It’s time to make paid parental leave the norm

Jeremy Bird

Of all the blessings of being a parent, the one I’m most grateful for is simple: time. Recently, after the birth of our second son, Miles, I once again had the chance to focus 100 percent on being a dad thanks to our company’s generous parental leave policy. And it only took a trip to the local grocery store to be reminded that far too many others around the country don’t.

As I was picking out fish for dinner with my four-month old baby boy strapped to my chest, a friendly woman flashed a smile at us. 

“Vacation Day?” she asked. 

“No. Paternity leave.” I replied. 

“Paternity leave?” she asked with a pause. “Is that, like, maternity leave for dads? Just wait until I tell my husband about this. The world sure is changing.” 
 
Since that day, I have thought a ton about that conversation and the many like it I’ve had whenever I have been on my own with my sons. And I’ve been struck by the fact that the world isn’t changing quickly enough. In fact, according to the National Partnership for Women & Families, "only 9 percent of private sector workers are employed at worksites that offer paid paternity leave to all male employees” — paid paternity leave is the exception rather than the norm. 

Parental leave is about gender equity. One of the biggest barriers to gender equity in our society is the cultural expectation that women are the primary caregivers for our children. The evidence on this is all around us. Each time passersby see me with the kids and say things like “It’s so great of you” or “you’re such a hero to be doing that,” I am reminded of the person who never heard those congratulatory things while on leave: my wife.

Our country’s failure to normalize paternity leave isn’t just a blow against fathers who have significantly less time to bond with their children; it perpetuates a culture and expectation that mothers and grandmothers are responsible for raising children, while the men in their lives are simply doing them a favor when they step in. 

I’m proud of the proactive parental leave policy we established when we started 270 Strategies — there was never a question that we would be on the leading edge of employer leave policies. At the time, we had just two parents on our team, but over the past seven years, our generous parental leave policy has given staff priceless time and flexibility to welcome their newborns into the world and be there for their precious first months. That’s a legacy that will outlast every staffer’s time -- and impact those families for a lifetime

The good news is that views about paternity policy are shifting — I’ve even noticed a difference in the couple of years between my two paternity leaves. But, we still have a long way to go. 

For starters, we need our nation and states to mandate policies that are currently in place, but are not often applied. Only six states and Washington D.C. have paid family leave laws, but there is no federal policy for paid family leave, leaving many families with no place to turn. Unlike FMLA, which is solely unpaid leave for parents and caregivers, paid family leave allows employees to continue to receive pay while caring for their family. And even then, there are discrepancies in who qualifies for this leave across the board. We need to demand fair, equal family leave policies in workplaces where they currently don’t exist — better yet, in all states through a federal policy. 

At workplaces where parental leave exists, business and organizational leaders need to set an example by actually taking the time afforded to them. When a company’s leadership team members don’t take their full leave available, it sends a message to the rest of the staff that leave is not a priority and shouldn’t be taken seriously. 

Family leave is not a vacation — that is the kind of rhetoric that devalues childcare. Paternity leave gave me the time I needed to learn and evolve as a father, and as importantly, enable the mother of my children to continue to pursue her ambitions with the confidence and support of her life partner. 

Thanks to paternity leave, I got to experience some of my favorite moments with my sons — from watching my son crawl for the first time to seeing the joy on their faces as we walked along the lake in Chicago. My time with my children also showed them that both of their parents are equal caretakers, and it sets the standard that we are always on the same footing. 

To this day, the best compliment I have ever had came from our childcare provider, who said my wife and I had the most co-equal parenting relationship she had ever seen. That’s the example we are setting for our children, and one that should be the norm around the country, rather than the exception. 

Every dad, mom, and caregiver deserves the chance to be with their babies. Policy makers and business leaders: it’s time we make it real.

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