Here’s What Taking Paternity Leave With My Daughter Taught Me About Gender Equality

The world is rough for girls and women. It took having a daughter, and taking nine months of paternity leave, for me to really get that — and start working toward progress.

by Alexander von Rosenbach
Originally Published: 

It’s hard to believe that you’re turning 2 today. It seems like only yesterday that you were born. You were so beautiful and innocent. You were healthy. We knew we were lucky. In those first precious hours of life, you slept soundly on your mother’s chest, and I watched you in the darkness, quietly, in awe.

But somewhere in those early moments of fatherhood, I also felt a heavy weight on my shoulders. It sounds strange to say, but it was an acutely physical feeling, not just an intellectual one, and it caught me off guard: I was the father of a little girl, and the world sucks for girls.

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That’s no secret, of course. Men like me — white, educated, raised in privilege — have been pushing women to the margins forever. Sometimes consciously, often subconsciously, thoughtlessly, carelessly… sometimes maliciously. Often intending no harm, but nevertheless inflicting irreparable harm. We’ve been doing this in our own families, in our own communities, in our workplaces, and in the world. There’s no turning away from the ugliness. Men like me have created this world, and it is rife with gender injustice.

But it is one thing to know these facts, and another entirely to ask you, my child, to spend a life fighting these facts.

You could tell me that I’m late to this conversation. You’d be right. You could tell me that it shouldn’t have to be your birth that prompts my moral awakening. And you’d be right. You could even reject my use of your birth in this conversation, or consider it tokenism, or even insincere. And that would be fair. The responsibility to redress this social ill sits with men like me; you haven’t been asked if you’d like to play a role.

But I cannot rewind the clock. We can only move forward. You, small and fresh, with the world lying in wait. Me, your proud but troubled father, sitting in a big hospital in a big city in a big, hungry world. Wondering if there’s anything that I can do to make this place suck a little less for women.

I’ve never considered myself an activist. I’m not one to rally loudly around a cause. I’m naturally more reserved, and my academic training has encouraged me to weigh and evaluate arguments, to caveat my answers. I tell myself it’s the fair approach; don’t get too entangled in one position. But it’s also undeniably the safe approach. I’ve been protecting myself. From what? From having to defend a position. From being challenged on the ideas and principles around which I’ve quietly based my life.

But when you were born, I realized that I need to do better. I can, of course, continue building walls. But the inevitable momentum of your life will carry you outside the furthest reaches of my protection, rapidly and irreversibly.

If I want you to live in a better, balanced world, I need to join you in the fight.

The good news is that men like me can do better, because we still hold the reins of power. Who better to remake this world than those at the top? We have the tools, resources, networks, and opportunities. There’s no excuse for inaction. We just need the collective will to change.

You’d be right to doubt. Men like me have the most to lose from social change. We’ve been battling women’s equality tooth and nail for generations, never giving so much as an inch of ground voluntarily. So it would be naive to pretend that there won’t be opposition.

But I believe this generation of men wants to break from the past. I’ve read the surveys and the research showing that this generation of men believes in equality. I’ve seen millions of men march in the streets, shoulder to shoulder with the women in their lives, raising their communal voices for equality. I believe the men that I know — my family, my friends, my colleagues, and my community — when they tell me they want to live in a balanced world.

So now, the question is: Can we turn thought into action? Do we have the collective will to make change?

In our own small way, your mother and I have already transformed our lives. Before you were born, we made a choice — intentionally, and not without cost — to make sure both of us spent significant time at home caring for you. Your mother took her maternity leave, and then she went back to work and I took time off to be with you. Initially, we had planned a two-month stretch for me. Through chance and circumstance, that turned into nine months.

The time was a gift. I learned that the greatest joy of fatherhood is being present while you explore the world. Hearing your first laugh brought tears to my eyes. Watching you feel grass between your toes for the first time — you walked in happy little circles, laughing with delight — is a moment I’ll never forget. And every day, I discovered new ways to make you laugh and smile. This is our bond.

This time at home also made me a more confident father. I fully understand what it takes to care for you, physically and emotionally. I soothed your tears a thousand times. I was there when you hit your head on the slide, when you watched mama leave for work in the mornings, when you were scared of the dark and cried in the night. We comforted each other with hugs and snuggles. This, too, is our bond.

All of that and more also made me more equal partner for your mother; we’re not in perfect balance, but we’re making progress every day. There’s no feeling that your mother is the more “natural parent” or has stronger “maternal instinct.” Parenting, I discovered, is a skill that requires time and togetherness with your child. Your mother and I do have different parenting styles, of course. We’re different people. But different does not mean unequal.

Somewhere along the way, I realized that all of this — the strength of my bond with you, my confidence as a father, the balance in our home — was the direct product of my time away from work. It forced me to learn how to really care for you. It allowed your mother to continue building her career. It challenged us to find ways of redefining household responsibilities. Taking the time wasn’t easy, but it was vital. It made our private world a little more balanced.

And that’s when it hit me. Maybe I can help other men like me bring balance into their own lives. Maybe I can help men like me turn those thoughts of equality into action. If I help them, does that help you, my little love? Does that make your world a little more balanced? More equal? I believe it’s possible.

At its core, that’s what Take The Time, the site I created to help dads take paternity leave, is about. Yes, I want more fathers to take parental leave because it’s a joyful, life-changing experience in its own right. But there’s another side to it that I hope strikes deep at the heart of gender injustice.

I want you to grow up in a world where both parents take equal responsibility for caring for a child. Where dad and mom both fully appreciate the physical and mental demands of parenthood. Where women and men can pursue careers without fear of being penalized or sidelined if they want start a family. Where it’s normal and expected for men like me to be out walking in the sunshine with a baby wrapped snug in a sling around their chest. Alone. On a weekday. That will be a more balanced world.

I know that encouraging more men to take parental leave is only one small piece of this puzzle. But it is a piece of the puzzle. And it’s a piece of the puzzle that I can work on with passion and honesty.

You, my little girl, have given me the strength and inspiration to make a start. My goal is to change one mind at a time. I hope this mission will make you proud. I hope it will be an answer to my own fears and insecurities. Most importantly, I hope it will help you grow up in a tomorrow that is just a little better than today.


Your Father

Alexander von Rosenbach is the founder and director of Take The Time, a social enterprise helping fathers take parental leave. He’s a lucky husband and the proud dad of a little girl, and is excited to do it all over again when baby number two arrives this summer.

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