How Long Should Paternity Leave Be?

When Theodore Ross’s son was born, he received two weeks of paternity leave. Was it enough? In an editorial for Al Jazeera America, Ross says no:

I got to hold the youngster, of course, took my turns rocking him to sleep, made a big show of changing diapers so everyone knew that I was a modern sort of dude and expected to be involved. I was ignored, for the most part, or condescended to or corrected by our mothers, whose infant care experience ended in the 1970s. And then, soon enough — exactly two weeks, in fact — I returned to the office, leaving my careerist, high-earning wife to the three-month child care boot camp we call maternity leave. During that time, she went completely bonkers from isolation, love, responsibility and lack of sleep. But when it ended and she returned to her job, she had been permanently transformed. Gone was the person she had once been, replaced by a skilled, fully functional parent.

When my wife returned to work, it was to a night-shift job. She remained home with our child during the day, and I took charge of him in the evening. It was then that I finally got my chance to be involved and take some responsibility for the baby, which was great and good and wonderful — until the realization set in that I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. I’d been home for only two weeks. There had been no boot camp for me, no fatherhood trial by fire, and all my wife had left me was a couple of bottles of defrosted breast milk, one of those play mats with BPA-safe whale-shaped rattles attached to it, and the mandate to just take care of it. That, and the utter certainty that when Mom — an old pro by now — got home she would enumerate the ways in which I had done everything wrong, or at least not precisely the way she wanted it done. And how could it be otherwise? I was at that point a parenting incompetent, a novice, a newbie, one who had no chance to catch up to the blessed, all-knowing mother, brimming with tricks, lessons and naptime subterfuges acquired during her crucible at home.

Ross points out that ours is still the only industrialized country in the the world that does not guarantee mothers with some kind of paid leave after childbirth. He also points out that a 2012 study of tenure-track professors “found that only 12% of fathers took paid parental leave when it was offered, compared with 69% of mothers,” which suggests that men (at least in academia) would be more likely to choose to focus on their careers over having that time at home. Would more time at home made Ross a better parent? “Developing the necessary skills, rapport and confidence won’t be achieved through paternity leave alone, but it’s a start,” Ross says.

Photo: Charlotte


20 Comments / Post A Comment

Kissy (#5,345)

But…during the three months the wife was home full time with the baby, what was this guy doing in the evenings?? I’m off on a tangent from the point of this article, but from the extract I don’t understand how this guy was so ‘incompetent’ with the baby since he was (should!) have been helping at night

Karebot (#5,803)

I think that time in the first few weeks of caring for your first child can really set the course on your parenting roles for a long time. I think my partner was happy to hand me the reins when he went back to work and I remained at home. I don’t really blame him, because caring for a new baby requires a lot of improvisational decision-making and trail by fire and it’s really tough. So as the parent who did all that, I feel like there’s an unspoken concession between my husband and I that I know more or am somehow the default leader when it comes to our kid.

It set things off an an imbalanced step and it’s unfortunate that the biological necessity for taking maternity leave isn’t matched with an emotional requirement for longer paternity leave.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Karebot Fair enough. I already see two “what were you doing in the evenings” comments, including mine, and will be very curious to see if those are predominantly opinions from non-parents.

Karebot (#5,803)

@HelloTheFuture Yeah, to the “what the evenings?” question I would say that our lives are structured to be productive in the daytime, when we are as well rested as we can hope to be and when we can leave the house to interact with the world. Thus, the parent at home with the baby probably crosses a lot more milestones in those daytime hours than at night when they’re coasting on fumes and the baby is supposed to begin “sleeping” by around 7pm.

Even trying to hold off doing big stuff with my kid, like our first trip out of the house or the first bath, felt like I was patronizing my husband. Plus, he’s tired after a day at work and it’s not exactly fair or right to completely hand over the child, so at best he was helping like 33% of the time (subtracting time at work and some interrupted sleep). Weekends were our best hope for achieving some parental equality.

lemonadefish (#3,296)

@Karebot PLUS mom is generally also home in the evenings, so if something is too difficult, she can help deal with it. It’s not the same sort of bootcamp as being alone for nine or ten hours at a time with a tiny screaming fragile thing.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)

@Karebot Thank you! I figured it would be something more than it seemed on the surface.

Kissy (#5,345)

@HelloTheFuture @Karebot I hope I didn’t sound judgment I meant my comment more because of the way the extract frames that guy’s prob… But reading your comments make a bit more sense to me…sounds like where there’s the full time parent at home during the day (mum) who is already doing the lion’s share of the parenting that dynamic naturally kinda continues at night.

HelloTheFuture (#5,275)


But this author’s attitude rankles. “Whoops I forgot to learn to parent?” A week has 168 hours, yo. Even taking out 60 for working/commuting, you have nearly twice as many parenting hours as you do working hours.

gyip (#4,192)

Ugh I deleted my comment … but I just wanted to point out that if I were the stay at home, I’d have a hard time making my spouse take a lot of night work. He works a 9-hour day, minus commuting and unexpected OT (which happens frequently), and he’d have to get up the next day.

Also, are your calculations including any sleep? :) If you work/commute 60 hours a week and sleep 8 hours a night (which is lucky!), that’s 116 hours out of the 168 hours you point out. So that’s really 52 hours left for parenting.

Those 52 hours, of course, does not include household work (which hopefully even as the working parent you’re still doing … be it cooking, laundry, cleaning, groceries, etc), morning routines (mine takes 1 hour each morning because I’m slow to get out of bed), and leisure time. That’s also assuming your commute is what I consider manageable … I’ve known some people who drive 2-4 hours A DAY for work, which is insane to me.

That’s also assuming work takes up 60 hours … if you work in academia or many other industries, taking work home or working weekend or evening OT is incredibly common. My partner works in an industry where it’s common to be asked to work weekends or long evenings. He’s had colleagues sleep at the office when there are tight deadlines.

I’m not disagreeing that fatherhood is an incredibly important issue, but it’s also complex, affected by ability, desire, will, and external limitations. Breaking it down like “you have X number of hours to parent!” is a little simple and more than a bit unfair.

lemonadefish (#3,296)

My husband is taking the first two weeks off, and then taking weeks 13 and 14 after I go back to work – still not much, but at least it’s some alone time with the baby… (He doesn’t get paternity leave, but he has some extra vacation saved up.)

ATF (#4,229)

A good friend of mine had a kid just over two years ago. Her husband had a job that allowed him carry over and bank unlimited vacation time. Not using it all up every year meant by the time their son was born, the husband had roughly six weeks vacation time to use. If we want to use personal, anecdotal evidence to support the theory that the amount of time parenting the first few weeks sets the tone, they’re a great example as they have to have one of the most equitable and balanced parenting relationships I’ve ever seen. And she does say that having him home the first month and a half was huge in establishing their routines.

Poubelle (#2,186)

@ATF My cousin is lucky enough to work someplace that gives the same amount of paternity leave as maternity leave, and it led to the same sort of equitable parenting you’re describing. (It probably helps that my cousin really wanted to be a dad.)

@ATF Of course, there’s a chicken-and-egg issue here. Do they have an equitable and balanced parenting relationship because the dad was home a lot at first, or did the dad make staying home a lot a priority because they have an equitable and balanced parenting relationship? I’m not saying your wrong, but it’s something to consider, especially because in most cases (in this dumb country), neither parent gets adequate paid leave, so somebody has to sacrifice. That means that there is some element of choice in which parent sacrifices, which may mean that the parents who go against the prevailing grain and make sure the dad is home as much as the mom do so because that’s what matters to them. Maybe. I need data.

@fo (#839)

“men (at least in academia) would be more likely to choose to focus on their careers over having that time at home”

Men, at least in academia and several other degree-requiring professions, will *very often* be judged as “insufficiently dedicated” to work if they “choose” to take paternity leave.

What would be useful is a real study of those tenure-track academics, what they fields were, where they were on the track when they took leave, whether there were any complications with the kid, etc etc etc. I would wager that those who “took leave” were superstars, or in ‘in demand’ fields, or were ‘taking leave’ w/o *really* taking leave (eg, stepping out of lab, but still teaching), or they ended up passed over for tenure by at least a year. It’s really unfair to look at that single stat and draw that conclusion.

Karebot (#5,803)

@@fo Agreed– childbearing years usually fall during the time in one’s career when you have the weakest benefits and least amount of power to take time off from work. Lining that up against an academic career makes it almost impossible to take parental leave unless it’s during the summer.

Let’s not even revisit the likelihood of having a tenure-track job and earning a living wage in the midst of having a baby.

@@fo But a conclusion you *can* draw from it is that the combination of family-unfriendly policies and the stupid cultural assumption that the mom just stays home and that’s how it is makes academia a really hard place for women to compete, merit notwithstanding.

We have the exact opposite problem – husband has two months paid off, I have two weeks paid off + four weeks unpaid. Currently trying to negotiate working from home after six weeks off so we can stay together as a team for awhile. My mom will visit to fill in the gaps.

Just typing that I only have two weeks paid – which is not maternity leave but vacation days I’m trying to squirrel away – makes me sick to my stomach. Every purchase I make now I think of in my take home pay each day. There goes a half day on groceries. There goes two days on a plane ticket to see a friend.

I don’t know how two parents who work and both have shitty maternity/paternity leave policies even function. All the gold stars to you.

j a y (#3,935)

In Canada, after maternity leave, parents can split just under a year of parental leave. During this time, they receive employment insurance, which doesn’t often cover their full salary, but it’s much better than nothing…

It’s a fairly recent development, though – my parents didn’t get it when they had me.

theballgirl (#1,546)

This is a sore spot for me as I think it directly relates to a lot of the “Parenting is NO FUN” and “Parenting sucks” (and alternately, “Stop saying parenting sucks!”) articles. The difficulty, not only mentally but also physically, that comes along with parenting an infant for those first 6-12 months is really unrivaled*. And it’s BEYOND disgusting that we are the only developed nation to NOT offer paid maternity/paternity leave. B E Y O N D.

*in many cases. Yes sometimes (rarely) this is not the case: baby sleeps 8 hours at 6 weeks old, is laid back, blah blah blah.

Lily Rowan (#70)

I had a male coworker who took several weeks of paternity leave — after his wife went back to work. I think that was a great call, as it gave him at least some of that really focused one-on-one time. It is possible, even in the US! (I’m not sure what the pay situation was at that job for paternity leave.)

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