To fix parental leave, make it possible for dads to take it
America's parental leave situation is dire. As you probably know, America is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not offer paid parental leave to workers, so working parents are forced to use accumulated vacation and sick hours to ensure some sort of income during their time off. Even if parents are lucky enough to have paid parental leave, they might not take it all. Why? In part, it's because dads often head back to work, even before their leave is up.
The traditional household today looks very different than it did a half century ago, when women stayed home and raised children and the men worked. Nowadays, women make up nearly half of the workforce, and working mothers with children under the age of 18 comprise roughly 70 percent of the workforce.
More Women in the Workforce
With more focus on their careers, working women are holding off on having children until later on in life. Juggling a career and a family has proven to be a difficult feat, especially considering that they are still taking care of as many household responsibilities as their (stay-at-home) mothers and grandmothers who didn't hold 9-to-5 jobs. The pressures of making life work domestically and professionally can become so overwhelming, that many women are forced to give up on their career dreams and focus on raising their children, while dad brings home the bacon.
Thankfully, more companies are starting to recognize this dilemma and implement more family-friendly options for employees. For instance, Netflix announced earlier this year that it would be rolling out unlimited, fully paid parental leave for its employees. Microsoft jumped on the bandwagon as well and graced its employees with doubled paid parental leave, increased 401(k) match, and more paid holidays. Adobe doubled its paid family leave, now offering 26 weeks (10 weeks of medical leaven and 16 weeks of parental leave) to employees. The list goes on – but, unfortunately, there's another problem that prevents new parents from feeling confident in taking advantage of these gracious benefits.
Can You Really Take the Time?
Don't get me wrong, America needs paid parental leave, and it needs it NOW. However, what good is offering it, if workers feel pressured not to take the full amount of time off?
At Time, Josh Levs explains why parents, especially new dads, might feel like they can't take time off, even if it's paid and available:
"Now, most workers who get paternity leave don't take all that's offered. 'It felt like a PR benefit, not a real benefit' — just there to make the company look good, not for guys to actually use, one dad explained."
It seems crazy to think that someone who takes time off to care for a newborn would ever be given grief for his or her absence from the office, but that's the stigma that exists in today's American work culture, unfortunately.
Out of sight, out of mind seems to be at work here, and professionals fear that if they're away from the office, then they must not be as dedicated to their job or career as their peers, who are in the office and getting face-time. For this reason, some working parents forgo their full parental leave so that they can return to work and prove themselves once again, thanks to said workplace pressures. The stigma surrounding taking time off of work for whatever reason is perpetuated by the way we, as a culture, view work, family, and the balance of the two.
What Needs to Change
For starters, we need to adopt a more realistic opinion and perception of taking time off of work, especially when it comes to parental leave.
More working fathers need to lead by example and use their paternity leave after their babies are born. Did you know that working fathers who spend more quality time with their children prove to be happier in all aspects of their lives? Last August, MongoDB's CEO, Max Schireson, made headlines when he announced that he would be leaving his position to spend more time with his wife and children.
If more men took their full parental leave, maybe it would change the way their colleagues viewed time off, while also supporting their wives in their desire to take the full amount of parental leave, too.
Or, maybe America should adopt a more direct approach and implement mandatory family leave for both mothers and fathers, as in Sweden, one of the world leaders in equality. Whatever the case may be, America's parental leave issue is two-fold: 1) a lack of paid parental leave, and 2) cultural stigmas surrounding taking time off of work. Therefore, in order to "fix" America's parental leave problem, it's going to take the willingness of employers to offer extended paid parental leave benefits to employees, along with employees adopting a more family-friendly mentality themselves.