The Paternity Leave Struggle

Time-Warner reportedly offers its employees a generous maternity-leave benefit: 10 weeks paid time off. It's unusual for an American company to offer any paid family leave, and I hope the women who work for the giant media company deeply appreciate this policy. Men at Time Warner, however, are not so lucky--the benefit does not extend to new fathers (or at least, biological fathers, since it does reportedly apply to adoptive fathers or men who became fathers through surrogacy).

That disparity is being challenged by Josh Levs, a reporter at CNN (which is part of the Time Warner empire), whose third child, a girl, was born in October. He's filed a complaint with the EEOC alleging that the policy is discriminatory. Levs was a keynote speaker at the Dad 2.0 Summit, which I attended this past weekend.

I am no lawyer, but it certainly seems like Levs has a strong case and will hopefully prevail. (Time-Warner did not return a phone call from seeking comment.) That dads should be afforded the same opportunities as moms to stay home and care for, and bond with, their babies seems obvious to me--as does the injustice of any policy that applies to one gender and not the other. As Levs put it in his talk, his male colleague could adopt Levs' baby and get 10 paid weeks of leave; as birth father, Levs needed to return to work after two weeks.

Even if Levs prevails, however, I don't know that his EEOC case will have an impact beyond his own company, for the simple reason that few workplaces offer any paid leave for moms or dads. I certainly hope that changes and that the U.S. catches up to where much of the rest of the world is on this issue (as illustrated by this depressing chart, which made the social media rounds recently).

But there is another side to this issue, one that doesn't involve government action or corporate benefit policies. Put simply, we fathers need to take advantage of the benefits already offered to us.

When my first daughter was born, I decided to take several weeks off from work when my wife returned to her job at the end of maternity leave. This paternity leave was unpaid, as my wife's maternity leave was. When friends and colleagues heard that I was doing this, I was taken aback by how many had the same reaction: "How great that your company offers this."

I had news for them: My company was supportive and encouraging, but their policy was not guided by goodwill or generosity. It conformed with the letter of the law, which guarantees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave during the year following a child's birth or adoption for any new parent, man or woman, who is covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act. That law generally applies to anyone who has worked at least 1,250 hours during the previous 12 months for a company with at least 50 employees in the vicinity.

Yet few new dads take advantage of this paternity leave policy. A 2011 Boston College study found that about 75% of men took a week or less off from work when their child was born. And other reports have shown that only small numbers of eligible dads take paternity leave even when it's paid.

I know it's not an easy issue, and there are so many factors inhibiting dads from taking leave. Money is, I am sure, the biggest reason more men don't take unpaid leave--which is what makes efforts like Levs' so essential. But even for those who can afford it, or are lucky enough to work for the rare company that does offer paid leave, it can sometimes be hard to decide to take this time off. We men are so conditioned to work and strive to get ahead that it can be scary to step away from the office for an extended period. Will we be passed over for promotions or interesting projects? Will our bosses or colleagues think differently about us or believe we're not committed to our jobs? Will we be at the top of the list when layoffs come?

Nevertheless, I hope to see more dads taking more of the time they are eligible for. It's may not be what Josh Levs is fighting for--paid leave on par with his colleagues who are moms--but it's not nothing, either. Until more of us use what's available to us, it's hard to argue for more. "You can't have family values without valuing fathers," Levs said in his talk at the conference. And, I would add, our society won't truly start valuing fathers--and change its perception of men and work--until we fathers make it that change happen.

Use our calculator to see if you can afford to be a stay-at-home parent.

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