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Odd Man Out. Why isn’t anyone else taking paternity leave?

Something strange happens when I wear the baby.

I slip into a black carrier, strap the baby in, make sure she’s snug, put a hat over her tiny head, then head out. A woman with a baby on her hip? So common most people wouldn’t notice. But a man, by himself, with a baby on his chest, bobbing and bouncing with every step? Before I might have been invisible to the world. Now people look twice. Tough guys on the corner smirk, sometimes laugh. Ladies behind the donut counter wave. Security guards soften their glare and grin. Pretty women stop to talk. Old men smile.

When I wear the baby strangers in markets and bakeries and subway stations stop to ask questions, make weird baby talk, or serenade my daughter. People tell me what I’m doing is “wonderful.” Flooded with waves of attention and praise, I might momentarily lose myself and forget that I’m just doing what I’m supposed to: being a father to my child.

But our culture sees it differently: a man, alone with his baby – even in 2009 – is somewhat rare and unexpected. One reason for this: most men have little opportunity to take an extended leave from work shortly after their babies are born. Within days or weeks of a child’s birth, most new dads are back at work.

For me, deciding to take paternal leave last September to be with Isabella, my four-month-old daughter, was easy. I knew I wanted to spend time with her once my wife’s unpaid four-month maternity leave ended. We didn’t want to put her in daycare so early. And my company’s paternal leave policy was unusually generous – six weeks paid, plus any available sick time, up to four months. So the question for me wasn’t whether to take paternity leave, but how much? That, it turned out, was the tricky part.

Few men in the American workplace take paternal leave. In part, this trend reflects America’s stingy attitude towards family leave. According to a Harvard University report, of 173 industrialized countries studied, 169 guarantee paid maternal leave for women. The U.S. – along with Liberia, Papua New Guinea, and Swaziland – is among the four nations that offer nothing. Moreover, 66 of 173 countries guarantee paid paternal leave; the U.S. does not.

In the U.S., family leave benefits remain at the employers’ discretion. As a result of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, men and women working for organizations with fifty or more employees are entitled to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave to spend with a newborn child without risk of losing their jobs. Few men, however, can afford to lose two or three months salary. Especially if their wives or partners may also be taking unpaid maternity leave.

Only thirteen percent of U.S. employers offer paid paternal leave to allow men to spend time at home with a new baby, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. Even when the opportunity exists only fifty-eight percent of men opt to use paid paternal leave available to them.

Armin Brott, author of The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips, and Advice for Dads-to-be and The New Father, suggests that men often struggle with the balance between work and family roles. “Most new fathers,” Brott writes, “feel torn between two options that feel mutually exclusive: protecting and providing, and being an involved, nurturing dad.”

“There is still a lot of fear among people,” Brott says, “that they aren’t going to make partner, they aren’t going to get a promotion, they won’t be taken seriously in their job . . . and to some extent, they’re right.”

And still, some do.

George Estrada, 38, a project manager from Fairfax, Virginia, who worked for USA Today in 2001, was one of the first men in his department to take advantage of his company’s paternal leave policy. Before his son’s birth he went to his manager and proposed taking seven weeks off after his wife returned to work from maternity leave. His request perplexed his supervisor who said, “I don’t think that’s available to you. That’s only for moms.” After Estrada explained the company’s policy to her, she remained unconvinced. “Well,” she said, “I don’t think we can do that.” The newspaper thought otherwise and granted Estrada his leave.

Haven Perez, 39, a PhD student in Los Angeles, considered his options as the birth of his first child, Lorelei, approached. Her arrival prompted him to take time off from his job while his wife continued to work full time as a registered nurse. His decision didn’t lead to a flustered manager, but rather, his own mother’s skepticism. “Maybe,” his mother asked, “a woman would have more patience?”

When it came to my job, I had recently been promoted to a management position. But more than that, I would be the first to really use our company’s paternal leave policy. No man at my workplace had taken paternity leave except for a couple weeks immediately following a baby’s birth. Nobody could provide advice, tell me how it went, or give me a sense of how people would react. Having already taken three weeks leave after the baby was born, most of my co-workers assumed I was done with time away from work with the baby. I worried about how colleagues, co-workers and my staff would react to my second extended absence. Would my decision to take leave let down co-workers or burden them with additional work or stress? Or, worse, might everyone cruise along just fine exposing me as unnecessary or redundant?

Ultimately, I opted to take one month of full leave, followed by two weeks working part-time, coming into the office only in the mornings. I wasn’t sure if the decision was bold or cowardly: some men have taken much longer paternal leaves but most new fathers take much less time, or none at all. My boss, a father of three, was supportive, but reactions from co-workers ranged from modestly encouraging (“Makes sense: good for you:”) to puzzled (“You’re going to be out how long?) to misinformed (“Wow, a six-week vacation!”) to passive-aggressively derisive (“We’ll muddle through while you’re off doing your thing.”).

America still isn’t quite sure what to make of the balance between work and family, especially for men. For Estrada, Perez, and myself – along with thousands of men in similar situations across the country who shrug off doubts and take paternity leave – the experience often meets resistance from within the workplace and our culture. It suggests that America still isn’t quite sure what to make of the balance between work and family, especially for men. In most modern workplaces, maternity leave, even if unpaid, is fairly common and uncontroversial. But a man, taking extended paternal leave months after a baby is born? In many offices, that idea is nothing short of radical.

On the morning that I began my leave my wife left the house in tears. It would be her first time away from Isabella for more than a few hours since she was born. And for me, this day would be the first time Isabella and I would be alone together for more than a few hours.

“You’re going to sing to her, right?” My wife asked, standing at the door, in her black business suit, sobbing, “Promise me.”

“All day,” I said. “I promise.”

And then she left. I held Isabella in the crook of my left arm and we peered trough the window together, watching her walk down the street, turn left, and vanish out of sight. Isabella sighed and looked up at me, her brow furrowed curiously, as if to ask, “Okay, now what?”

Men who take paternal leave often discover that the difficulties of getting and taking time off from their jobs pale in comparison with the challenges of caring for an infant on their own, often for the first time.

Joshua Taylor, 36, a press secretary for a member of Congress, began an eight-week paternal leave after his wife returned to work this winter. He found himself unprepared for the effort and energy required to care for his four-month-old son, Will. He struggled to keep up with the schedule and routines his wife and baby had established during their first months together. “I hadn’t changed as many dirty diapers as I thought I had,” he said. Taylor also found it hard to break free from his Blackberry addiction and the impulse to constantly check email that kept him connected with his job. “It’s difficult to disengage,” Taylor said.

My time alone with Isabella wasn’t quite as difficult of a transition. Maybe I was lucky. Once I was away the significance of my promotion, my projects, and reactions of co-workers evaporated. Instead, for a few weeks, at least, it was just my increasingly smiley daughter and me for most of each day. She was exploring the world for the first time. I was her tour guide.

We walked through gardens, strolled parks with our dog, cruised museums together, visited her mother for lunch, browsed furniture at Ikea, bought fresh bread at Eastern Market and watched NBA playoff games together when neither of us could sleep. I cheered her on as she flipped from her stomach to her back for the first time. When she was hungry, I gave her a bottle. When she was in the bath, I told her stories from old comic books and my favorite movies. When she cried I danced for her, put her on my shoulders, or quite often, as promised, I sang.

Despite the initial stress and the steep learning curve many fathers find the experience of paternal leave deeply rewarding. With the average American getting fewer than three weeks vacation time every year, fathers often find few opportunities beyond weekends and holidays to spend significant amounts of time alone, bonding with their children, especially during early, formative years. Strange as it sounds, a month or two alone with a new child may be a father’s last chance at anything like it.

“I’m never going to get these days again,” Estrada said. “There’s going to be a day when these kids look at us and we’re not going to be cool . . . they’re going to be rebelling, and it’s going to be another period until they come back. Why am I going to waste that?”

Early bonding with a baby leads to tangible benefits as well. The physical act of “wearing” an infant leads to babies who cry less, grow better, learn more, and communicate most effectively, according to Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician, father of eight children, and author of several bestselling books on parenting. Time spent between a father and baby early lead to lasting, long-term benefits. His research suggests that the physical experience of “wearing” a baby in a sling or a carrier can foster a closer bond between a father and child, an attachment that can form the foundation of a close lifelong relationship. “The time in your arms is a relatively short time in the total life of your child,” Sears writes, “but the memories of your touch and availability will last a lifetime.”

Brott’s research echoes this, suggesting that time spent between a father and baby early lead to lasting, long-term benefits. “The earlier dads get involved, their better off they’re going to be, the more involved they’re going to be with their kids later on.”

“If you’ve done the diaper-changing and the bathing, and the basic stuff that seems kind of frightening if you’ve never done it before; you get a level of comfort,” Brott adds. “That’s what relationships are built on.”

On one of the final days of my leave Isabella and I headed out for one of our last daytime outings. On Monday, I would be back at work. She would be in day care.

The sign read: “Movie Mom’s Club,” so I knew I was in the right place.

I pulled open the door and wheeled Isabella down the dim corridor in her stroller. As we rolled into the theater, we passed a dozen strollers parked to the right of the front row of seats. In the darkness, I looked up and saw the faces of dozens of young women and children, glowing with the flickering blue and white light of the movie screen. Some women sat in pairs, bouncing infants on their laps. Another mom was walking alongside her toddler in the aisle as he stumbled his way slowly down the steps. One sat in the back row, nursing her baby. Lots of eyes followed us as we crossed the theater and parked next to an open seat in the front row. By now, I was used to drawing attention. “Yes,” I thought to myself, “Daddy’s crashing the Movie Mom Matinee . . . deal with it, ladies!”

Isabella, unaware of the attention we attracted, stared up at the twenty-foot screen transfixed with the dancing and music of Mamma Mia, her mouth open in awe and wonder, her eyes wide with delight. As I watched her sitting there, happily wobbling, her eyes aglow with the swirling colors and motion of her very first movie, it seemed hard to believe anyone might miss a moment like this. It occurred to me that I would probably miss many more of her “firsts,” but not this one.

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