By Robert Hurst
Evidence requires little introduction, so let’s jump right in.
Paternity leave leads to stronger bonds between father and child. Measuring the level of closeness between two people is, of course, a tricky, perhaps impossible task. But kids whose fathers took paternity leave (2 weeks or more) reported feeling closer to their fathers than kids whose fathers did not take any paternity leave, when they were asked 9 years later, according to a 2019 study published in Sex Roles (Petts, et al). A 2012 Swedish study also found that leave was associated with stronger father-child relationships (Almqvist and Duvander, 2012).
Other studies reinforce the notion that early involvement enabled by paternity leave translates to a greater likelihood of fathers’ involvement as time goes on—and the longer the leave the stronger the impact. (Brown, et al, 2012; Pragg and Knoester, 2015.)
Paternity leave promotes gender equity. With their generally strong statutory paternity leave policies, European countries provide fertile ground for evidence-gathering on the subject. One of the more interesting studies to look at Sweden found that lengthy paternal leave was associated with fathers taking on a larger share of parenting work and other household chores (Almqvist and Duvander, 2012). The same study found paternity leave associated with increasing equity in another aspect of family life, with the father-child relationship rising to a similar level of intensity and involvement as the mother-child bond, with benefits for fathers, children and mothers.
Paternity leave is associated with marital stability. In 2019 Petts, Carlson and Knoester (much of the recent research on paternity leave comes from some combination of Petts, Carlson or Knoester) examined the relationship between paternity leave and marital stability in the United States. Perhaps predictably given its promotion of more egalitarian divisions of household labor, the researchers found that paternity leave seems to lessen the likelihood of divorce occurring later in marriages. Interestingly, the 2019 study found that paternity leaves of 5 weeks or more, considered extreme in the US, were associated with greater likelihood of marriage dissolution than were leaves of less than a month.
The United States is one of the few countries in the world that does not have a statutory paid parental leave policy. Amazingly, that’s paternity and maternity leave. The US is almost uniquely bad on family leave—only a few less-developed countries in Africa share its total lack of family leave policy. The omission of a statutory maternity leave policy in the US is particularly glaring considering that mothers in other countries tend to be provided with several months of paid leave.
Statutory parental leave policies can be confusing; policies vary widely among EU countries, with some transference of leave between parents and varying terminology that makes it difficult to discern what exactly is being provided to whom. But we can see that it is typical for European governments to provide something like 2 weeks of paid leave to new fathers, give or take a week. Greece only offers a few days of paid paternity leave. Hungary offers 5 days of paid leave, which is on par with Mexico and Chile. New fathers in Uruguay get 13 days of paid leave, while in Brazil, fathers can take advantage of a month of paid leave. Keep in mind, this is for paternity leave. These countries typically also provide paid maternity leave of at least a month, sometimes 6 months or longer.
By law (Family and Medical Leave Act), employers in the US, if those employers employ more than 50 people, must allow their full-time employees to take up to 3 months of unpaid childcare leave. But even this law does not apply to the majority of American workers, because they work part-time, for smaller employers, or are self-employed contractors. Of course many of the workers who do qualify will not be able to take unpaid leave anyway, for simple economic reasons.
Some companies in the US do voluntarily provide paid paternity leave (approximately 16% according to Kaiser Family Foundation), and seven US states have some form of paid family leave policies (CA, NY, NJ, WA, MA, RI, DC), but the overall percentage of new fathers working in the US who have access to paid paternity leave remains very low.
For a country-by-country look at family leave policies see : Koslowski, A., Blum, S., Dobrotić, I., Kaufman, G. and Moss, P. International Review of Leave Policies and Research, 2020 (pdf).
The availability of paternity leave is inequitable. Especially in the US, men who make more money are much more likely than low- or middle-income workers to have access to paid paternity leave. They also take longer leaves of absence. (Klerman et al., 2012; Petts et al., 2018; Winston, 2014.) This dynamic is, to some degree, consistently present even in countries with statutory family leave.
Cultural expectations present a double-edged sword to the working class in the US. On one hand they are expected to be present at the births of their children and to support their wives. And indeed that’s what they do. Research shows that American fathers are consistently, across socio-economic strata, present during the births of their kids, and also tend to take a few days or a week off around that time (Petts, Knoester and Li, 2018). On the other hand, these workers are expected to remain tethered to their jobs and may not feel supported by employers (or co-workers) to take the small amount of time they do.
Men are often reluctant to take more than a few days of paternity leave even when it’s available. Particularly in the US—but not exclusively in the US—cultural pressures weigh heavily on men to prioritize work over paternity leave. Men can be ostracized or stigmatized for taking family leave and branded by employers as selfish or “not team players.” Men are still judged primarily on their breadwinning, and familial skills are viewed as secondary. This is changing, thankfully. (On the general subject of cultural baggage and the sneaky realities of paid leave see Albiston and O’Connor, “Just Leave,” 2016.)
The lack of statutory parental leave, combined with the regressive cultural and economic anchors weighing on men’s willingness to take it, means that, for the most part, the benefits that are described above do not accrue in the USA. And the benefits that do are distributed with vast inequity. Logic dictates that American children and families—and American society in general—have been placed at a relative disadvantage as a result.