F-word: flexibility."
Edwin Zee is a writer, comedian, and father living in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wonderful wife Chelsea, and daughter Eleanor. He enjoys playing cards, wearing hats, and watching birds. Contrary to popular belief, he is not 80-years old. Find more of his writing at edwinzee.com and at Twitter at @eddiemczee.