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Real Men Know How to Take Paternity Leave

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Allison Stevens knows all about the guy who puts in long hours at the office. He's her husband. But he's also the same man who recently took paternity leave--and had the best time of his life.

man and baby jogging stroller(WOMENSENEWS)--What does it mean to be a real man at the office?

It means being a workaholic, says Joan Williams, and that has devastating consequences for women, men and families.

Men prove their masculinity in the workplace by putting in long hours, Williams said last week at a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. She was discussing her new book "Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter."

I know just what she means.

This man is my father, an attorney who spent most weekends at the office when I was a little girl. He is also my husband, who works 10- or 12-hour days even though he has two young children at home. He's even my sister, a lawyer in a male-dominated firm who always asks me to call her back at work, even if it's 10 p.m. on a Saturday.

These workers sacrifice their waking lives on the altar of modern-day machismo.

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According to many studies, professional men's working hours rose in the 1990s, Williams said. "They just went bananas," she said. At the same time, men's household contributions leveled off in the 1990s and haven't risen since.

A third--and likely related--phenomenon also occurred. "When men's household contributions leveled off, guess what? So did women's labor force participation," Williams said.

Those women who continue to work are still responsible for more than their share of child care and household responsibilities. Not surprisingly, we have become the driving force behind the growing movement for better work-life balance.

Work Benefits Enjoyed Elsewhere

We want one of the big benefits that our peers enjoy in many other countries: paid leave to care for ourselves or a family member who falls ill or to bond with a new child. We also want more control over our work schedules so we can fit a doctor appointment or a meeting with our child's teacher into our busy workdays.

Yet despite the obvious and desperate need for these kinds of benefits, bills that would provide them to millions of employees around the country are going nowhere.

That's because men aren't involved in the discussion, Williams argued. (Right, of course! They're too busy putting in long hours at the office proving their manhood.)

"We have to open up a national conversation about the gender pressures on men that are making them feel so unable to change," Williams said. "Women will continue to lose in kitchen-table bargaining over child care and housework until we open up successfully that conversation about men and masculinity."

This conversation has taken place in our house and it has had huge payoffs.

Last year while pregnant with our second child, I learned that my husband had accrued six weeks of vacation leave and a stunning eight months of paid sick leave. I suggested (and was prepared to insist) that he use it after the birth of our son and he enthusiastically agreed--and actually made it happen.

I was pleasantly surprised--or should I say downright stunned--since he works in an office comprised mostly of military officers.

He certainly has gotten his fair share of ribbing from his colleagues for taking such an extended leave (some of his colleagues in the military are just happy to be in the same time zone when their children are born). But I must say, he's also gotten some surprising and welcome chest-bumps too from envious colleagues.

One Complaint

allison stevensOne lingering complaint, however:  He couldn't use his deep well of sick leave during this period (which was when our son was 6 months old) because of his gender. As a father, and not a mother, he was apparently not entitled to use sick benefits to care for our child because a certain limited amount of time had passed.

But he did exhaust his vacation leave--and then some--to care for our children after I went back to work, and I cannot overstate how fabulous it was for our family.

During these two months I was married to the equivalent of a traditional wife and mother, with all the benefits that bestows on any bread earner. What a gift!

But my husband was the greater beneficiary. He has often said since that those two months (he tacked on a couple weeks of unpaid leave) were the best of his life. He lost two weeks pay and ignored warnings about the risk to his career, but he came out ahead, way ahead.

Sporting a beard, a baby carrier, and his version of a gender-neutral diaper bag (a black backpack) spilling over with diapers, wipes, my pumped breast milk and all manner of other infant accoutrements, John headed out--often with the dog in tow, too--every morning to the park, the museum, the playground, wherever, to spend some quality time with his kids.

Loving Every Last Minute

He loved every last minute of it. When I asked him how he felt about going back to work, his eyes began to water.

Now, my husband is no crier. He didn't cry when he proposed to me. He didn't cry during our wedding ceremony. He didn't cry during the birth of our first and second sons.

Like most men, John expresses neither joy nor sorrow through tears.

To be sure, my husband loves his job. But the mere thought of returning to the long days and late nights of his working world--and missing out on uninterrupted weekdays with his children--brought him to an emotional precipice.

John and I are now talking about ways he can spend more time with the kids, from job-sharing to flex-time and all the other options women often wind up considering after we become mothers.

It's the kind of discussion we all need to have, not just us women. Men may be seen as less macho in the work force if they alter their schedule for their children, and perhaps they'll pay a price in the same way that women do if they attempt to find that precarious balance between work and family.

But the discussion alone can yield incalculable rewards.

Talking about ways fathers can spend more time with their children could open up more options for dads and will push the work-family movement forward--and it may just make a few more overworked fathers well up with tears of joy.

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Allison Stevens is a writer in Washington, D.C.

 
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Commentary

Women Are Delaying Childbirth for Good Reasons

I applaud your husband for his courage.

That might sound a bit condescending, but bear with me. As you touched on, workplace culture still encourages and rewards the work-a-holic male. Men still grow up with images of the wealthy, powerful man as something to strive for and are conditioned that becoming that man is the best thing he can do for his family. Do we want to be at the kid’s soccer game on Saturday? More than anything, but if I don’t go to work and Bill does, guess who gets the promotion first (to better take care of his family?) In short, men are torn like never before.

Herein lays the challenge for many men and many employers. For some time, we’ve held up at home dads as the gender benders fighting to have dads seen as the equal caregivers we are capable of being. It is now time to hold up men like your husband, who had the courage in the face of what most men still see as an act detrimental to their careers, to put his family first.

One of the biggest inhibitors to men being more involved dads is workplace culture. It comes in the form of expectation that a man striving for promotion will work long hours. It comes in the form of policy which allows a woman but not a man to use sick leave to raise his children. And it comes in the form of men feeling immense pressure to be, first and foremost, a breadwinner.

We need dialogue, and lots of it, to change things. Even in progressive workplaces which have gender neutral polices on workplace flexibility or leave, men tend to just slip out the back door when no one is looking if they need to take their child to the dentist. Why? These policies, though gender neutral in language, were ultimately designed for working mothers. Men fear getting labeled as “that guy who is always leaving to look after his kids.” Until employers start to recognize the evolving role and desires of a father -- until they champion fatherhood-- things aren’t going to change any time soon. Unlike women, men don’t seem to be rallying together to push to be recognized equally as parents and career people—even if that is what their heart desires. In short, men are about 40 years behind women in this whole work life balance equation.

I run a company in Vancouver BC called Bettermen Solutions (www.bettermensolutions.com) I help companies improve employee retention and workplace productivity. How? By showing them the truth—more men than women are now saying they can’t cope with work life balance and opening their eyes to some of the issues touched on in this article. I give workshops on what, both employers and employees can do to improve work life balance so companies, employees and their families can thrive.

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