Paternity leave is not a vacation; it’s an opportunity for spouses to support each other, bond with their baby, and adjust to parenthood. And like any parenting decision, a couple has to decide together, and preferably early, exactly what the paternity leave will look like. But calling work and planning paternity leave as soon as the first pharmacy pregnancy test reads positive isn’t necessarily the best strategy.
“I recommend waiting to make sure the pregnancy is viable. Pregnant women can now take a blood test at approximately 10 weeks that rules out certain chromosomal abnormalities. Many women announce their pregnancies once the results of this test are in,” says Ferne Traeger, a psychotherapist, executive coach and founder of Beyond the Boardroom. “At this point, dads might begin to consider whether they want to take paternity leave and, if so, for how long.”
The first step, says Traeger, is to find out company policy on leave. Many expectant dads may think they are guaranteed 12 unpaid weeks of leave under the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA. But that isn’t necessarily true. FMLA covers only companies who employ 50 or more people. Expectant fathers should visit HR to learn their company’s leave policies.
Family leave laws are patchwork, varying from state-to-state. Partial paid leave may be a likely scenario, either due to a few weeks of leave paid by the company or – more likely – a few weeks of accrued PTO. “The amount of [unpaid] leave will often depend upon what the family feels they can afford,” Traeger says. “Planning paternity leave early on in the pregnancy allows families to save up for the leave.”
How to Plan for Paternity Leave
- Plan early – for the sake of the home and the office, decide early when and how much paternity leave will be taken. This gives everyone the time to make sure it
- Decide who stays home when – some parents take leave together, and some stagger it to extend the time before the baby goes to daycare. Couples need to decide what fits their personal, emotional and financial needs.
- Family Medical Leave Act – FMLA guarantees 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave, but only for companies with more than 50 employees.
- Start saving early – a saving fund early in the pregnancy, and consider short-term disability, in the event that all or part of the leave will be unpaid.
- Speak to other dads – speak to other new dads at work about how they took leave, and encourage other expectant fathers to stand up for themselves and their families by taking the leave they deserve.
- Take the time – it’s tempting to rush back as soon as possible to demonstrate devotion and loyalty, but a father’s first devotion is to his family. If the company offers leave, take it.
Newly pregnant couples – or even couples who are still trying – may want to start a saving fund, or consider short-term disability, to ensure a little bit of cash flow during leave. In the last few years, more U.S. companies have started offering paid paternity leave, although the phenomenon isn’t exactly widespread. And certain cultural forces may prevent new fathers from fully enjoying the privilege.
“Interestingly, many dads do not take nearly the amount of paid leaves allowable under their company’s leave policies. This varies from workplace to workplace and is most prevalent in competitive, high-powered environments such as certain financial institutions and top-tier law firms,” Traeger observes. “In such firms, there can exist a subtle undercurrent of gender stereotyping where the women are the ‘caregivers’ and the men are the ‘providers.’ I’ve worked with many men in such firms who would love to avail themselves of their paid paternity leaves, but are intimidated to take them for fear of being the “pioneer” male leave taker on their team, for example.”
Peer pressure and social engineering don’t stop influencing people just because the D.A.R.E. program has petered out. But peers can also support each other and encourage each other to seek out all the leave they deserve.
“My advice to a dad who wishes to take leave but is afraid to be an outlier is to seek out other expectant and new dads at his company for encouragement. I have observed that more and more dads are seeking better work/life integration and there is strength in numbers,” Traeger advises.
Whether a company offers paid leave or not, once an expectant father decides to take leave, he needs to inform his boss and his coworkers. Sufficient notice allows teammates to plan ahead and allows dad to stay unplugged at home – and not return to disgruntled and overwhelmed coworkers.