What paternity leave is really like in America

What paternity leave is really like in America

I typically try not to let the culture war sniping of the week serve as my assignment editor, but the utterly dumb fuck “debate” about paternity leave stretching into its second week now — Fellas, is it gay to take care of and bond with your newborn? — is a somewhat rare example of such an issue that could, if we wanted it to, be solved to actually benefit people’s lives.

Thinking about it I was reminded of this piece below that I wrote a few years back in which twenty or so American fathers told me about how much, if any, paid or unpaid time off they were granted at work when they had their children over the years. Back then the U.S. used to have “the dubious distinction of being one of the few countries in the world—not just rich countries, but countries altogether—that does not have any sort of paid parental leave law at the federal level.” It still does but it used to too.

Most of the stories fathers told me were about having to cobble together a combination of sick leave and vacation time to be able to spend any time with their baby or to be on hand to assist the mother. Some in the better compensated fields were given generous time off, although often felt there was a stigma attached to taking it. Other stories were just the perfect encapsulation of the, well, Hell World that we live in. (It’s Luke from Welcome to Hell World writing today by the way. Hello).

“We have a system set up where people can donate vacation or sick days to those in need, and occasionally you'll see someone asking for donations because an unexpected emergency takes place, and oftentimes it's pregnancy-related,” one guy told me. “I'm not sure how effective those requests are though. People post flyers requesting time from others, and they're always so damn depressing to read. The fact that people have to rely on a stranger to be able to care for their family and not lose their job is infuriating.”

I hear about this type of thing often still, where workers have to band together to donate their own precious time off to a colleague in need, as if days off were a finite commodity employers simply can’t materialize out of thin air if they wanted to.

Either way, not much has changed since then when it comes to family leave. And it’s not just paternal leave we’re talking about, it applies to mothers as well. The US “is one of only a handful of countries without any mandated paid leave for birthing mothers,” this piece from the BBC notes. In Europe, you probably won’t be surprised to hear, paid parental leave is common.

You also might wonder if employers are picking up some of the slack left by the government, but here only 21% of workers can avail themselves of paid family leave through work.

Over the weekend I heard from a few fathers about where things stand for them today vis a vis family leave.

“I used to work for a Dutch company and I got 14 weeks paternity when [my daughter] was born. More than my wife got,” one said. “Now I work for a U.S. company (a nonprofit!) and I am looking at this exact scenario if we have another: bank sick time, hope no one gets sick.”

“Paternity leave is trash,” another said. “I got two weeks when my son was born. I was doing so much at work (60 hour weeks etc.) and that was in the aftermath of a massive health scare. I got 16 weeks when my second was born (a different company). Just a night and day difference. I really wish I had the power to make the latter a reality for all parents.”

I know a guy who does have such power. Biden’s American Families Plan, for what it’s worth, would throw some money at the issue, and both he and Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh (Go Sox kehd!!) have said recently that everyone should have “access” to paid parental leave, but I don’t have much faith in this crew getting anything passed at this point never mind something that might make life easier for any of us.

In the meantime, as I wrote in 2017, having a child in America remains a sickness. At least in the eyes of employers. When it happens to you you’re on your own, and you better not spend too much away from work taking care of it.

Having a child in America is a sickness. Or maybe it's more like a week on the beach, at least in the eyes of most employers. In this country, new parents are often forced to cobble together a hodgepodge of vacation or sick days to spend any time with their newborn. If they even can.

Companies with 50 or more employees can't fire someone for taking up to 12 weeks off to be with their newborn—whether it's a man or a woman—thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. But these companies don't have to pay them for the time off (though some generous employers do). Last year, only 13 percent of workers received part of their paycheck in a period following a childbirth; that number dropped to 7 percent in fields like the service industry or retail, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

That gives the U.S. the dubious distinction of being one of the few countries in the world—not just rich countries, but countries altogether—that does not have any sort of paid parental leave law at the federal level.

This may be changing, somewhat. The president's proposed budget outlined a plan to provide six weeks of paid time off to new mothers and fathers funded by the states, similar to unemployment insurance programs.

In the meantime, a handful of states have enacted policies for paid leave, including California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and New York, but it simply makes no sense to not have a federal policy on parental leave—and one that includes new fathers—especially when we spend so much time as a culture talking about the importance of raising children. Studies have shown children benefit from spending more time with their mothers and fathers in their early days, just as more and more households are seeing both parents employed. Last year, both parents held jobs in 61 percent of married couples with children.

It is clear that having time off for bonding with a newborn is beneficial and becoming more accepted. To find out exactly how its existence, or lack thereof, has affected fathers young and old, we asked 22 dads around the country to share their experiences after the birth of their child. Many of them only provided their first names and, in a couple instances, no name at all, because they feared repercussions for talking about their employer.

John, 40, retail, MA, 30 days paid

My job at the Garment District, a clothing store in Cambridge, gave me paid paternity leave for 30 days, twice, which was amazing. The outrageous part is my wife, who worked for a massive luxury retail business, got zero days. I was basically the first person at Garment District to have a kid, so there wasn't necessarily a policy in place, so they kinda made the decision on the fly. I had been there 13 years when my first was born and 17 years when the second was born, and I'd also worked plenty of salary overtime—a.k.a. unpaid—so they considered me worth the investment.

As a personal shopper, my wife was directly responsible for well over a million dollars a year in sales, but they didn't give her any paid maternity leave. She was directed to register as "temporarily disabled" with the state, and she got a measly couple hundred bucks over the three months she was out. She also worked up until the week she went into labor both times, and still was working from home via text, email, and phone while on "leave." Basically maternity leave for her company meant: You can have three months off unpaid before we'll hire someone else to do your job.

Chris, 38, bartender, TX, 0 days

If you're a bartender you just don't make money when you're not working, and if you're gone too long they take you off the schedule. After my kid was born, I switched to just weekends because I couldn't do it during the week anymore. I would randomly get a weekend off a month, and then I was completely off the schedule. I was forced into early retirement. It's absolutely harder for a non-salary employee to get time off.

Jim, 46, public defender, MA, 0-5 days

In 2001, I was a new federal probation officer with no accrued time, and I took five days off but had to come in once to grab work. When I came back, I was worked to death, and my supervisor did not care that I was sleep deprived. It led to me leaving. No one back then had or took paternity leave. In 2006, I was a solo attorney with no benefits, and my son was born premature on a Friday. I tried a jury case on Monday. Now I work at the public defender. Three male co-workers all took at least three months paternity leave in the past two years, and it started after their wives completed maternity leave. It's a given now. I wish I had that back then.

Anonymous, 33, risk management, MO, 16 weeks paid

I received 16 weeks full pay. It's a crazy amount. I did take it all, and there was some judgment about it, sort of, "You're the man, that's what women are supposed to do." It's a field dominated by the old guard. HR wouldn't have allowed any repercussions, but I would say I don't see any big promotions coming my way anytime soon.

Chris, 34, IT, WA, 4 weeks vacation/sick time

I've got a 2-month-old baby. I drained my vacation and sick time to get four weeks off, so now I spend the rest of the year hoping me, my wife, and my kid don't get sick. I feel lucky I've been at this place 10 years so I built up some paid time off, otherwise I'd be totally screwed. How people survive without a bunch of saved paid time off is nuts. No wonder kids get so messed up: We make it impossible for parents to nurture children in all but the best of situations. A coworker had a kid and was at work the very next day. It's bonkers.

Norman, 63, retired, ME, 0 days

When our kids were born, I was a paralegal with the Nassau County DA's office. I had only been there for a short time, so I hadn't accumulated enough vacation time to be able to take more than a day or two off. This was in the early '80s, so the concept of parental leave wasn't even in the picture yet. It was pretty much still the case that Mom stopped working (without pay, of course), while Dad took a few days off if possible, then went back to work. I don't know how much things have changed since then, but the concept of parental leave is a good one, as long as employers don't use it as an excuse to underpay people or just lay them off.

Drew, 36, biologist, KY, 9 days vacation/sick time

I'm a state-employed dad who just took nine work days off using personal vacation and sick time to stay home with my wife and newborn. I did the same with my first son back in 2010 but didn't have as much time saved up then. No parental leave is offered, and my employer still texted me and emailed me work-related shit even when I was on leave.

We have a system set up where people can donate vacation or sick days to those in need, and occasionally you'll see someone asking for donations because an unexpected emergency takes place, and oftentimes it's pregnancy-related. I'm not sure how effective those requests are though. People post flyers requesting time from others, and they're always so damn depressing to read. The fact that people have to rely on a stranger to be able to care for their family and not lose their job is infuriating.

Jeff, 46, publisher, MA, flexible days off

When my son was born in 2001, my wife and I created a schedule that more or less worked after her 90-day maternity leave ended, which was that I would show up to work in the morning with him. I had a crib set up in our first Chinatown loft office and would essentially work while often bouncing him on my knee or changing diapers. Feeding was always a blast, and there was a lot of crying, but it actually changed the staff culture for the nine months he was in. There are some classic stories about meetings with clients in the office while he was there, and how he wasn't just a chick magnet but also an ad contract magnet. Who's gonna say "no" to a dude with a start up and kid on his knee?

Leave was something I offered, but we just never had many people who had kids. When our art director had his kids, I told him to do whatever he needed, that we'd set him up remotely and he could take as much time as he needed with the caveat that obviously the book needed to be designed. By 2010 or 2011, we did away with all vacation and sick or leave time, and people were allowed to take as much time off as necessary as long as they coordinated with their team. I stole that model from Netflix, and if I ever owned another company and had employees again, I'd do the same thing.

Jim, 34, finance, NJ, 4 weeks paid

I had a baby last year, and they gave me four weeks, which I can split into two two-week breaks. I took two when my daughter was born, and I have up until a year after her birth to take the other two. It used to just be two weeks. I'm grateful—most people in this industry have less. That being said, I got the impression that I was supposed to keep up with at least a portion of my responsibilities during this time, although that was not said explicitly, likely due to HR reasons. Basically my project timelines were not extended during my absence, so I read between the lines and stayed up on all my work. Still, for the most part it was nice.

I wouldn't have even dreamed of taking the entire four weeks consecutively, even though that would have been a better option for me. To do so would mean having someone else inherit my most important responsibilities and risk not getting them back upon my return. I felt like a few people were somewhat surprised when I said I was taking the time I did. Male managers, mostly.

John, 47, teaching assistant, RI, 2 months unpaid 1 month subsidized

My wife and I each took three months for my daughter when she was born three years ago—she took from birth to three months, me from three to six months. At the time I was in mental health; I was a teaching assistant at a school for kids with behavioral and developmental disabilities. My wife's leave was not paid by her employer, but she had a C-section, so she got more money from the state and had enough vacation time to cover the entire three months. My leave was unpaid, but I got four weeks pay from the state for bonding with a newborn. Rhode Island has a Temporary Disability Insurance program run by the Department of Labor, which encompasses care of a newborn for both spouses. I think everyone should be able to spend at least three months with their child and have their job waiting for them when they come back.

I'm optimistic for my daughter's generation I think. I'm 47; my wife and I got a late start and then had some trouble conceiving. When I was a kid, no men took time. It's become more acceptable in one generation, in part I think because more than ever both spouses work. I hope that when my daughter is ready to have kids things will have progressed even further.

Andrew, 32, banking, WI, 4 weeks paid

My wife is due in September, and a few weeks ago the company I work for changed the paternity leave from two to four weeks paid. If it wasn't for that I would have been taking two weeks FMLA unpaid, because my wife and I did not feel like two weeks was enough time to be home with the baby. Four is absolutely an improvement, and I'm thankful for it, but I think to call it "generous" is a stretch. From all the daddy books I have read, those first few months are real important for the child and parents, so it would be great to spend as much of that time with the kid and not worry about work or not getting paid.

Ramie, 41, restaurant co-owner, VT, 10 days paid

I have a 2-year-old. I received 10 days off and spent seven at the hospital while my wife recovered from her C-section. My time off was paid, but I'm part owner. It was two months of recovery for her, and Vermont doesn't have mandatory paid maternity leave. I don't offer leave to my employees. We offer 401(k) and a week's paid vacation after a year's full-time service, and I bonus the back of the house whenever business permits it.

Would I like to see it mandated? Tough question. It seems there's always a way to fuck the system, but I know there are people out there that need it. It's a strangely taboo subject. If I didn't own the business, I would've never asked for the time off. Maybe I grew up around too many manly men: "If you can walk you go to work."

Karl, 37, Amazon, WA, 1 week unpaid

I worked at a company that started paternity leave a couple months after my son was born. I didn't do anything retroactive. I ended up taking a week off anyway about a year after unpaid. The reason HR gave for starting it was the same as the public press release, but obviously being competitive in hiring was an incentive. I suspect the timing was connected to The New York Times piece on the working environment there, which was pretty negative PR.

Doug, 30, copywriter, KS, 0 days paid

I work as a contract copywriter for a marketing firm and part-time in retail sales for a notable fashion brand. My daughter was born at 22 weeks and spent time in the NICU before she died. I didn't get paid parental leave, but my fashion job gave me all the flexibility I needed in allowing me to use FMLA to keep my job. I still worked for the marketing firm scheduling social media as much as I could while she was in the hospital. I think having a paid parental leave policy enforced and subsidized by the government would help immensely. My wife is the primary breadwinner anyway, so if her company hadn't played ball with her via short term disability, we would've been totally screwed.

Kyle, 47, finance, KS, 0 days paid

No parental leave for me, but I'm fortunate to have an employer that allows generous flex time and work-from-home time. The same employer now offers six weeks paternity leave—too late for me, but a great benefit for other dads. It should absolutely be more common. It's an economic growth issue. Removing impediments to having kids equals promoting a growing workforce and consumer base. I wouldn't give anything for the hours I spent with my daughter in those first few weeks. My dad had very little time with me when I was a baby, and he regretted it always.

Mike, 39, moving industry, MA, 2 weeks unpaid

I became a father two years ago. I changed jobs while my wife was pregnant. She gave birth while I was in the three-month probationary period, and work allowed me to take two weeks off, but it was totally unpaid because I was not eligible for vacation time yet. My wife hadn't been at her job long enough to earn any vacation time, so for two weeks we were both at home with no money coming in. Ideally, I would have loved to have been home for longer, but no money coming in was more of a stress than helping my wife raise our son. Also, she had a C-section, so the first week was spent in the hospital. And then we had to worry about the impending bills that would be associated with that, which added to the need to go back to work.

I don't blame my employer for this shitty situation. I see it as more a societal problem than my employer being heartless. I don't have any faith in national politics in terms of it getting better, but I'd like to see something passed in this state. It would be nice to see that some form of government cares about people born after 1969. Massachusetts talks a big progressive game—see the history of LGBT rights—but when that progressivism costs something in the way of real dollars, it's a totally different tune.

Anonymous, 29, grad student, TX, 1 week unpaid

Ultimately, when you're a grad student, any time off is up to the discretion of your advisor. My boss thought I would be in and out in two to three days, but I ended up taking a full work week because my son had to be in the NICU for a couple of days. It was very hard on us. Even when the baby was in the NICU, I was getting emails from my boss. We came home on a Friday or Saturday after getting into the hospital Monday night. I was at work the following Monday morning. I didn't feel great about leaving my wife, and I came home on my lunches for the next few weeks while she had maternity leave. But I also knew that I could jeopardize five and a half years of work, and my PhD, if I wasn't completely responsive to my boss's needs.

Mike, 38, former tile worker, MA, 1 week vacation time

I had my first son 13 years ago. I was working for a tile company and had to use a week's worth of vacation time. More time would have been great, but that business is demanding. As far as benefits, you're lucky to have any at all in a small tile company. I think that every dad should get at least a week's paternity leave, if not two. It's such an amazing and important and scary time to begin to learn about your newborn, and it should be the center of your focus for as long as it can be. Having to burn vacation time shouldn't be an option.

Travis, 31, small business owner, NJ, 0 days paid

I'm a musician and small business owner who just had his first kid three weeks ago. It completely changed how and when I work. Although as a business owner I don't have paternity leave, I have been super lucky to be able to work around my kid's schedule. I didn't end up taking any time off per se. If anything, I'm working more hours than I was before, just in a different way. I work from home, I work from the couch, I work from the park. My iPhone has become my best friend. I rely much less on a desk and office and laptop, and now I find myself working little by little all throughout the day, usually during my son's nap hours, which is a lot these days.

If I didn't run the business, I would not be thinking about work. But as my company is so young and small—three owners total, no employees—time off isn't really in the cards for us yet. I would absolutely make sure any employee is allowed time off for paternity leave. I think this is such a formative bonding time for both parents and their children. The American maternity system sucks.

Jason, 36, digital marketing, MA, 4 weeks paid

My daughter was born on Christmas last year. My company offers eight weeks for moms, four for dads. I took the full four, paid. The first couple of weeks there was lots of family around, and my wife's folks were up from Pennsylvania. I didn't feel like I "needed" to be there, but it was nice to be able to spend those early days with her—even just laying with the baby on the couch and giving my wife some time to chill was helpful. I liked going to the doctor appointments, getting to hear how she was doing, feeling like a good dad, etc. And aside from it being beneficial to baby and wife, it was really great for me to get to a point where I wasn't worrying about work shit, primarily focused on being a parent, and that perspective stayed with me when I went back to work. I think it should be more common—more companies should offer it, and more men should feel comfortable taking it.

Bob, 37, lawyer, VA, 2 weeks paid

I was a new attorney when we had our first child, and it was high-pressure job. I didn't feel totally comfortable taking the full six weeks offered off, so I only took two. This was my first kid, so I felt like that was non-negotiable. I never thought they'd fire me for taking leave. But even during the two weeks I was "off," I was asked to go to court, by a female partner, and asked to draft a brief, by another female partner. It really ended up being about a week of leave. With my younger child I was more established at my firm and I would have felt reasonably comfortable taking more time off, but then I barely took any time at all.

I had female associates who had children right around the same time as my wife did, and they took a full six weeks or 12 weeks. I certainly never felt comfortable taking that kind of time. Some of that is obviously because women need to physically recover and breastfeed, but another part of it was just that most of the partners were men in their 50s and 60s. They would talk about how they were back at work the day after their kids were born and that they never changed a diaper. I think they even understood that the expectations were different now, but I thought and still think they would have thought less of me if I'd taken the full amount of leave I was offered. It's the type of thing that either needs to be mandated leave or just something where there's a cultural shift. If you have the "option" to take leave and you take it, there's always someone else out there who's willing to not take that leave and to work those hours.

Brian, 58, IT, MA, 2 weeks paid

My son was born in '94. I think they let me take the day she gave birth, and maybe a day or two after. I don't recall the term "paternity leave" being used at that time. You'd show up for work all bleary-eyed, and people would be like, "New baby, huh? You're not gonna get much sleep for a while."