Involved Fathers, Good Outcomes: Why Parental Leave Matters
It sounds so simple: Good things happen when parents spend time with their children. But fathers in the United States increasingly don’t get to see their children as much as they would like. More than ever, dads feel that work is robbing them of the opportunity to be present during their children’s lives.
Gayle Kaufman, Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies, is an expert on fatherhood and the author of Superdads: How Fathers Balance Work and Family in the 21st Century and the forthcoming Fixing Parental Leave: The Six Month Solution, due out this fall.
Kaufman shared her insight on the challenges facing American dads -- and how we might help them.
Why is parental leave so important?
Fathers who take parental leave develop a greater awareness of their children’s needs and better caring skills. And this may translate to better child outcomes. A recent study of Australian fathers finds that children’s cognitive outcomes improve when fathers, regardless of their own education, spend more time in educational activities with their children.
How does the availability of leave in the United States compare with other countries?
The United States is at the bottom. We are the only industrialized country that does not offer any paid parental leave. Our only national policy (the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, FMLA) allows for only 12 weeks of unpaid leave and, due to restrictions on size of companies and work hours, only 59 percent of U.S. workers are eligible.
But that’s changing, right? Is paid parental leave becoming more common?
There is some indication that paid parental leave is increasing in the United States. At this point, it seems like more progress is being made at the state level and among individual companies.
Ten years ago, only California and New Jersey offered paid parental leave. Since then, Rhode Island and New York have implemented paid parental leave, and Washington (2020) and Massachusetts (2021) will soon. Meanwhile, more companies are trying to make room for new fathers by offering paternity or parental leave.
Are there any unintended consequences of widespread parental leave?
This has the potential of creating inequities in parental leave, with fathers in professional occupations having greater access to leave. Many small companies are concerned about the potential impact of paid parental leave on their businesses, but research from California shows that most companies experienced no or positive changes following the introduction of the state’s paid family leave policy. State policies might provide some direction as they are mainly based on very small payroll taxes (a fraction of a percent).
Are there examples the United States should follow?
The Nordic countries offer the best models of parental leave. Sweden was the first country to introduce paid parental leave back in 1974 and Norway was the first country to introduce the father’s quota in 1993 (reserved parental leave for fathers). Now Iceland, Norway and Sweden all offer at least three months of father’s quota. These policies have been effective, as almost all fathers take parental leave. It is not unusual at all to see fathers on leave pushing strollers around town.