Anders Holm (whose name has been changed at his request) used his vacation time to spend two weeks at home after the birth of his first child, a daughter, last year. He opted to then take an additional two months through the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which grants up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to mothers and fathers in workplaces with more than 50 employees. That was all when the family lived in California. The family has since relocated to Dallas, where leave is more like a luxury.
“Texas is really far behind when it comes to granting employees leave,” says Dr. Angela Thompson, a sociology instructor at Texas Christian University. “Vacation, sick and parental leave aren’t even required under Texas law.”
But more and more dads now find themselves in a quest for work-life harmony. In survey after survey, fathers express a desire to be more involved co-parents and take a more active role in rearing the kids.
“Honestly, I wouldn’t make a job decision based on being able to take two weeks off after having a baby,” says Paul Ford (whose name has been changed at his request), who works for a company in Dallas and only took one day off after the birth of his son. “It’s more about the message that the company sends.”
“However, not many companies display evidence of a true balance,” Ford explains. “A company that allows for some sort of paternal leave shows that a better balance is ingrained in company culture.”
And evidence is mounting that everybody benefits when Dad gets to take time off after baby arrives. There’s no denying the obvious perks paternity leave has for baby (studies show that early bonding means more involved dads down the road). For Mom, research not only indicates that dads who take paternity leave share in the household duties more, but the initial hands-on help from Dad proves to benefit Mom’s mental health too, even reducing the risk of post-partum depression. And according to Dr. Sheryl Skaggs, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Dallas, employers win when paid leave is offered too.
“Yes, there is an investment that companies have to make up front, but it’s short term” Skaggs explains. “In the long run, employees who are offered some sort of paid paternal leave stay longer, are more committed and companies don’t have to pay to retrain someone new.”
Yet, for all the positives, fewer than one in six U.S. firms currently offer paid paternity leave, according to recent surveys from the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute.
And while Texas ranks No. 23 in the nation for overall parental leave, according to a study out last month from WalletHub, the Dallas-Fort Worth area houses only a few companies with explicit paternity leave policies. At Amazon, which has recently expanded into North Texas, fathers, who have worked for the company for more than a year, get six weeks of paid leave. Ryan, LLC, a tax service company in Dallas, started giving new dads a two-week paid leave last year. Oak Mortgage Group, also based in Dallas, allots dads with 35 days of job-protected paternity leave, according to an employee survey. Even major-league baseball formalized paternity leave — three days’ worth — for dads thanks to the Texas Rangers’ pitcher Colby Lewis, who was the first baseball player ever to take paternity leave after the birth of his second child in 2011, though he was vilified by some in sports media for the decision since it occurred during the season.
That’s because in the United States, stigmas die hard. Even men who want to take time off after the birth of a child look at it as a career-limiting move.
“Society still expects men to work and be the breadwinner,” Thompson explains. “So men feel like they need to keep one foot in the door even in the days following the birth or adoption of a child.”
Men who request family leave (paid or unpaid), even a flexible schedule such as working one day from home after the addition of a new family member risk being viewed as a slacker, unmasculine and — most dangerously — insufficiently committed to their careers.
And for other fathers, like Ford, who weren’t given any paid leave, unpaid time off just doesn’t make financial sense for their families. After all, those diapers aren’t free.
There is hope on the horizon, however, for dads who want to take some sort of paid leave. Three states — California, New Jersey and Rhode Island — recently implemented programs requiring employers to give both parents paid parental leave, financed by disability money that comes out of payroll taxes. And earlier this year, President Barack Obama granted all federal workers six weeks of paid parental leave.
“I see signs of change, but will be a slow path,” Thompson admits. “Changes are occurring on the state level, but the federal government lags. The only federal program, the FMLA, was established in 1993.”
Skaggs agrees that change will take time but is absolutely necessary.
“If we can make the initial investment in families now, it will save money down the road,” she says. “We’ll save money on recovery programs, in prison systems and other negative aspects of social life because we took time and money to take care of families and let them bond early on.”