Paternity leave blues

Why two weeks off isn’t enough

March 21, 2014 7:00AM ET
It’s not easy for hands-on dads who want to have it all.
Catherine Ledner

Lately, it seems all the women in my neighborhood are pregnant. Must be something in the water here in Brooklyn, or a procreative byproduct of a cold winter. Whatever the cause, the maternity wear in evidence as I stroll down the block makes me think about those early days following the birth of my first child, when my then-wife and I were weaned from the sweet consolations of the hospital nurses and sent home. So home we went, with little more, it seemed, than a free package of diapers, an infant slumbering in the brand-new car seat and the memory of the lactation consultant’s breast-feeding lecture slowly undermining my wife’s self-esteem.

And then the work began. Well, not right away. Those first couple of weeks weren’t so bad. Mom may have felt a bit poorly, as they say in the lesser Victorian novels, but the kid slept most of the time, the delivery-room adrenaline still coursed through my veins, and the women — her mom, my mom, aunts, older sister, younger sister, well-meaning female friends, the socialist-vegan lady down the hall with the gluten intolerance and the cats — descended, bearing sage advice and a brusque dismissal of my attempts to care for the baby. The workload was bearable. I even answered a few work emails, snapped a lot of pictures, wrote several drafts of my memoirs.

I got to hold the youngster, of course, took my turns rocking him to sleep, made a big show of changing diapers so everyone knew that I was a modern sort of dude and expected to be involved. I was ignored, for the most part, or condescended to or corrected by our mothers, whose infant care experience ended in the 1970s. And then, soon enough — exactly two weeks, in fact — I returned to the office, leaving my careerist, high-earning wife to the three-month child care boot camp we call maternity leave. During that time, she went completely bonkers from isolation, love, responsibility and lack of sleep. But when it ended and she returned to her job, she had been permanently transformed. Gone was the person she had once been, replaced by a skilled, fully functional parent.

When my wife returned to work, it was to a night-shift job. She remained home with our child during the day, and I took charge of him in the evening. It was then that I finally got my chance to be involved and take some responsibility for the baby, which was great and good and wonderful — until the realization set in that I hadn’t the faintest idea what to do. I’d been home for only two weeks. There had been no boot camp for me, no fatherhood trial by fire, and all my wife had left me was a couple of bottles of defrosted breast milk, one of those play mats with BPA-safe whale-shaped rattles attached to it, and the mandate to just take care of it. That, and the utter certainty that when Mom — an old pro by now — got home she would enumerate the ways in which I had done everything wrong, or at least not precisely the way she wanted it done. And how could it be otherwise? I was at that point a parenting incompetent, a novice, a newbie, one who had no chance to catch up to the blessed, all-knowing mother, brimming with tricks, lessons and naptime subterfuges acquired during her crucible at home.

Early parenting anxieties

Everyone knows that maternity leave is important. It allows mother to bond with baby. The time also gives mothers the chance to learn how to parent. Despite this obvious fact, America’s work policies do not reflect this knowledge. What’s more, they also do great disservice to fathers, who have the same need for time to bond with their children and to learn how to parent.

Mothers reading this story may not sympathize with my early parenting anxieties. That period when the menfolk trot blithely back to work? It’s a vacation compared with the maelstrom of diapers, screaming, and mom-group comic-opera to which they are subjected. What’s more, most American women don’t have the option of leave, as my first and second wives did — I have a son from my first marriage and two daughters with my current wife — to figure out this whole child-rearing business. Ours remains the only industrialized country in the world that does not guarantee mothers some form of paid leave after childbirth, according to a report from the Center for American Progress. We are, in that regard, united with the high-minded folks in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Papua New Guinea. As for the states, only California, New Jersey and Rhode Island require paid family leave, but not, mind you, at full pay. 

I look back on my time learning how to take care of my first child, with a nod to the Peace Corps, as the only traumatic experience I’ll ever love.

We do, of course, have the Family and Medical Leave Act, but that protects only unpaid leave of three months, a slim privilege when you consider that only about half of Americans — federal workers and those at companies with over 50 employees — qualify for it. Nor can we count on our private-sector employers. The Family and Work Institute’s 2012 National Study of Employers found that just 58 percent of U.S. companies offered some paid leave to mothers, usually through their temporary disability insurance plans. Only 14 percent do so for men. Worse, the trend toward full compensation during maternity leave has declined in recent years, from an unimpressive 14 percent in 2005 to a shameful 9 percent in 2012. Numbers on companies offering paid paternity leave, apparently, are so inconsiderable as not to be included in the study.

To be fair, women have ample reason to be skeptical of our good faith; fathers haven’t exactly leaped at their meager opportunities. A 2012 study found that 88 percent of fathers turned down paid paternity leave when it was offered. Just 32 percent of women did. Another 2012 study, my favorite, was conducted among professors at the University of Virginia and noted that even when both mother and father took paid family leave, only three out of the 109 male participants actually performed an equal share of the child care, even in homes with an avowed gender-neutral ideology.

And me, did I do my share? Lamentably, I did not, at least with my first child. I wanted to, I meant to, I aspired to, despite my inherent laziness and genetic aversion to difficult tasks. Partly, as described above, I felt excluded and unfit, a lame excuse and one that was both true and stupid: No one knows how to be a parent until he or she is one. The point is, even though I take some responsibility for my fate, I wasn’t exactly afforded the best chance to succeed. Whatever the causes of my ineptitude, I ended up paying for it. 

Doing more

I look back on my time learning how to take care of my first child, with a nod to the Peace Corps, as the only traumatic experience I’ll ever love. I was far from a natural father, and it took a lot longer than three months to attain the parental self-assurance my son’s mother had developed during her leave. In some small part, the dissolution of our marriage correlated with my insistence on equality as a parent, which may not have actually been deserved, at least not at that point. (Two and a half years after the birth of our child, we separated and eventually divorced.)

Paternity leave, paid or otherwise, probably wouldn’t have changed my fate. The more biologically deterministic among us might say that leave wouldn’t change anything: Mothers are better parents because they are mothers. I tend to think not, but who knows, and quite frankly, who cares? In the sliver of the world in which I live, men are being asked to do more to care for their children, and many of those same fathers are asking, in turn, to do more. Developing the necessary skills, rapport and confidence won’t be achieved through paternity leave alone, but it’s a start. This strikes me as an admirable, equitable goal, one that has ramifications for both our collective home and work lives, not to mention the well-being of fathers, mothers and children alike.

Theodore Ross is the author of a memoir, Am I a Jew? (Plume, 2013). His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper's magazine, the Oxford American, The Atlantic, Saveur, Buzzfeed, Medium and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about modern manhood.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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