There is a perception that paid parental leave is a “women’s” issue. We see that perception from Republicans when they ridicule Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg for taking time off to welcome his new babies, but we also see it from Democrats when they scramble to put paid leave back into their spending bill (which never should have been taken out in the first place) only after advocates go ballistic and their party gets curb-stomped by white women in Virginia. The conventional wisdom is that paid parental leave (which is still simply called “maternity leave” by people who take pride in not learning new words) is primarily a social benefit to women.
The conventional wisdom isn’t entirely wrong. In a society where women still shoulder a disproportionate burden of childcare responsibilities, paid leave is a feminist issue. And while modern medicine has made childbirth something other than the leading cause of death for women of childbearing age, as it was for all of human history until the 1940s, the process of bringing a live human into the world is still dangerous, demanding, and so painful I can scarcely imagine it (or maybe I just don’t want to). Paid leave, just for recovery from the physical drama of childbirth, should be a baseline floor in a functional society. What kind of sick bastard looks at a new mother and thinks, “Welp, the important thing is that we stop her direct deposit until she can crawl back and work the register”?
And yet, stopping the inquiry at paid recovery-time feels like a policy prescription scrawled onto the wall of a cave by some dude named “Gurg” before he went out to beat his dinner with a stick. Child rearing should be a shared responsibility even in a two-parent, single-earner, “traditional” household. Meanwhile, with all due respect to those who liked the 1950s so much they decided to stay there, here in the future paid leave is something that many women and men want and need in order to achieve their domestic bliss without forgoing a paycheck—or, hell, a career.
Paid parental leave is an issue for the whole family. The New York Times recently published an article that detailed all the stuff we now know about the effects of leave on new families. We’ve found that spending time caring for infants remodels new parents’ brains, making them better (or at least more attentive) caregivers. We know that parents who spend time with their new children report better relationships and bonding as they grow up. And one study found that even two weeks of parental leave taken by both parents reduces the divorce rate of those couples by 26 percent. Secondary caregivers—be they men in a cis-hetero-normative relationships with an unbalanced division of childcare responsibility, or the non-birthing partner in a two-parent set up—should be clamoring for paid leave just as much as primary caregivers and single parents. Simply holding a baby a lot makes a person’s brain change from “selfish prick” mode to “I should feed it, and teach it language” mode.
Unfortunately, actual research and facts are not enough to change the worldview of a lot of Americans. We live in a society, after all, where people still think guns keep them safe despite a mountain of evidence that gun owners are more likely to harm themselves or loved ones than protect themselves from crime. At this very moment, we are fighting Covid-19 with one hand tied behind our backs because people are taking horse dewormer pushed by comedians instead of medicine pushed by scientists. The fact that the research says parental leave benefits both parents isn’t going to change the minds of the men who think child-rearing is “women’s work” and there’s nothing for them to do until the kid is old enough to learn a jump shot.
The list of things dads can do to care for a newborn includes literally everything except lactating. And modern advances in the fields of storage and refrigeration largely obviate even that oft-cited gender distinction. There are some dads who could benefit from parental leave solely as a crash course in “Babies: It’s Your Problem Too” if they didn’t use the previous nine months to study. For instance, I learned how to swaddle a child during my parental leave. It’s a life skill I still use to make burritos.
Indeed, one of the best arguments for paid parental leave is to give parents the time and space to learn these skills, with the social signifier that learning to take care of babies is an important, valued, and expected use of time. Parental leave is not an excuse to take a “vacation,” unless being locked in a house with a loud, demanding, barely sentient meat bag full of poop is your idea of a good time. It’s a moment to adjust to an entirely new being that a person or a couple must help. Too often, women are treated like they’re supposed to know what to do “naturally” (they don’t), while men are treated like it’s OK for them to not know how to do a damn thing (it’s not). Mothers who struggle with things like breast feeding or total sleep deprivation are made to feel bad, like they’re failing somehow, while fathers who can’t sanitize a bottle or change the Diaper Genie are humored, as if practiced incompetence is encoded on their Y-chromosome.
Politically, paid leave should be a slam dunk, as it is in every other wealthy society. Recent polling shows 82 percent of mothers and 69 percent of fathers (maybe there is something wrong with the Y-chromosome) think they should get paid time off upon birth or adoption of a child. Even male politicians the world over understand that time off to raise a family strengthens the entire nation. Benjamin Netanyahu, not known for his progressive outlook, pushed his government to give at least one week of paid paternity leave (Israel gives 26 weeks of paid maternity leave). Vladimir Putin’s Russia gives 18 months of leave paid at 40 percent of salary, which can be taken by either caregiver (mothers get 140 days of leave paid at 100 percent of salary).
But here in the United States, where there is no federally mandated paid leave, we have male politicians like Josh Hawley, a dime-store fascist who has latterly been running around talking about “masculinity” and bemoaning pornography and video games but will not raise the same clenched fist he gave to the January 6 insurrectionists to the cause of paid leave. Hawley’s version of masculinity is a hollow one, the kind that is more concerned with making children than raising them. If Hawley were a farmer, he’d be the guy who spews seeds all over the ground—instead of the one getting his hands dirty while tilling the earth—and then magically expecting to be served a salad.
He has help, as all Republicans do, from Joe Manchin. Biden is on record supporting 12-weeks of paid parental leave, but Democrats took that proposal out of their spending bill because Manchin opposed it. Now Democrats in the House have reinserted a rump paid-leave proposal—four weeks as opposed to 12—but Manchin is still obstinate.
Manchin has said he’s for paid leave (a statement I have no reason to believe, since he has not done one thing to make it happen) but doesn’t want it in this bill. He said his objection to the House reinstating the proposal is that he doesn’t want increased social spending, and that “we can’t go too far left.”
Again, it’s not a progressive idea that people should get time off to care for newborns; it’s a global idea. But men like Manchin and Hawley have decided that taking care of our own families at the very moment those families expand is somehow bad for business. They’ve refused to support a politically popular policy, even though most of the rest of the world has figured out that paid leave makes them stronger. They’ve reduced fatherhood to throwing some fresh meat at their kids and then trundling off to impregnate others, knuckles scraping the ground as they go.
I do not think Democrats should pass paid family leave because it will help them win elections (though I can’t see how it hurts). I think Democrats should support it because all the best evidence tells us that spending time learning to care for our children helps those children thrive. Essentially, I think paid leave is one of the things we can do to help our country stop producing men like Josh Hawley and Joe Manchin.