Paid family leave is a huge issue in the U.S. with many new parents still fighting for access to this basic benefit. In December 2019, the federal government announced that its 2.1 million employees will receive paid parental leave under the new defense bill, which would give 12 weeks of paid leave government employees with newborns, newly adopted children, or foster children.
Interestingly, this exciting progress is juxtaposed with data showing that fathers are less likely to take leave for fear of damaging their professional reputation or affecting future earning potential. Despite all the obvious and lasting benefits dedicated time with family can bring, working fathers still are not comfortable staying at home—even temporarily.
Taking leave is an opportunity to normalize parenthood for both mom and dad. As a father of three and husband to a wife who works full time running an engineering organization, I have experienced firsthand the challenges of managing a career and growing a new family. In 2014, when I first took 12 weeks of paid paternity leave, this benefit was new and without much precedent. I was met with many concerns from co-workers and other new parents. I was often asked if I intended to “use it all,” suggesting that reconfiguring my family could be optimized in four weeks. Flexible schedules were offered as a workaround to being away from my work for months, making the assumption fatherhood could be consolidated into every other Friday.
My recommendation and answer to co-workers in my situation has always been the same: Take it all, and take it at once. My uninterrupted time off was the most direct way I found to understand how to fulfill the needs of my newly formed family.
Not only is paternity leave an opportunity for dads to strengthen their relationship and role in a growing family, but the recent expansion of this leave is also an additional opportunity for dads to normalize family leave in the workplace for everyone. I’ve worked for two companies that have offered full time off for each of my three children. A fantastic by-product of taking the full time off is that you become part of creating a culture of normalcy—leave then changes from an option to an expectation.
I remember learning and struggling with the adjustments of parenthood alongside my wife. Leave was made more focused having been assured that no one at work was waiting on me to reply to a Slack or email. I took time off to be with my new child one-on-one. I got in tune with her sleep schedule, the perfect way to transition her into her crib for a nap, and could even recognize her different cries. Like any other skill, I was able to grow and become proficient through repetitive and consistent dad practice.
By taking the leave and fully removing the distraction of my career, I was able to be focused on supporting my family. Truthfully, this also gave my team the ability to focus on business without me (following a defined and comprehensive transition plan) and allowed me to return to the office ready to hit the ground running on the next challenge.
My time at home also gave my wife an easier transition back into the workforce. Knowing baby was at home with me, continuing our routine, and available to communicate updates was an incredible benefit to my wife. The stress we ask mothers to endure—to be separated from their new babies—is also an opportunity for fathers to step in and extend the nurturing time at home. Not only was paternity leave a benefit for myself to grow as a father, it also helped my wife stay focused on her career growth.
We are all constantly balancing attention and focus between family and work. And while I love my job and my team, I am always reminded that the arc of one’s career is usually over 40 years long. Compare that to the 12 short weeks when your child is first getting introduced to the world and you. Any opportunity to focus on that fleeting time is so valuable and not regained through negotiation or job changes. I would far prefer to put my 40-year career on hold for a few months in order to make that 12 weeks count. When you put it in those terms, it’s a no brainer. Take the damn leave!