Women don’t all yearn for the boardroom; some are instead focused on the rec room, Catherine Rampell reported in a front-page and much-discussed New York Times article yesterday. She paints a picture of harried women dying to get a little extra time away from the office to spend with their kids, focusing mostly on the story of Sara Uttech, a working mother in Fall River, Wisconsin. In Rampell’s piece, Uttech’s husband, and all husbands, appear just off frame. As Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote, “They are but a parenthetical, maybe an em dash.” Quite literally—men are mentioned as an aside, background noise in their children’s lives. When Uttech’s husband’s caregiving duties are mentioned, it is to say that the working mother “gets a lot of help: from her husband, Michael,” among other family members who pitch in. Fathers might as well be hired hands.
Rampell is not alone in assuming that mothers parent and dads baby-sit. The Census Bureau has made the same assumptions, calling mothers “designated parents” and counting the time fathers care for their kids as merely stepping in for said designated parent.
Our expectations for men and women once they have kids directly informs workplace policy. Take paid family leave. Asymmetrical assumptions about men and women play out on the global stage: while 175 other countries offer paid maternity leave (the United States not among them), only sixty-six of those offer fathers paid time off. Here at home, parents are only guaranteed twelve weeks of unpaid leave for the arrival of a new child. But while thirty-two states go above the federal floor to offer more help, just fourteen of them extend leave to fathers.
Little wonder, then, that American fathers rarely take time off. In a survey of nearly 1,000 working fathers with at least one young child, the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that over 15 percent didn’t take any time off when their child arrived. Only one in twenty took more than two weeks off, and a mere one in 100 took more than four weeks.
Does that mean fathers don’t want to take time off? No. If paid family leave policies include men, men use them. California’s paid family leave program, which includes dads, has significantly increased the amount of time fathers take off, from 35 percent before the law to 76 percent after. Among fathers in low-income jobs, the average length of leave has nearly tripled.
The effects go beyond welcoming a new child into a home. One longitudinal study found that fathers who took two or more weeks after their children were born were more involved in the direct care of those kids nine months later.
But so long as workplace policies are designed for mothers to spend more time with their children and assume fathers don’t have such needs, dads will continue to take less time off, pushing women to be the ones to constantly adjust their work schedules to accommodate a family. That in turn leads to the assumption that it’s mothers who need flex time, part-time, family leave, sick leave, that they will escape from the traditional slog to spend time at home and that fathers will show up to work sixty hours a week, fifty-two weeks a year. Our policies have to break this cycle. And they can.
But we have to go even further than offering paid paternity leave. We have to make sure men are equally interrupting their jobs to care for kids. In Sweden, fathers can take up to 240 days of paid leave, but they must take at least two months off for the family to get any benefits at all. As a result, 85 percent of fathers take leave. This can transform the way employers see men and women and decrease the motherhood penalty women face. Once men are expected to take leave, these policies stop being women’s issues and just start being issues.
Men have a thirst for this shift as much as women do. Rampell notes that less than half of workers of either gender are actually striving for a job with more responsibilities. The fathers interviewed by Boston College placed a high importance on flexible work arrangements, valuing it over good advancement opportunities and high income. One study reported that fathers in two-earner couples feel significantly greater work-life conflict than mothers, a trend that has been rising rapidly. Half of the working fathers Pew recently polled said that it is difficult for them to balance their jobs and their families. It found “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.”
Ms. Uttech’s husband, the Times article reports, has seen his construction business “battered” by the housing crash, putting more importance on her earnings. Why, then, wouldn’t he step up the work to be done at home? Because no one expects, let alone encourages, him to.
It’s time that we take the gender out of parenting. That will take a lot of weight off of all parents.
Last night, sixty-four people were arrested for protesting a bill that will limit abortion access at one of North Carolina’s “Moral Monday” rallies.