Why a culture of non-birth partners taking leave is necessary

Or: women will continue to be penalized in the workforce if social norms are that men take little to no time off to care for a new child.

Or: how the patriarchy fucks over fathers and mothers and decreases the health of all.

The typical white collar new father takes less than one week off when his wife gives birth1. This, frankly, pisses me off. Meanwhile their wives who just went thru a possibly grueling forty weeks of pregnancy and a possibly even more grueling birth process, likely need to stay home for a while to recover (doctors recommend at least six weeks). If she’s lucky, she has support at home full time for that recovery time, but far too many don’t. Whenever I consider what it would be like taking care of my daughter by myself for the first couple weeks postpartum, I am terrified that I would have screwed it up out of exhaustion and emotional instability. Then women are asked to establish a good breast feeding relationship (more on this in another post) and they are told how important it is to create a good bond with their child and how many benefits there are to a parent staying home with an infant. Is it any wonder that women may choose to stay home2?

There’s a good reason why women tend to stay home: historically, women didn’t work outside the home. If she did, she wasn’t expected to work soon after having a child or ever again. She also probably wasn’t earning an important (or majority) share of the household income. But we have careers now — I sure like having one! — and lives that are not defined by our ability to reproduce. But with this comes a conflict. Women have good medical reasons to stay home at last for the very early weeks. There are health and other benefits to a parent staying home longer 3 4. If someone can stay home, it’s often just going to be easier if it’s the woman. But if women are staying home for extended periods to care for infants, then she just interrupted her career5. Her male colleagues did not (typically) interrupt their careers to take care of a new child. Nor were her male colleagues likely encouraged to take time off or praised if they did.

Women currently take more time off to care for children or family than men do. If a company offers paid family leave at all, they offer it for women far more often than men6. Women are already perceived to be focused more on their families so it’s expected she’ll take time off to take care of sick children (and managers of both sexes perceive mothers as less committed than fathers). Men, on the other hand, feel they will be penalized if they do.

Funny that. Women are being penalized in the workplace for taking time to care for a family, starting from birth. In industries that already have problems finding and retaining women, a culture where men don’t take time off proportionally to care for family as their women coworkers will result in women not advancing. Not because men are better or women just aren’t interested, but simply because men don’t typically take a few months off at some critical period when a new project starts that gets those on it promoted. If taking time off for family isn’t a routine thing that everyone does, then those who are aren’t able to take off a mere handful of days for a new child will always face greater challenges (that have nothing to do with their abilities or potential in the workforce). Right now that’s mostly women.

To bring this around to my industry, tech, we talk about all the reasons there aren’t more women. There’s the “pipeline” problem — that is, few women studying computer science. There are questions of sexism and implicit bias in hiring and promotion. But I think parental leave is almost certainly also an issue. Fortunately some tech companies, like Facebook, are trying to change that. At Facebook, men and women workers have the same parental leave benefits. I don’t know how it works out in practice — perhaps women still end up taking more time off than their male coworkers. But at least Facebook is trying7. Other companies, like Google, found that extended family leave greatly improved retention of women — recruiting and hiring at large tech companies is incredibly expensive so improved retention can save a lot of money. Gender-neutral family leave policies probably won’t magically create some utopia where men and women are exactly equal — evidence from Europe suggests there are big trade-offs in practice. I do expect it to give more women real options to stay working without having to compromise their careers or families.


  1. For the moment, I’m considering only the dominant form of arranging a household with children. Other types of couples have to more explicitly work through these issues as they don’t have the “defaults” handed to them by society. Moreover, I’m selfishly — since it’s where I find myself — focusing on people who theoretically have more choices (it’s also the social class that has been studied most). The system screws over the poor even more.

  2. If she can afford to. I have a lot to say about how few women can afford to take a reasonable amount off, but that’s not the subject of this post. But suffice to say: it is utterly disastrous that so many poor and middle-class women are forced to go back to work too soon, endangering their own health and their children’s.

  3. Infants are a lot of work and need full time support for months. As a small example, for the first two weeks of my daughter’s life our pediatrician recommended we wake her every three hours to encourage her to eat due to jaundice. Every three hours around the clock. Imagine doing that and working a job. Newborn jaundice, btw, is fascinating. It’s very common and yet can be medically disastrous. Jaundice is the yellowing of the skin and eyes caused by the presence of bilirubin in the blood. Bilirubin itself is a product of the breakdown of red blood cells. In newborns, the liver isn’t very good at removing bilirubin from the blood. Worse, the blood in newborns can re-absorb extreted bilirubin back into the bloodstream. So infants can easily become jaundiced. If bilirubin levels get too high, they can cause a form of brain damage since in a newborn bilirubin can enter the brain from the blood. Our daugher was given phototherapy which was a couple intense days at the hospital where she spent most of her time naked except for a diaper under and on top of lights at certain wavelengths. Those wavelengths change it into a form (from a trans- to cis- isomer) that is easily secreted without the liver doing work. Feeding a newborn a lot also helps ensures that she keeps her system moving and thus excretes bilirubin faster.

  4. I don’t want to get into details in this post, but taking care of babies by a parent for an extended time after birth is linked with better parent and infant health outcomes. Babies with mothers at home after birth are breastfed longer which is linked to many improved health outcomes including possibly lower rates of obesity. Mothers don’t get postpartum depression as often. Babies are vaccinated more consistently.

  5. The problem for women who don’t work in white collar or other higher end jobs is even more dire. Often those women have no flexibility. Despite talk of career women “opting out” of the workplace, the economic class with the largest proportion of stay at home moms is actually the poorest. It’s not because those women don’t want or need to work but that they literally can’t afford to: child care is expensive and family isn’t always available. When poor women must work, they are often faced with inadequate and expensive childcare. Sharon Lerner also goes into this more in her book The War on Moms.

  6. That PDF covers a lot more than just disparate paid leave offered to male and female workers. A lot of it is enraging. Be prepared.

  7. The state of California actually already has some data here. State law mandates a certain number of paid weeks of parental leave. Fathers started taking it in greater numbers once it was legally mandated that their employer offered it even if their employer had offered it before the law. That is, state law normalized men taking leave.

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