When fathers stay home for a significant amount of time after the birth of their children, it has an amazing effect on the way the household is organized. As Liza Mundy writes in The Atlantic, studies find that these men tend to be more involved in both the childcare and domestic duties, though it’s important to note that men must chip in with even the dull, repetitive work in order for their wives to feel like they’re being treated fairly in the relationship. (As I’ve said before, guys, get involved!) Gender equality within a marriage makes it less likely a mother will experience postpartum depression, and more likely that she’ll return to the workplace full-time.
Of course, this set-up also means that men will likely trade time at the office (which equals money) for time in the house (which equals something more abstract). As Mundy puts it, paternity leave policies like those recently adopted by California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island “make men behave more like women,” meaning that they’ll consider making sacrifices to the amount of time they devote to their careers in order to contribute around the house and with the kids.
Assuming they go out on leave, that is. Northern European countries that provide men generous paternity leave found men only take advantage of it when provided financial incentive just giving men time off isn’t enough. Instead, Mundy writes, “Some countries offered them more money, which helped men feel that they were financially supporting their families even when they were at home. Many also adopted a ‘use it or lose it’ approach, granting each family a total amount of leave, a certain portion of which could be used only by fathers.”
Over on The Atlantic.com, Alexis C. Madrigal proposes that this might be because men are terrified of babies, especially since they lack breasts, which calm fussing infants, or at least stuff up their mouths so they can’t cry. I don’t buy this. I think men and women both have an inherent fear of infants, especially their own, and most especially their firstborn.
About a week after returning from the hospital with my son Felix, I left my wife for the night to go see David Byrne perform in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. A die hard Byrne fan, I had joked with my wife that I would go see him even if she was in labor. She wasn’t I set her up on the sofa with the baby and everything she needed in easy reach, and, even though she was still hobbling around at this point, she was mobile and far from helpless. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed look she gave me as I walked out the door. She was rigid with fear about being left alone for the first time with Felix!
Asking around, I found other new mothers felt similar, especially, as one friend put it, “for the first six weeks, or maybe until they’re able to hold their heads up on their own.” Another said, contrary to Madrigal’s hypothesis, that having “The Boob” (as he puts it) increased her fear of new motherhood. “There’s so much that can go wrong with breastfeeding, particularly in the first month, and getting good information and support is rather hard. My son had terrible reflux and I was so terrified that somehow I was causing it with the feedings!”
She went on: “There’s this stereotype that something happens instantaneously to women, that they just snap into this Earth Mother role and know exactly what to do. That couldn’t be more wrong. I was petrified the first day I was left alone with the baby. I actually googled “what do you do with a newborn all day,” because I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. And then there’s the hormones in flux and the worries about your career – it’s all very scary.”
Julia Fierro, author of the forthcoming novel Cutting Teeth (out on May 13 from St. Martin’s Press), which concerns a group of parents on a weekend holiday, concurred. “After my dream of a natural birth went haywire, ending in an emergency C-section after three days of labor, and our son ended up in the NICU, followed by months of colic, my husband, luckily, was able to take three weeks off from work, and he turned out to be the most confident and most capable parent at the time. I was very weak, insecure, shaken by the labor and birth and NICU scare.”
So if women and men are both scared of babies, why do men need extra incentive to take time off from work, even when that time is available? Well, there’s the power of outdated cultural assumptions that the workplace is where the man belongs, for sure. Even if the father doesn’t feel this way himself, his boss or colleagues might. As one friend put it, her husband wasn’t so much scared of the baby as he was scared, “he would be perceived as ‘less committed’ in his career” for taking time off from his job.
Also, with life as he knows it turned around by a newborn, going to work as usual allows a man to minimize the disruptions and emotional impact of fatherhood. As another friend suggested, “My own man was so scared of Baby, and Life With Baby, and Marriage With Baby — all of it — that I think the place he felt safest and most USEFUL was at work, doing what he always did, contributing the simplest, most conventional way he knew how.”
Fierro agreed with this, and added, “I’m sure that there are also mothers who prefer to be at work and out of the house during those hectic months after a child’s birth as well. So much relies on the subjective components of the family, their financial situation, the unique personality, as well as professional status, of BOTH the mother and father, or, in the case of a two-mom or two-dad family, the mother and mother, or father and father.”
For many, this conversation is a purely theoretical one, since the United States on the whole does not offer the financial incentives that Northern European countries do. And so, as Fierro concludes, “Most fathers, and many mothers, return to work soon after a child’s birth out of necessity, NOT out of choice.”
So it seems to me that the first step in getting men to take paternity leave is providing it universally, and ensuring that new mothers and fathers are provided with enough financial support that they can spend those tender few weeks of their newborn’s life caring for the child and adapting to their new roles.