Why Paternity Leave is Critical for New Moms

Why Paternity Leave is Critical for New Moms

We’re excited to host our first guest blogger, Clare Thomas-Klemme, who details how paternity leave is critical for new moms, and how parental leave is a human right that should be available to all families. Clare Thomas-Klemme is a Family Sciences scholar and PhD candidate at the University of Georgia, where she studies fatherhood and how fatherhood and mental health intersect. Clare previously shared her story with EEM of balancing her studies while mothering, which you can read in full here.

Editing credential to Bethany Bartholomew.

When we had our child, my husband was offered two weeks of paid paternity leave by his employer. We knew exactly what we were going to do with those two weeks: take turns sleeping, eating, and loving our little newborn. Those two weeks did two very important things for us. First, my husband’s presence allowed my physical recovery to progress smoothly and quickly by providing the time I needed to relax and heal. Second, it gave my husband time to enjoy each sweet little moment with our newborn and build a strong, loving bond with him. Recently, my husband’s employer rolled out a new parental leave policy that includes 12 weeks of paid leave for parents—including fathers. We can only imagine what we could have done with 12 whole weeks together! The physical, relational, and mental health effects would have been life changing for us. And I believe that is the case for most parents. But most parents in the United States do not have the opportunity for paternity leave, let alone parental leave in general. 

From my years of experience researching fathers and families, I know that fathers play a vital role in child care and postpartum care. Father involvement after the birth of a child has been associated with increased self-efficacy for fathers (Trahan, 2018) as well as better health outcomes for mothers and children (Bratberg & Naz, 2014). It is a human right for both men and women to be allowed time with their infants, especially because that time can have a lasting impact on future parental involvement and child-parent attachments. Parental leave policies are essential for making this human right a reality for all parents. The US needs to implement holistic parental leave policies for both mothers and fathers to experience greater support as parents in the home and greater equality in the workforce.

The “Fatherhood Bonus” vs. the “Motherhood Penalty”

For the past 50 or so years, men have been viewed as the primary financial providers in the home, often characterized as working in an office all day while their partners stay home to care for their children. However, times are changing. Men are placing more value on their status as fathers and are adjusting their priorities at work to fit their family life (McGill, 2014). But the concept of men belonging in a career and women belonging at home is often still the assumption of many workplace practices. When compared to mothers, fathers often receive bigger promotions, better work experience, and higher wages because they are viewed as more committed to work and as the primary financial providers for their families (Hodges & Budig, 2010). The term “fatherhood bonus” was coined to capture the increased opportunities and privileges fathers receive in the workplace, especially compared to mothers or childless employees. 

Changing “maternity leave” to parental leave and focusing on fathers in their parental role could help equalize gender differences in the workplace and in the home.

In contrast, mothers take time off of work to give birth and are often responsible for managing child care and taking time off when their children are sick or day care falls through (Bourke-Taylor, Howie, & Law, 2011). Because of these responsibilities, mothers experience penalties, including reduced income and fewer opportunities at work (Budig & Hodges, 2010; Glauber, 2012). Even prior to having children, the possibility of motherhood can lead some corporations to be less likely to hire or promote women because they will have to adhere to maternity leave policies (Abendroth & Dulk, 2011). This disadvantage is often referred to in research as “the motherhood penalty” (Budig & Hodges, 2010). The penalty is based on the assumptions that mothers are the only primary caregivers of their child(ren) and that they will always prioritize family over work and therefore cannot be relied upon in a work setting. 

In this context, women succeeding in the workforce is not an issue of men versus women; this is an issue of fathers versus mothers. According to one researcher, a major factor in the parental pay gap is due more to child care than gender (Kmec, 2011), showing that if a greater balance could be found between parents in the home then more equality could be found in the workplace. Changing maternity leave to parental leave as well as focusing on fathers in their parenting role could help equalize gender differences in the workplace and in the home. As men and women prioritize fatherhood as equally important to motherhood, a family-friendly focus can develop in workspaces for both parents, creating opportunities for both mothers and fathers to be parents first and employees second.

Postpartum Mental Health and Parental Leave

Father involvement after the birth of a child has been associated with increased self-efficacy for fathers (Trahan, 2018) as well as better health outcomes for mothers and children (Bratberg & Naz, 2014).

Postpartum recovery is more than just healing stitches. Postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety are major health issues for both men and women, with up to 80% of mothers in the US experiencing “baby blues” (Carberg, 2021). Having a child is a family affair, and fathers can play a vital role in mothers’ recoveries. When fathers take paternity leave, mothers are more likely to have better emotional outcomes for their mental health (Chatterji & Markowitz, 2012). When a mother is experiencing PPD, their partner will often overcompensate by being more involved in child care and household tasks because the mother is emotionally unavailable (Goodman et al., 2014). This takes pressure off the mother, creating space and time for a better recovery. 

Fathers can also experience dramatic changes in their own mental health after having a child (Eddy et al., 2019). They can experience hormonal changes, such as a decrease in testosterone during their partner’s pregnancy (Saxbe et al., 2017). There is also evidence that fathers can experience birth trauma from witnessing especially difficult birth experiences and being powerless to help their partner (Webb et al., 2021). To complicate the issue further, men are less likely than women to receive help if they have depression (Genuchi & Mitsunaga, 2015), and they are less likely than women to be diagnosed with depression even if they do have it (Kilmartin, 2005). If both parents are struggling with their mental health, they could find themselves on a seesaw of necessity—one parent overcompensates for their partner’s low mental health only to crash themselves, resulting in their partner then needing to overcompensate, and back and forth. Paternity leave could benefit the entire family by allowing fathers time to recover and receive mental health help and to help their partners and lessen the effects of the mothers’ potential PPD.

Impacts of Paternity Leave on the Family

Father fishing with son, stronger relationship due to paternity leave

Fathers play a crucial role after the birth of a child, including providing physical, mental, and emotional support for their partners. According to research, when fathers do take paternity leave, there is less conflict in the home and increased equality in the division of household labor (Kotsadam & Finseraas, 2011), as well as increased life and family satisfaction (Kramer et al., 2019). One study found that when fathers took paternity leave, the mother of the child reported greater overall well-being up to three months postpartum (Redshaw & Henderson, 2013). In fact, according to research by Yargawa and Leonardi-Bee (2015), postpartum father involvement has a greater effect on maternal physical and mental health than father involvement during the delivery (Yargawa & Leonardi-Bee, 2015). 

Paternity leave can also have a direct impact on children. Evidence is consistent: paternity leave results in more father involvement and better outcomes for children (Nepomnyaschy & Waldfogel, 2007; Petts & Knoester, 2018). For example, Petts et al. (2020) found that two weeks of paternity leave was associated with children reporting more involvement and a better relationship with their father up to nine years later (Petts et al., 2020). This does not include research with more than one child in the home. The effects of paternity leave on both mothers and children could be even greater when multiple children are residing in the home and requiring attention and care from their parents. 

Unfortunately, even when paternity leave is available, many men choose not to take time off of work for their families because they are worried about being perceived as not committed or hard working enough (Petts et al., 2020). My husband struggled with this unspoken pressure after we had our child. He knew the time was available and his boss supported him taking paternity leave, but he still worried about falling behind with his peers or seeming lazy because he wasn’t working. Legally requiring paternity or parental leave, as they do in some countries, could normalize both men and women taking parental leave, thereby encouraging fathers to actually take that time off.

The United States vs. the World: Parental Leave Policies

Most developed countries throughout the world recognize the importance of parental leave. The International Labour Organization (ILO) has stated that paid parental leave is a fundamental human right that extends to new fathers (International Labour Organization, 2014). According to Holmes et al. (2020), “94% of OECD countries [an international organization focused on equality] have policies that provide fathers access to either paid paternity leave or paid parental leave that can be shared by mothers and fathers” (Holmes, Thomas, Petts, & Hill, 2020). Among the 38 OECD countries, the US remains the only country without a nationwide paid parental leave policy (World Bank Group, 2018). This exclusion demonstrates how little importance the US places on the role of fatherhood and parenting in general. 

Most parents in the United States do not have the opportunity for paternity leave, let alone parental leave in general.

Although a few states in the US have implemented parental leave policies, no nationwide parental leave policies are in place (Holmes, Thomas, Petts, & Hill, 2020). Because of this, most people rely on their employers to provide leave. Many employers allow for maternity leave, though not always with a guarantee of continued income (Holmes et al., 2020); but only recently have larger companies developed paternity leave policies. Companies like Netflix, American Express, and Facebook began leading the way with paid parental leave (Feloni, 2019), and others have followed. Although this is a step in the right direction, without a nationwide parental leave policy in place only the most privileged families have access to paternity leave at all. At present, many parents do not receive these benefits, including parents who are adopting a child, receiving a child through surrogacy, working multiple part-time jobs, or are in a low-income bracket (Budig & Hodges, 2010; Zagorsky, 2017). This lack of protected parental leave for all puts already disadvantaged families at an even further disadvantage.

Where To Go From Here

The birth of a child affects the entire family. Therefore, policies should be in place to care for the family as a whole. Although many in the US claim to hold family values in high regard, this is not evident in current national policies regarding parental leave. In my opinion, US culture needs to change before we are ready to embrace nationwide parental leave. Nationwide paternity leave could normalize prioritizing families and children over work hours for both fathers and mothers. When the focus of policy change is only on maternity leave and not paternity or parental leave in general, it keeps the responsibility of childcare solely on women, creating obstacles that often lead mothers to drop out of the workforce. Rather, the workforce should change to focus on parenting in general, and one of the first steps is bringing fathers into the home through paternity leave policies. In my opinion as a feminist and a family scholar who studies fathering, I truly believe that emphasizing paternity leave for fathers in the US could have positive lasting effects for both mothers and fathers in the home and in the workplace.


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