Until Men Decide Family Leave Is Vital, Nothing Will Change
Two of my oldest friends sat in my living room over the weekend and talked about how on earth they were going to figure out childcare. One of them has a toddler already and is expecting her second child this fall; the other is at work on her first, due in late winter. They’re both doctors with numerous graduate degrees and a pediatric subspecialty (one’s a resident, one’s a fellow), and they’re both aware that though they’re entitled to take 12 weeks off when they give birth, they will be frowned upon — if not directly penalized — for doing so.
“My mentor started the conversation by telling me he thought six weeks would be plenty,” said one of them. “There’s a conference he wants me to attend across the country at four weeks.”
“My advisor told me no one’s ever taken more than six,” said the other. “She began by assuming that’s all I’d do.”
They shared horror stories, like that of a woman who, defiantly, took twelve weeks and then didn’t get hired after her fellowship and was forced to take a position somewhere in the hinterlands.
“I’m going to fight for eight,” said the first, looking exhausted already. She had recently received word that the nanny she had lined up had fallen through.
“I had fewer than six,” I said, trying to remember. “Unpaid, of course. I saved up my vacation and used that, and I went on disability for a bit, but my office didn’t even have a policy. I had to make something up and get my boss to sign it.”
What’s funny is, we are the lucky ones. As Sharon Lerner demonstrates in a scathing new piece titled “The Real War On Families,” almost 25% of all employed mothers — mostly blue-collar and low-income professionals — return to work within two weeks. TWO WEEKS. They cannot afford to do otherwise. And making this often painful choice has real world consequences.
Research shows that paid leave can also be a matter of life and death for children. By charting the correlation between death rates and paid leave in 16 European countries, Christopher Ruhm, a professor of public policy and economics at the University of Virginia, found that a 50-week extension in paid leave was associated with a 20 percent dip in infant deaths. (The biggest drop was in deaths of babies between 1 month and 1 year old, though mortality of children between 1 and 5 years also decreased as paid leave went up.)
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only about 13 percent of U.S. workers have access to any form of paid family leave, which includes parental leave and other time off to care for a family member. The highest-paid workers are most likely to have it, according to BLS numbers, with more than 1 in 5 of the top 10 percent of earners getting paid family leave, compared to 1 in 20 in the bottom quartile. Unionized workers are more likely to get benefits than nonunionized workers.
The ones most likely to take somewhat longer leaves, of six weeks or more? College educated white-collar women. Whose children start out with tons of other advantages already.
For Natasha Long, who was back three weeks after her third child, Jayden, was born in 2012, the worst part was missing out on bonding time with her son.
Long, who was 29 at the time, was determined to make sure Jayden got breast milk. But the factory where she worked, ACCO Office Supplies in Booneville, Mississippi, didn’t have a lactation room. So when she was on breaks, she had to run out to her truck. She sat in the cab, worried that someone might see her, and pumped, while tears rolled down her face and over the plastic suction cups attached to her breasts.
Long cried because she wanted to be holding her baby rather than sitting in the parking lot of a factory in her old Yukon Denali. But exhaustion clearly also played a role in her emotional state. Her job was simple—to place stickers with the company logo on the bottom right-hand corner of plastic binders and then box up the binders. But the shifts were long—from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—and she put in four or five a week. Because the factory was an hour’s drive from her home in Okalona, Mississippi, Long had only 10 hours left in the day to do everything else, including tend to her three children, spend time with Jayden’s father, and sleep.
There’s lots more, including statistics about the effects of on the mental health of the women who have to rush back to work before they, and/or their children, are ready, and about the effects on the children themselves, who are less likely to breastfeed at all, let alone for six months or a year, as per expert recommendations. But by this point you may be, as I am, already heartbroken and enraged; and you may also be asking, “Where are the dads in all this?”
Because until men weigh in on an issue, until they decide it’s important, nothing changes. (One recent damning example: Hannibal Buress vs. Bill Cosby.) Stephen Marche wrote about the dads disappearing into the background of this debate in 2013:
Men’s absence from the conversation about work and life is strange, because decisions about who works and who takes care of the children, and who makes the money and how the money is spent, are not decided by women alone or by some vague and impersonal force called society. Decisions in heterosexual relationships are made by women and men together. When men aren’t part of the discussion about balancing work and life, outdated assumptions about fatherhood are allowed to go unchallenged and, far more important, key realities about the relationship between work and family are elided. The central conflict of domestic life right now is not men versus women, mothers versus fathers. It is family versus money. …
When it comes to work-life conflict, [a Pew] study found, about half of all working parents say it is difficult to balance career and family responsibilities, with ‘no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers.’
Marche tells the story of the time he gave up a tenure-track job to move back to Canada when his wife got a high-paying gig, in large part because daycare there is both high-quality and subsidized.
Of all the privileges my wife and I gained, our boy being in a safe place we could afford between nine and five was by far the greatest. It’s why this story has a happy ending; it is the thing that enabled me to build a new career for myself. Day care is not theoretical liberation. It is the real deal, for women and men alike. …
The fact is, men can’t have it all, for the same reason women can’t: whether or not the load is being shared 50-50 doesn’t matter if the load is still unbearable. It will not become bearable once women lean in, or once the consciousness is raised, or once men are full partners, always, in domestic life. It will become bearable when decidedly more quotidian things become commonplace—like paid parental leave and affordable, quality day care (which Sandberg and Slaughter both advocate).
And we will never have those nice things until men demand them. Raise your voice again, Stephen! You and those like you are our only hope. Keep bellowing until you make yourself heard.