When Daddy Helps, Everyone Wins

Liza Mundy argues that paid paternity leave is an important tool for promoting gender equality:

[H]ere’s what men may not realize: While paid paternity leave may feel like an unexpected gift, the biggest beneficiaries aren’t men, or even babies. In the long run, the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women, and the companies and nations that benefit when women advance. In October, the World Economic Forum released its latest global gender-gap report, showing that countries with the strongest economies are those that have found ways to further women’s careers, close the gender pay gap, and keep women—who in most nations are now better educated than men—tethered to the workforce after they become mothers. One strikingly effective strategy used by the highest-ranking countries is paternity leave, which, whatever else it may accomplish, is a brilliant and ambitious form of social engineering: a behavior-modification tool that has been shown to boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.

Arlie Hochschild makes the economic case:

Those who advocate for paternity leave resort to various kinds of appeals. Some invoke feminist values, noting that paternity leave encourages dads to share the workload at home. Others point out that men who take paternity [leave] continue to be highly involved as their children grow older. In one study, University of Michigan researcher Norma Radin found that three-to-six year old sons of highly involved fathers ranked higher on tests of verbal intelligence. U.C. Berkeley psychologists Carolyn and Phil Cowan found that children with involved dads were better at classifying objects and placing things in logical order. And according to a study by psychologist Abraham Sagi, Israeli kids of attentive fathers showed more highly developed empathy. These effects last: In one study, children of highly involved fathers were still more self-directed than other kids 20 years later. And such sons grow to became better fathers themselves.

But in all of these discussions, we’ve forgotten—or given up on—the appeal to business. In fact, there’s something in it for the bottom line. Paternity leave enables families to survive in an increasingly unpredictable economy. It’s hard to know whose salary—his or hers—will be higher, and paternity leave helps parents become more domestically interchangeable. Just as companies “cross-train” workers to meet shifting market demands, so spouses need to cross-train at home.

Noting that men aren’t always keen on staying home with their kids even if they can, Alexis Madrigal makes an important point:

Let me grossly generalize, based on my own limited friend group and set of associates: men are terrified of babies. (I know I was before I spent 1,500 straight hours with one.) We are scared of these creatures for good reason. Babies are tiny things that don’t talk. They’re fragile. Their hold on life is tenuous. And no one ever taught us what to do with them. No one taught us how to coo and rock, where to put our hands, or what the right way to hold a bottle is. What if the baby cries? What if I can’t get the baby to stop crying? What will it say about me if I can’t get the baby to stop crying?

This situation is exacerbated because men lack what is known in many households as “The Boob.” As in, “I don’t know why he’s crying. Maybe I’ll give him The Boob.” Men don’t have the go-to move of breastfeeding, which a very large percentage of women (at least in the American west) do. Under these circumstances, many men retreat into the default stance that they are “useless” during the first few months of a baby’s life. I can’t tell you how many well-meaning men have told me that they felt helpless dealing with a newborn. Many only found their purpose and parental commitment after many months, or even years.  Our midwife gave us a simple directive as we left the hospital. Turning to me, she said, “You do everything but breastfeed.” Turning to my wife, she said, “You breastfeed.”

TNC, who spent time as a stay-at-home father, doesn’t want a medal for it:

I felt a lot of things in those days—lonely, broke, sometimes frustrated. But what I didn’t feel in my allegedly hyper-macho black community was stigmatized. And I don’t think my dad felt that way either. If anything, I felt like I got a lot more credit than I deserved. I’d put the boy in the stroller, head down Flatbush, and a cheering section would damn near break out. The only people I felt stigmatized by were old black women, who were certain I was about to either direct the stroller into a cloud of influenza or the path of an oncoming train.

So rather than hear about the stigma men feel in terms of taking care of kids, I’d like for men to think more about the stigma that women feel when they’re trying to build a career and a family. And then measure whatever angst they’re feeling against the real systemic forces that devalue the labor of women. I think that’s what’s at the root of much of this: When some people do certain work we cheer. When others do it we yawn. I appreciated the hosannas when I was strolling down Flatbush, but I doubt the female electrician walking down the same street got the same treatment.