Paternity Leave is Trending

Since I normally blog about my work as an educator, I didn’t expect to have much to write about while out on paternity leave. But it turns out that paternity leave itself is the topic du jour! About two weeks after my wife and I welcomed our firstborn into the world, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan made news with the birth of their daughter (and their plans to give away billions of dollars to charity).

Zuckerberg also made news by very publicly announcing that he is taking a two-month paternity leave; exactly the length of my leave. In today’s NYTimes, Claire Cain Miller examines how Zuckerberg’s leave might help reduce the stigma associated with men taking time off after the birth of a child. Despite the fact that my employer provides equal opportunities for fathers and mothers to take parental leave, it’s evident that the moms take leaves more often, and for longer stretches of time. I can understand why: though no one at work is putting any pressure on me to cut my leave short, I have internalized angst about how it might affect my career anyway.

The details of my leave fit with the data discussed in Miller’s article. She writes that, “Fathers of sons were twice as likely to take leave as fathers of daughters, though it is unclear why.” I am indeed taking paternity leave to welcome a son into the world, but I was planning a leave of this length regardless of the gender of the newborn, and my wife and I left that as a surprise for ourselves. (The first question everyone asks when they hear that you are having a baby: “Do you know what you are having?” Why this obsession with the gender of the child?) I believe that I’d be taking the same two-month leave either way, but since we had a son, I guess we’ll never know.

Miller also writes that, “[m]en who worked in jobs with a large share of female workers were also more likely to take leave.” Indeed, I am a faculty member at an independent school, and the entire field of K-12 education skews toward a female workforce. Were I an investment banker or a consultant or a lawyer, would I feel equally empowered to take a long paternity leave? The data seems to suggest that I would not. (Ironic, since I would presumably be in a more enviably financial position to take such a leave!)

The important reason to take a paternity leave of at least two weeks in length comes later in the article, when Miller writes “that fathers who took two or more weeks of leave were significantly more likely to do child-care tasks like diapering and feeding later on.” My leave has been motivated mostly out of a desire to be an equal partner in parenting with my wife, and it’s encouraging that the data supports that these roles, once set during an initial parental leave, persist long after the leaves are over. This makes plenty of sense; my wife and I are learning to handle diapering and comforting our son together. If I didn’t take the time away from work, there would quickly develop a powerful imbalance in terms of which partner in the marriage was skillful at these childcare tasks. I don’t want to be the dad who doesn’t know how to dress the baby, or what to do with the dirty diapers, or how to get the baby to stop crying.

Apparently Zuckerberg is publicly taking a long leave to set an example and thereby make it okay for Facebook employees to take all of the (generous) parental leave time that they have coming to them. While I am away from work, fretting over what my leave might be doing to my career, I might also be making it easier for more of my future-dad-colleagues to take a full paternity leave after their children are born. (And I am already benefiting from paternity leaves taken by some male colleagues in recent years who made it more acceptable for me.) If I reframe the issue in my mind, perhaps I can feel a sense of pride in what I am doing instead of worrying about the career consequences.

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