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'Daddy wars': The Atlantic debates paternity leave

While Liza Mundy writes in The Atlantic that she thinks paternity leave might be the secret ingredient that lets moms have it all, unanimous agreement is lacking. In a series of essays, writers discuss the pros and cons of a better paternity-leave policy for America's working men.

Corporate America is beginning to offer more paid paternity leave, albeit in scattered pockets at the moment. Some states are jumping in, including California, Rhode Island and New Jersey, notes Mundy, a fellow at the New America Foundation and author of "The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family."

"But here’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," Mundy writes. "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."

It is, she says, "a strikingly effective strategy" that, among other things, gets men more involved at home, women more involved at work and puts both sexes on more equal footing in both places.

When a baby is born, women tend to decrease the hours they work. Men tend to increase them, according to sociologist Scott Coltrane, professor at the University of Oregon and dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

"And when women take maternity leave or temporarily cut back to part-time, many employers, rightly or wrongly, perceive them to be less committed to their jobs. These women end up on a 'mommy track,' where they earn less than non-mothers and single men — and substantially less than married fathers. In fact, when men become parents, their earnings tend to go up," Coltrane writes.

He and colleagues looked at Scandinavian countries, which have generous family-leave policies for both men and women when children are born. Among other things, they found that those who took paternity leave tended to live longer overall. The reason wasn't clear, but one possibility is that being involved with one's children helps curb the desire to participate in risky behaviors.

Although earnings seem to go down not just for women, but for men who take leave, Coltrane concludes it's worth it: "Men will develop better nurturing skills. Women will enjoy increased earnings, career advancement, and satisfaction. Children will benefit from having two involved caregivers. And corporations and governments, who want to see a more resilient and equal-opportunity work force, will realize it is in their best interests to help balance work and family obligations for everyone."

Ta-Nehisi Coates, an Atlantic editor, was raised by a stay-at-home dad while his mom worked, and he's been the primary caretaker of his now-teenage son. It's not a matter of feminism, he notes, but that's how the marketability of his skill set and his wife's have worked out. It fit their family.

He's not sure why men need to be cheered on for doing what they're supposed to do anyway — namely, taking care of their family. "This is obviously not a case against parental leave, so much as it's a beef with the idea of 'paternity leave.' I always worry when we have to couch our language so that people with power don't get their feelings hurt. So you feel stigmatized for a few years. We're all very sorry, and hope for the day when you don't. ... But the fact that we even have to use the phrase 'Daddy Days,' that we must have branding for men, says a lot about whose work we value and whose we don't," he writes.

Alexis C. Madrigal, an Atlantic editor who took two months of partially paid leave when his baby was born, believes fear keeps some men from jumping in and taking time off. The only way to get over baby-instilled terror, he notes, is to spend time with them.

"From a policy perspective, I think what my experience suggests is that if we want men to take more paternity leave, there have to be ways for men to learn how to take care of babies before they make the decision about how much paternity leave they're going to take," he writes.

Paid paternity leave is a sound economic choice for companies, according to Arlie Hochschild, author of "The Second Shift" and professor emerita of sociology at the University of California Berkeley. She notes that "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."

EMAIL: lois@deseretnews.com, Twitter: Loisco