What Happens When Dads Take Paternity Leave — And When They Don’t

The benefits of paternity leave are wide-ranging, well-studied, and all too often completely ignored.

Originally Published: 
A dad on paternity leave holding his baby

Paternity leave could change the world. A small mountain of peer-reviewed studies and white papers and statistics backs the idea that having access to paid leave could do nothing short of that. And yet, everything seems to go sideways when the rubber meets the road.

“Taking leave is not normative,” says Richard Petts, a sociologist who specializes in research on parental leave, when explaining the paternity leave statistics that show how few men actually take more than a week of paid leave. He saw why first-hand when he struggled to get time off after the birth of his own child and cobbled together some sick days and the break of a semester in order to do it. He realized, in other words, that he was like many millions of men who didn’t have good access to real paternity leave. But more than that, his work led him to understand that even when dads do have access to federal paid leave they often don’t take it.

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This is a problem. Men who take leave have stronger relationships with their wives, a better bond with their children, and more appreciation for the running of their household. But the small proportion of men who do take full advantage of leave are disproportionately wealthy, white, salaried workers. And even they report feeling discriminated against for taking the time.

So what can be done to tackle a tower of prejudice against leave that’s as high as the evidence for it? Petts, who has dedicated his career to answering the question, has some ideas. It all starts with access.

What happens to dads when they do have access to and take paternity leave?

I think a few things happen. I think that one basic thing that happens is dads are there to form a connection with their children when the baby is born. These days, one of the first things they do after a baby is born is to give them skin-to-skin contact with the mother to facilitate that bond, that attachment between mothers and the new child.

It’s the same basic idea. If you’re there for the birth, if you’re there for the first few weeks or months after you bring your child home, you are able to develop that attachment. Not only do fathers develop that attachment to their children, but children develop an attachment to their fathers as well. And so you know that that bond, that sense of attachment is really powerful. So emotional bonds and attachments happen.

Fathers also become aware of what happens in the household after they have a child. When you’re at work all day, every day, you often are unaware of all of the things that need to be done in the house. That’s if you’re home for an extended period of time.

The other thing that happens when fathers are home is it provides an opportunity for parents to learn how to do things together. The Better Life Lab released a report on men who do care and one of their findings was that not knowing how to provide care was one of the biggest barriers to fathers being more involved.

Fathers perceive that they’re going to be penalized in some way, shape, or form for taking leave. Workplace barriers to taking leave, and especially extended periods of leave, are still a real concern and still present a problem for many men.

I think this process starts at birth — fathers aren’t around, then mothers learn how to do everything right. It’s not like mothers know how to do everything. We sort of assuming as a society that mothers have this innate ability to do all the child care. The reality is, no one knows what they’re doing when you bring a child home and you gotta figure it all out. If you’re home together, you figure it out together, and you can establish expectations. Who’s responsible for what? At the very least, fathers get that experience alongside mothers. So you minimize the likelihood that fathers get home from work a month after the child’s born and don’t know how to do anything.

You minimize these arguments — where mothers are upset that fathers aren’t doing it the right way. Whatever it might be, paternity leave provides the opportunity to figure things out together, which is gonna get father’s confidence that “Hey, I know how to do this stuff. It’s not rocket science, I just need to practice.” That’s a really big part of the story. Giving fathers an opportunity to learn how to be caregivers alongside mothers is gonna increase the likelihood that the sharing is more equal among mothers and fathers.

That increased communication and even increased empathy towards all that moms do in these relationships when dads take paternity leave — is that one of the reasons that you’ve found in your research that paternity leave improves the quality of romantic relationships?

I think that’s a big part of it. What we know about mothers’ perceptions of relationships in regards to sharing caregiving is that a large part of it is if you perceive that fathers are helping out, that they’re doing more, you’re more likely to see that relationship favorably.

Even, simply, the sacrifice — I think that’s a fair word in our society, the sacrifice that taking time off of work, given that it’s not widely accepted and that there are penalties associated with it — demonstrates that “Hey, I’m gonna value my family. It’s not all about work.” Even just that act matters.

We know that taking that time off, fathers tend to be more engaged, mothers are more likely to view them as more involved co-parents, more supportive of all of those kinds of things. That’s a big part of the reason why we see positive effects on couples’ relationships when fathers take leave.

What types of dads get to take leave, and who actually does take leave of those dads?

The vast majority of fathers take some time off of work when they have a child — upwards of 80 percent. That’s true in national representative samples. That’s true in samples of disadvantaged fathers. Most fathers take some time off, but they take very little time off. It’s usually less than a week, it’s, “I took three days off when we were in the hospital,” kind of thing.

So taking at least some time off is a widespread phenomenon. But in terms of who has access to paid leave, it is very divergent. Most fathers do not have access to paid leave. The ones that do are more advantaged in professional occupations. They are higher income, they’re more educated, they’re married, they’re white.

The culture of fatherhood has changed. But has it changed in the sense that we think fathers should take time off their careers to pursue more active fatherhood yet?

Of those people who do have access to paid leave, who takes it, and how long do they take? That varies a lot. That varies from what kinds of paid leave we have access to, or if they have to cobble together days of personal time or whatever it may be. It depends heavily on the organization, and organizational support. And there’s a lot to do with perceptions of penalties. Fathers perceive that they’re going to be penalized in some way, shape, or form for taking leave. Workplace barriers to taking leave, and especially extended periods of leave, are still a real concern and still present a problem for many men.

Would you say workplace pressure is a driving factor for why men don’t take paternity leave?

I think that’s a huge, if not the top, barrier.

Ideal worker norms are so ingrained in our society, and so closely linked with the norms of what a good father is, and norms of masculinity that it’s a huge barrier to fathers taking leave. I also think, generally speaking, taking paternity leave is just not normative in the United States. So even if workplaces were like, “Yeah, go ahead,” it’s still not typical. We don’t see or hear about fathers taking three months of leave very often. Men, even if they’re not necessarily convinced “I’m gonna get fired if I do this,” still aren’t seeing this as typical or normal. The idea that a father should take leave is an idea that needs to gain additional support in our society above and beyond the sort of workplace barriers even.

Yes, the culture of fatherhood has changed. But has it changed in the sense that we think fathers should take time off their careers to pursue more active fatherhood yet?

You just said that the norms of the ideal worker and the norms of the ideal father are ingrained and are extremely similar. Can you walk that out for me?

The ideal worker norm is the idea that workers should be completely devoted to their jobs and to their companies. They should always be available to work. They should prioritize their work. This is the norm that our economy works on — we’re always available. We have these phones now, we’re always accessible, always available, always thinking about work. We’re a very work-oriented society.

This idea that people should prioritize work and always be available to work has really privileged men because they are seen as primary caregivers. This is a big part of the reason why women are penalized in the workforce — because they can’t adhere to that norm to the same extent that men can due to domestic responsibilities.

Early on in the pandemic, whenever both parents were at home, dads did more. Families became more egalitarian. … As the pandemic wore on, as more and more people sort of went back to the office, access to paid leave has dried up. So we’ve seen a shift back to mothers doing more again. The progress that was made has been clawed back.

And then there’s the traditional sort of aspect of fatherhood. You know, if we think about what makes a good father, the norm of breadwinning, of being the main financial provider, is still very prevalent in our conceptions of fatherhood. Now, we’ve progressed a bit. In the past, we viewed fathers only as financial providers, and I don’t think that’s the case today. I think people expect fathers to be involved in their children’s lives, but not necessarily at the expense of breadwinning.

So the sort of norm of the father as provider directly maps onto this ideal worker norm of always being available to work and prioritizing work, which privileges men.

This is not exactly the same, as women have it objectively and materially worse, but in some small sense, it seems like men are getting the “Can she have it all” treatments that moms who chose to have careers get.

I think that that’s exactly the case. Some people, probably a decade ago, called it “the new male mystique,” as a play on Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique. Like, this idea that if you look at men’s perceptions of work and family conflict, they’ve exploded in recent decades as expectations have changed. I want to be engaged, but I have to devote myself to work, and how do I balance this? Whereas women have dealt with this, you know, for a much longer period of time. It’s new for men.

So… let’s talk about the COVID economy and what people are referring to as the “she-cession.” Obviously, millions and women, and moms, in particular, have left the workplace in the past year. This is for a myriad of reasons — lack of school, child care access, the industries that women are most often employed in absolutely cratering, and how in married relationships, women often make less than men. Do you think that this collapse of decades of slow, painstaking progress women had made in the workplace prior to COVID will actually help push paid leave, or make it more difficult to come to pass?

I hope that, if nothing else, this experience has illuminated to employers and to policymakers that people have caregiving needs — that lots of people have caregiving needs, that it’s both women and men, and that we can’t ignore it. That is a vital part of acknowledging the fact that people have families, and that people need to be able to have time to care for the families.

I mean, the fact that the government put in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act legislation that enabled working parents to take leave if they didn’t have child care, if the kids were home from school, for a variety of reasons ensures that it’s possible. All of the evidence that I’ve seen on that policy is that it worked. It minimized the spread of the virus, it helped families deal with things that would come up.

Hopefully, we look at it that way and notice that it’s needed. I hope that people realize that paid leave is important. If it doesn’t happen on the national level, there’s been momentum at the state level. I hope more companies will implement it in the meantime.

Some colleagues and I found evidence that early on in the pandemic, whenever both parents were at home, dads did more. Families became more egalitarian. Not, like, total equality. I don’t wanna sort of overstate that. But dads did help out more.

As the pandemic wore on, as more and more people sort of went back to the office, access to paid leave has dried up. So we’ve seen a shift back to mothers doing more again. The progress that was made has been clawed back.

There seems to be snowballing evidence that providing flexibility at workplaces, having access to paid leave, helps everybody, and it helps women, perhaps more than anybody else.

Not only in providing them what they need, but in providing opportunities for men to do more at home, for men to be more engaged. I hope that enough people are hearing that message that we see progress towards change. But the way things go in our country these days, getting anybody to agree on anything, seems almost impossible. So the divisiveness in our society tempers my expectations for change. My fingers are crossed.

So we know paternity leave works to help families bond, weather medical events, gain wealth, limit the spread of sickness in a pandemic. So… what’s the most viable path forward? Is it federally mandated paternity leave?

If the choice were up to me, we would have national paid leave. It would be provided by the federal government. It would be funded out of taxes. It would be accessible to all. I think the challenge with any other option is that access becomes more bifurcated. If you have employers do it well, you have to work for a company that offers it, but the average worker doesn’t work for one of those companies in one of those positions, you know? So, they’re largely ignored.

The easiest way to ensure access to people, and especially for the people that need it most, is a federal plan. Yeah, it’s great that people who work for Wall Street have great leave packages, but those are also the people that can afford really good child care and a whole host of other things that will enable them to achieve more work. Family balance. You know, it’s the person who’s working three jobs to make ends meet and has two kids at home. Like, what about helping them out? That’s why a national paid leave strategy is the best strategy, in my opinion, because they can reach a wider scope of workers to get it right.

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