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Dear Healthy Men: I just read that the United States is one of the only industrialized countries in the world without a paid maternity leave program. Where do you stand on that issue?

A: We support it—and we’re glad to see that President Joe Biden and others in his administration have come out in support of paid “parenting leave” for all workers. However, despite the gender-neutral “parenting leave,” most discussions on the topic fall back on the standard nomenclature, calling it “maternity leave,” which deliberately leaves out a vital component: fathers, and reinforces the outdated (and insulting) stereotype that parenting is exclusively a women’s issue. Dozens of studies show conclusively that paternity leave provides significant, unique benefits to children, women, businesses, and men themselves. Here are just a few examples:

It’s Good for Children

  • It facilitates dad-child bonding. Researchers at Columbia University found that when fathers take two or more weeks off after their baby is born, they’re more involved in basic childcare—bathing, dressing, feeding, and playing—for years after they return to work. Other researchers have found that dads who take time off after a birth are almost a third more likely to read books with their toddlers than those who don’t. And 6-month-olds who share regular playtime with dad have bigger vocabularies by age three than those who play only with mom.
  • Dad’s paternity leave improves his children’s—especially daughters’—performance in high school. Those kids also have fewer behavioral problems and better mental health outcomes. Overall, children with involved fathers have higher cognitive test scores, better grades, and are less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol or become teen parents.
  • It fights gender stereotypes. When dad takes leave, he’ll spend part of that time doing housework, which sets a great example for kids, who naturally want to emulate dad. Alyssa Croft and her colleagues at the University of British Columbia found that “while mothers’ gender and work equality beliefs were key factors, the strongest predictor of daughters’ own professional ambitions was their fathers’ approach to household chores.”

It’s Good for Mothers

  • It improves mood. New moms whose husbands take time off right away are less likely to be prescribed anti-anxiety medications three months post-birth, according to a Stanford University study. And a 2014 study from the National Academy of Sciences found that having a partner at home boosts levels of hormones that facilitate breastfeeding.
  • It increases women’s income. A study in Sweden showed that for every month a new father took for paternity leave, the mother’s earnings increased by 7%. Similarly, a study of Quebec’s family leave program found that when dads take leave, mothers are more likely to be employed full-time—and their earnings increased by 25%.

It’s Good for Business

  • It could affect hiring. Seventy-seven percent of respondents in a Deloitte study “claim that the amount of parental leave offered by an employer could sway their decision when choosing one employer over another.”
  • It boosts morale and productivity. In 2017 a study conducted by Ernst and Young, 80% of companies that offered paid parenting leave “reported a positive impact on morale,” and 70% of companies reported that employee productivity increased. Recruiting, hiring, and training new workers costs companies billions each year and reduces productivity.
  • It increases workplace safety. New dads who have to juggle work and parenting are 36% more likely to have a near miss at work and 26% more likely to have one on the road due to fatigue. In Australia, tired parents cost employers approximately $5 billion per year. With a US population 13 times greater than Australia’s (331 million vs. 25.7 million), that translates to $65 billion.

It’s Good for Fathers

  • Dads who take paternity leave learn to be better—and more-confident—parents. As a result, they’re more satisfied with parenting and more engaged in caring for their children as they grow.
  • American dads really want paternity leave. In studies by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, 89% of respondents (93% of Millennials) thought getting paternity leave was an important issue; 86% of working dads say their children are their number one priority, and 64% say that being a father makes them a better employee. A Harvard study found that 70% of fathers would give up some pay to be able to spend more time with their family.
  • Dads who are actively engaged in their child’s life are more productive on the job, have better relationships with the mother of their children, and are physically and mentally healthier than less-involved dads.

It’s a Win–Win–Win

Unfortunately, thanks to strong cultural messages that emphasize men’s role as breadwinners and minimize their role as caregivers, three quarters of fathers in a Boston College study “went back to work after one week or less and 96% after two weeks or less off.” But as we’ve shown, paternity leave is good for parents, employers, and especially children. So while we engage in what will hopefully be a productive national discussion on parenting leave for mothers, we must include dads. Leaving them out does a disservice to everyone.

Image by Roland Steinmann from Pixabay 

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