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The Importance and Status of Paid Paternity Leave in the US

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All eyes are on maternity leave. But solid paternity leaves might be the secret sauce to successful postpartum experiences for working mothers and families.

After nine long months of growing a baby, moms endure multiple days in the hospital in many cases, sleepless nights and a physical recovery that takes months. Just as the family is settling into survival mode, it’s often back to work for fathers—who have no guaranteed paid paternity leave in the United States.

Now, the dad is separated from a baby he just met, and from his partner who likely needs help carrying more than the weight of a gallon of milk, let alone a carseat. Family and friends, if they are around, step in instead, helping the mother in the best-case scenario. In the worst case, now she’s on her own to figure out daily self-care tasks, house upkeep, feeding the new baby, and her own physical and emotional recovery.

Research extensively supports the need for paid paternity leave. Here’s how and why more companies (and the government) need to offer paid family leave of all types.

The state of paid paternity leave in the U.S.

Only 56% of American employees qualify for FMLA (Family and Medical Leave Act), according to 2020 data. In order to qualify to take FMLA, you must work for an employer for at least a year, and part-time workers are excluded. Small employers with fewer than 50 employees are also excluded from FMLA. With numerous hoops to jump through, some parents aren’t taking any leave at all to avoid financial issues while they are already paying for hospital bills.

Currently, nine states, plus Washington, D.C., have paid family leave policies that include paternal rights. Four additional states, Maryland, Delaware, Maine and Minnesota, have parental leave insurance laws set to go into effect by 2026. Paid parental leave time ranges from six-12 weeks, depending on the state. Each of the states’ eligibility requirements for paid parental leave vary, but the majority of them are far more accommodating than FMLA—including requiring less working time than 12 months of previous employment. Some of the states base eligibility on dollars earned versus time spent working. According to data reported by Axios, 63% of countries around the world provide paid parental leave for fathers.

Paternity leave helps with relationships

The early days with a new baby can be tough on relationships, but research shows that paternity leave helps. Of men surveyed by McKinsey & Company, 90% who took paternity leave said they saw an improved relationship with their partner. The same study found that 20% of men interviewed felt that risk of a career setback was the biggest downfall of taking paternity leave.

“It’s a bit of learning the new normal, sharing responsibilities but providing mental and physical support for both parties,” says Jennifer Jolorte Doro, Chiyo co-founder and chief operating chef, clinical nutritionist, postpartum chef, certified birth doula and lactation counselor.

Sleep deprivation, a natural but difficult part of having a newborn, can also wreak havoc on relationships. So, having recovery coffee dates after a tough night and being around to take care of each other, in addition to the baby, is a must.

Paternity leave can improve maternal health outcomes

A 2021 study found that mothers and fathers benefitted from paid paternity leave, including less stress and daytime fatigue. For mothers in the same study, less depression was reported, and the transition to parenthood was less stressful.

Up to 20% of mothers experience postpartum depression, which is most common in the first six weeks postpartum. Having an emotional support person around, such as their partner, can help ease these symptoms because they can talk to their partner and/or the partner can reach out for extra help if there’s a severe mental health concern.

Paternity leave helps with Dad/baby bonding

In addition to the maternal health benefits, paternity leave also creates essential time for a relationship between Dad and baby to flourish. A 2022 study out of Singapore found that just two weeks of paternity leave led to a closer father-child bond. It also lowered family conflict and led to better marital satisfaction overall. The study also suggested that taking paternity leave would have a lasting effect on children’s behavior in the future.

“While supporting mom in the first two weeks is incredibly valuable, for dads that have sufficient time available, it is exponentially more beneficial if Dad can take some of his leave (~4+ weeks) after Mom goes back to work. The solo caretaking offers baby bonding at an unprecedented rate,” says Erez Levin, the self-proclaimed but widely recognized chief “Dadvocate” at Google who wrote a paternity leave guide

Andrew Pimental is a Cincinnati-based computer engineer, father of one toddler-aged daughter and husband to Brooke. He has also served as a foster home parent and respite provider. Pimental says, “It was super helpful to have a longer paternity leave, as I personally needed the additional one-on-one time with bonding. When Brooke was pregnant, she was bonding with the baby the whole time, but for me, when she gave birth, [it] was a bit of a shock to the system because when I was helping Brooke during her pregnancy, I was not carrying a baby and having that special time with her.”  

He explains, “Once she arrived though, those four weeks where I was alone with our new baby helped me grow attachment to her and build memories with her too. Especially since I work a full 40-hour week plus drive time, after paternity leave I would at best get a couple of waking hours with our baby, of which maybe half of that was not feeding and changing her.” He adds that dads tend to miss so much more due to work sometimes. 

Offering paternity leave gives companies a competitive edge

In a tough job market, companies are trying to do all they can to attract and retain talent, and offering robust, paid parental leave benefits are attractive to many potential candidates. In fact, a 2019 report found that 85% of fathers would do anything to be very involved in caring for their child, especially in those early weeks.

According to SHRM research, 32% of employers currently offer paid paternity leave—a 5% jump from 2022. Some companies are leading the way, including these leading brands:

  • Netflix: With a motto of “take care of your baby and yourself,” Netflix offers a full year of paid parental leave for any parent
  • Etsy: Offers 26 weeks off of fully paid leave for either gender
  • Hewlett Packard Enterprise: Offers 26 weeks of paid parental leave for either parent, plus access to a parental transition support program that allows parents to work part-time for up to 36 months following the birth of their child

While it would be nice for companies to offer paid paternity leave, given all the benefits it offers families, any business owner knows that doing so has to have some financial benefits for the company as well. 

“We believe that paternity leave is increasingly being viewed as an impactful policy both for working parents and businesses’ bottom line.… We have seen a year-over-year uptick in parental leave, including paternity leave, across our network of companies given the tangible ROI companies experience in offering this benefit,” says Sadie Funk, national director of The Best Place for Working Parents, a community of business owners working to prove that “family-friendly also means business-friendly.” “From 2022 to 2023 alone, paternity leave among the Best Place for Working Parents network increased by 2% as more companies adopt this family-friendly policy that has been shown to drive business growth.

Challenging outdated stigmas around paternity leave

A 2020 survey out of the UK found that 73% of men surveyed felt there was a stigma associated with taking paternity leave. Another 2020 study found that men fear that promotions will be given to those who are in the office most frequently.

“A few years before I had my first kid, I discovered some research about the many benefits of paternity leave for dads, moms, kids, families, women and society. I then realized that, since many companies like Google offered paid paternity leave and had culture/values supporting it, but their utilization was low, the main obstacle to realizing those benefits was simply to create awareness of them and make paternity leave a norm so as to remove the stigma,” Levin says.

“Paternity leave is absolutely getting more normalized in certain pockets (e.g. tech), but we still have a ways to go. Many new dads will hesitate to take their full leave if they have not seen somebody in their broader work group take it or if their manager/leadership team are not effusively encouraging them to do so,” Levin says. “That’s why we need more leaders to be vocal in supporting dads to take their leave and celebrating dads who have.”

Paternity leave is also important for foster or adoptive parents

Some families in the foster care or adoption process might struggle with additional stigma or barriers to family leave.

“In foster care placements, the first couple days alone are a blur of setting up a new child in your life, and it is helpful to have a large window to not only set up necessities but also to start the bonding and welcoming of this new child,” Pimental says. “I felt odd at first taking even those couple of days because Brooke wasn’t healing and this child was not a baby, so I was sleeping fine, but I learned that it had nothing to do with either of those (while they are necessary). The bonding and welcoming of a new child alone was worth the missed work.”In the end, some dads have found out the hard way that they are replaceable at any job, but irreplaceable at home—including CEOs like this one who wished he had utilized his full paternity leave.

Photo by Prostock-studio/Shutterstock.

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