Why is paid paternity leave considered a luxury?

Family/Kids, Money, Relationships, Rights

Leave for new fathers has been in the news a lot recently, thanks to the rollout of shiny new paid paternity leave policies at high-profile companies: Netflix announced unlimited paid parental leave, and Adobe now offers four weeks of full-paid leave for non-primary caregivers. People wait with anticipation to see if Mark Zuckerberg makes use of his company’s policy after his first child is born: new parents at Facebook can take four months of paid leave.

CNN claims “it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas when it comes to paid maternity and paternity leave,” but the United States is still not on the world map when it comes to paternity leave laws. A 2014 International Labor Organization parental leave report shows that 70 countries have national paternity leave entitlement laws (most of which provide paid leave), while the United States leaves it up to private enterprise, with no federal law mandating leave for new dads.

In hopes of bringing us in line with the rest of the developed world, more and more men are suing their employers, demanding paid time off to take care of their families. “We’ve seen a sharp uptick in lawsuits by men,” says Joan C. Williams of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “I think that there has been studies for over a decade showing that men wanted more time off for family and personal life. What I think has changed [is that] finally they are acting on it.”

A full 25 percent of the calls to the Center for WorkLife Law’s hotline for Family Responsibilities Discrimination are from men. While some of the calls are about their wives or girlfriends, many of the calls are about the men themselves, says Williams.

Taking baby steps

But don’t those new policies at Netflix and Facebook show that change is underway? Maybe, but it could be a long time coming. Those headline-grabbing policies are far from the norm at American companies. A 2015 survey conducted by the Society for Human Resource Management shows that a mere 17 percent of companies polled had paid paternity leave policies.

“It’s a hardship for some people to have a child and to leave work, and we are definitely behind other developed countries,” says lawyer Jennifer A. Brandt, who practices with the Family Law Group at Cozen O’Connor. “Maternity and paternity leave laws need to change across the board… [but] it’s not a top priority for lawmakers and change isn’t imminent.” Brandt also notes, “There’s a need for balance too, with employers facing the hardship of needing to pay employees on leave.”

The cultural shift that’s occurred to even put paternity leave on the map shows that millennials care about work-life balance according to Williams, who adds that there are two ideas behind work-life balance: family needs and “fun employment.” She says that some men are seeking to balance their work and family responsibilities, essentially saying “I’m a father and a worker.” But, she adds, “Others say, ‘I’m going to work around the clock and then I’m going to be fun employed…I did a start-up and sold it. Now I’m taking a break.’”

Your kids = your problem

These contradictory cultural norms are part of the reason why Williams doesn’t expect federal laws regarding paid paternity to be enacted anytime soon, despite the uptick in paternity leave lawsuits. “America has the most family-hostile policy in the developed world,” she says. “Countries with strong maternity and paternity leave have stronger unions than we have. They also typically have a more positive attitude toward social programs.”

“People in these countries also believe having children means we are raising the next generation of citizens,” says Williams. “Here, having a child if often seen as having your own private frolic.”

But as any conscientious parent will tell you, raising a child, while rewarding, is hardly a frolic. And perhaps no task in the parenting playbook is more stressful than caring for a newborn. If legally mandated paid leaves can help new dads and moms shoulder that responsibility, shouldn’t we consider it?

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