I’m athletic but can think of a hundred things I’d rather do than watch sports. I love to decorate, organize, and clean, but have little interest in home repair, and in general I’m not handy — I can never seem to figure out whether I’m tightening a screw or loosening it. And I’ve never been the stoic, macho type. As a friend recently put it, I love to prance. I wear the pants around the house, don’t get me wrong, but those pants are often tighter than my wife’s.
Add another difference to the stack: if I had the option to take paid paternity leave, I’d do it, as much as possible. Come on! Be at work, slaving for the powers-that-be, or chill at home with a bloody mary, making googly eyes at my newborn child? It’s a no brainer.
An article in last week’s The Wall Street Journal, “Why Dads Don’t Take Paternity Leave” by Lauren Weber, reports that more and more companies are recognizing the importance of a dad being home with a newborn child, and so are offering paid paternity leave of some sort to facilitate this. New fathers at Yahoo, for example, can take eight weeks off at full pay. But men aren’t taking full advantage of paternity leave because they fear falling behind in their work, or seeming un-masculine in front of their co-workers. A forthcoming study by the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management finds their social anxiety isn’t unfounded: men who play an active caregiving role in their children’s lives are teased by their jerky, close-minded coworkers more than traditional fathers and men without kids. (Note that the study didn’t label these people close-minded jerks; I did.)
The WSJ article cites a 2011 study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family that claims 85% of men take some time off around the birth of a new child, but for most, that means only a week or two. And a survey from the firm Korn/Ferry found that while three-quarters of male executives think paid paternity leave is important, only 15% took it themselves. Perhaps these guys feel they’re too busy with work to be hanging out at home with a baby; I don’t know. From my perspective, I can’t imagine that any work would be more fulfilling.
My son was born a week after I graduated with a Masters in Fine Arts, so I had no job that offered paternity leave. (You can read more about my irresponsible career decisions here.) We lived on the cheap for three months, during which time my wife was home on combination maternity-leave / extended-vacation. The first couple of weeks were intense, of course. I helped my wife, laid out on bed rest from a difficult labor, by fixing and ferrying her meals, and burping the baby, and assisting with bath-time and bed. This was a full-time job stretched round-the-clock. I might be napping at three in the afternoon, but wide awake at three in the morning.
But while stresses abounded — letting go of control when it came to sleep; being fully-present and on-call for this creature who did little more than eat, poop, cry, and snooze, who needed so much but gave such little back in return; wondering and worrying about his health and development, and the messed-up world in which he was entering; meditating on age, life, and death — it was a magical time too. Holding and rocking my son in my arms, staring into his little face while inhaling that baby scent, which really does cause some sort of amazing biochemical reaction, if only big pharma could figure out how to bottle the bliss it brings… these are weeks I wouldn’t trade for the world.
I can’t quite remember whole swaths of my time in the corporate world working for Hearst magazines. Months-long projects come back only as indistinct abstractions, a hazy gathering of folks whose names I don’t remember around a conference table. But many of those days with my infant son play in my mind like scenes from a favorite movie. Something tells me that when I’m laying in a hospital bed, rotting from the inside with cancer, I’ll look back on those weeks with far more a sense of meaning and accomplishment and tenderness than I will anything that I ever did in the office.
But sadly, if you’ll allow me a moment of gender-criticism, I’m not all the surprised men aren’t into paternity leave. We often have trouble thinking about the long term and grappling with the emotional ramifications of our decisions, preferring to stay focused on the bottom line, the present day, the palpable. To mix cliches, a man can expertly pack the trunk of a car, but he’ll be damned before he pulls over to ask directions on his way. Some of the traditional attitudes of motherhood — nurturing, understanding, patience — require seeing beyond one’s self, and taking the scope of someone else’s emotional life in consideration. This is why we need more women in politics, or men with these so-called traditional feminine characteristics. Men start wars, women make peace.
I’m simplifying here, and breaking my own rule of gender-neutrality. Really, I know women who come home from work just in time to kiss their children goodnight and farm out childcare to nannies and sitters, just as I’m friends with men who have eschewed careers in order to stay-at-home with their children. Our culture assigns a gender to these attitudes, but they are only attitudes, not biological imperatives.
So guys, try broadening your mind, and challenging and enriching your emotional life. If your workplace offers paternity leave, do yourself a huge favor and TAKE IT. I guarantee you will not look back with regret on this decision. In fact, it might just change your life for the better.