My son was ten days old when my husband left me.
It wasn’t his choice to abandon his wife, newborn son, and young toddler at home alone, but the circumstances necessitated it. Granted, I knew he would be returning in 8-9 hours, but as I rocked my premature son to sleep and tried to convince my 17-month-old not to jump off the couch, I felt completely alone. His short week of paternity leave was over, stretched only slightly by the weekends that bookended it.
My body still ached from the birth, my eyes were bleary from a lack of sleep, and my muscles had yet to recover from the eight months of added demands that had been placed on them. The baby, born a month early, refused to nurse or even drink from a syringe, and my milk supply had rapidly begun to falter.
I was sentenced to the couch where I nursed, pumped, comforted, stood briefly to stretch my legs or to find a bite of something to eat, and then returned to put on another episode of Daniel Tiger. The cycle repeated almost hourly.
By noon I had caved. I called my mother-in-law to see if she could come stay with me for the rest of the week.
I was grateful that my husband was able to take any time off at all, and paid nonetheless. Many families aren’t so lucky. About 75 percent of fathers take a week of paternity leave or less after their child is born or adopted, and 16 percent don’t take any time off. Even if they do get time off, the vast majority of paternity leaves are unpaid – 87 percent, compared to 79 percent of maternity leaves.
While the clamor for paid maternity leave is increasingly reaching the ears of business leaders and policy makers, the cry for paternity leave remains a weak whimper. Entire families benefit, however, when a father is able stay at home and care for the new addition. When my husband returned to work, I was primarily focused on how much I wanted him at home to help me out, but it is dads and kids who unsurprisingly reap the most benefits.
And the benefits are plentiful. The children of dads who take longer paternity leaves and spend more time with them have fewer behavioral and mental health problems than kids of dads who did not. Men who take even just two weeks of leave are more active caregivers when the baby is nine months old – feeding, changing diapers, and getting the baby back to sleep in the middle of the night.
Numerous studies from around the world show even more benefits paternity leave gives to families – higher rates of breastfeeding, better performance in schools, lower rates of divorce, increased participation in household tasks by fathers, and it all seems to come down to fathers taking a more active role in family life.
But one of the biggest benefits paternity leave offers is how it helps women work. When fathers can stay at home longer to take care a new baby, mothers are better able to return to work outside of the home. Studies in Canada and Sweden – two countries that offer months of parental leave to mothers and/or fathers – found that mothers were more likely to work full-time, boosting a family’s earnings.
Despite the enormous benefits of paid paternity leave to families, policymakers continue to give it the short shrift. Currently, federal law offers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave to some employees – those working at companies with 50 or more employees and who have been at their jobs for at least a year, regardless of gender, through the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Even though my husband was not eligible for FMLA after the birth of either of our children, we definitely would not have been able to afford to go months without his paycheck.
Statistics and research-proven benefits aside, I saw how difficult it was for my husband to balance work and family. One scale was loaded with demands to help at home, the other with the need to bring home a paycheck and the workplace pressure to return as soon as possible. It never tipped in his favor. Not only was he caught in a perpetual juggling act, but he also missed out on those precious early moments he desperately wanted to be around for.
Although I did survive the newborn haze with the help of my mother-in-law and my mother, I was certainly worse for the wear. After our first son was born, my husband went back to work two weeks later, just at the point when postpartum depression typically manifests itself. It would be another month before either of us realized that my constant crying and fatigue was something I needed help with. Now I wonder if he had been able to be around more during those first few weeks, if I would have suffered by myself for so long.
During my husband’s first week back at work, I came to the conclusion that if you are still bleeding from a major medical event, you should not be the person solely in charge of a newborn. While my husband may not have had to recover from birth like I did, I needed his help, and he needed to bond with our children.
Paternity leave matters for the entire family.