Paternity Leave: Why Aren’t Men Taking It?

In 1993, the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) granted American men and women up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off from their jobs for the birth or adoption of a child. This period of time off is generally known as family leave or parental leave. For women, it is commonly called maternity leave; for men, it may be referred to as paternity leave.

To be eligible for parental leave under the FMLA, a person has to work for a federal, state, or local public agency or an organization that has 50 or more employees working within a 75-mile radius. He or she must have worked for the organization for at least 12 months and for at least 1,250 hours during the past 12 months. If a person meets these criteria, the FMLA requires that his or her employer continue paying for employer-sponsored benefits during the family leave and allow the employee to come back to the same or a similar position upon his or her return.

In addition to the parental leave established by the FMLA, some states have their own family leave laws, which are often more generous than the provisions of the FMLA. What’s more, many employers also offer their own family leave policies.

Despite these gains in federal, state, and employer policies, many men are reluctant to take paternity leave. There are a number of possible reasons why this is the case.

Most importantly, perhaps, is the fact that many men simply cannot afford to take an unpaid break from work–let alone a 12-week unpaid leave. According to the National Partnership for Women & Families, 78% of individuals (men and women) who are eligible for leave under the FMLA but don’t take it, don’t take it because they cannot afford to do so. The arrival of a new baby means one more mouth to feed, and for many families, the loss of an income at this time would be devastating, particularly if the mother is already taking an unpaid maternity leave.

The fear of what will happen to their jobs when they return is another factor that may make men hesitate to take paternity leave. While it is illegal for an employer to discriminate against an employee who has taken a leave, some male employees still have concerns about how they will be treated after doing so. If their coworkers haven’t already set a precedent for taking paternity leave, a company’s male employees may not know what to expect if they try to do so themselves.

Another possible reason why men are reluctant to take paternity leave is rooted in social norms. While husbands and wives today commonly share the breadwinner role in their families, many men still feel an obligation to act as the primary breadwinner. For some, this is a hard role to give up, even temporarily.

The first few months after a baby is born are critical to the bonding that takes place between parent and child. Moreover, the National Partnership for Women & Families states that parents’ taking parental leave can provide long-term benefits to a child, including improved brain and social development and better overall health and well-being.

If you are a man who is starting to plan a family, look into the parental leave options that are open to you through the FMLA, your state’s laws, and your employer’s policies. If you cannot afford to take an unpaid leave, consider the other options that may be available to you. For instance, your employer may offer paid sick time or paid vacation time that you may be able to repurpose into a paternity leave. Taking some time off at the arrival of your new baby will be well worth it for you, your child, and your child’s mother.

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