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Paid family leave benefits all

June 23, 2016

Engaged fathers and paid family leave benefit all

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Fatherhood changed my life, for the better.

By age 40, I already had much to be grateful for, but Zoe’s arrival — and Adam’s, nearly three years later — transformed me and my impact in the world.

Still, despite my desire to be a nurturing father — in partnership with my wife, Lori — I had no idea what I was in for and was frequently overwhelmed by the basic responsibilities of caregiving. I also had no idea that I was part of a cultural shift in which fathers increasingly engage in caregiving roles at home, a revolutionary act that is proving an effective driver for advancing gender equality, to the benefit of all.

A number of privileges made the steep learning curve faced by all parents a bit easier in our home. In short, we had college educations, years of exploring life and the world before meeting, middle-income jobs, good health and a shared commitment to co-parenting.

Lori took 12-weeks leave from work to be home with Zoe, unpaid. If we lived in any other industrialized nation in the world, Lori’s leave would have been paid. Still, she knew she was entitled to leave without risk of loosing her job, thanks to the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993.

As a college faculty member, my schedule was flexible enough for me to have an active role, sharing caregiving and domestic responsibilities from the beginning. And, as Lori’s leave came to an end and she returned to a part-time role at the hospital, I utilized my employers paid family leave policy to be at home with Zoe, while Lori worked. The policy provided me with one semester of partial leave — 16 weeks of half-time work for full-time pay. Including the month-long semester break before my leave and the summer break following, I was the primary caregiver for Zoe three to four days per week for nine out of the first 12 months of her life.

This policy removed a significant economic barrier that otherwise would likely have meant Lori would have sacrificed her job and income earning potential or Zoe would have been in day care as an infant.

And while neither of those outcomes would have been detrimental, they were not what Lori and I felt was in our family’s best interest. Instead, I was afforded the opportunity to develop my caregiving capacities, bonding with Zoe. We became more nimble as a family, together Lori and I balanced the demands of at-home parenting and fluctuating access to income and benefits, including both being laid off during the Great Recession — when we were expecting our second child, Adam.

The experiences of caregiving and shared decision-making at home led me to a professional role promoting healthy masculinity and advancing gender equality. In this role, I have come to understand two basic truths related to my own experience of engaged fatherhood, both of which are highlighted in a recently released report, the ‘State of America’s Fathers (SOAF),’ produced by Promundo-US, which is part of a global organization promoting caring, equitable masculinities and gender relations.

One is that there is mounting evidence of a multitude of benefits associated with increasing men’s involvement with their children, as defined by prenatal support of the mother, being present for the birth of the child and taking parental leave to care for the child. The report summarizes these benefits, and includes hundreds of research citations.

Benefits to children include: better physical and mental health, boys acceptance of equality across genders, girls’ increased sense of autonomy and empowerment, decreased exposure to violence, increased educational attainment, fewer behavioral problems and greater resilience.

Benefits to women include: lower rates of postpartum depression, better maternal health, better relationships, decreased exposure to domestic and intimate partner violence, more equitable sharing of domestic chores that are traditionally completed by women, and greater economic equality.

Benefits to men include: increase in health-seeking behaviors, increased levels of self-esteem, decreased substance abuse, improved relationship satisfaction, increased levels of social and community connection, increased civic engagement and brain and body chemistry changes, similar to that experienced by women, that support emotional capacity for care giving.

Benefits in the workplace include: Equal women’s pay and advancement, increased employee morale and productivity and decreased employee turnover.

And, these benefits pay forward, with research demonstrating that children of engaged fathers are more likely to reflect the qualities and practices associated with an increase in gender equality, to the benefit of all.

But while this body of research affirms for Lori and me what we know to be true from our own experience, the report makes a second — and painful — truth evident: Very few American parents have access to paid parental leave.

According to the SOAF report, almost 90 percent of Americans, and 95 percent of low-income fathers, lack access to paid family leave through their employers, making my access to half-paid parental leave a luxury. Furthermore, while federal policy (FMLA) in the United States ensures 12-weeks of unpaid leave for working parents, eligibility requirements mean that only 40 percent of American workers actually qualify. Additionally, 95 percent of low-wage workers either lack access to FMLA, cannot afford to take 12-weeks of unpaid leave or both.

In other words, the culture shift of engaged fatherhood, in which I locate myself, is inaccessible to most Americans.

The path forward — a path that helps ensure reduced barriers and greater access to a volume of benefits — must be paved by policy reform, and the report offers promising evidence that such reform is both possible and beneficial.

Internationally, the SOAF report cites, Denmark, Sweden, Iceland, Norway and the Netherlands, where national governments provide paid parental leave, nearly 90 percent of fathers take parental leave.

Nationally, California, New Jersey, Rhode Island and New York have adopted statewide paid family leave. Evidence is proving that such policies can be financed through a payroll tax of about 1 percent, hardly a burden on society. And, research in California shows that most businesses report no increased costs, no instances of policy abuse, and a host of workplace benefits.

A growing list of cities, including, Boston, have enacted paid parental leave for city employees. In January 2016, the U.S. military announced a new policy expanding paid maternity and paternity leave for enlisted employees. In addition, paid family leave campaigns are currently active in 26 states and 17 cities.

I am driven — by the passion of my own experience, the mounting evidence of public benefit and a moral obligation to serve fathers and families — to work toward paid family leave policies that are equally accessible to all.

So, I joyfully celebrated Father’s Day with Lori, Zoe and Adam — and all the ways that engaged fatherhood has benefited us.

MERGE for Equality, which I serve as executive director joins its organizational partner, MenCare, an international campaign active in nearly 40 countries, in calling for paid family leave, here in the United States.

To read the full ‘State of America’s Fathers’ report, the MenCare Parental Leave Platform, view related videos and access additional resources visit the MERGE Advocacy page at mergeforequality.org/advocacy/.

John Engel of Florence is the Executive Director of MERGE for Equality. He can be reached through his website http://www.fatherhoodjourney.com.

Read more on this topic – see cross-post below:  

‘Balancing Act’ columnist, Heidi Stevens, of the Chicago Tribune offers a compelling piece that highlights the need for family policy reform. Steven’s column was posted on Chicagotribune.com, June 16, 2016.

U.S. parents are unhappier than those in 22 countries

Remember that study last year that found parenting is the worst?

It’s seriously the worst for American parents.

Researchers with the Council on Contemporary Families examined data from 22 developed countries measuring the “happiness penalty” (the rate at which parents report lower happiness, mental well-being and marital satisfaction levels than nonparents) and found that parents in United States have the largest gap.

Our gap is significantly larger than Australia’s gap and Great Britain’s gap, according to a briefing about the report. (The full report will be published in American Journal of Sociology in September.) And they found that in some countries — Hungary and Norway, for example — parents are actually happier than nonparents.

What are we doing wrong?

Researchers looked at all sorts of factors, including levels of unplanned parenthood, average family size and the cost of raising children. They found that workplace policies are the single biggest influence on happiness levels.

“What we found was astonishing,” write authors Jennifer Glass, Robin Simon and Matthew Andersson. “The negative effects of parenthood on happiness were entirely explained by the presence or absence of social policies allowing parents to better combine paid work with family obligations. And this was true for both mothers and fathers.”

Researchers looked at the duration of paid parental leave, the number of annual paid sick and vacation days guaranteed by law, the average cost of child care for a 2-year-old child compared to median wage and the availability of flexible work schedules.

“We gathered this policy information for all 22 of our countries, along with their Gross Domestic Product and their fertility rate, to make sure that our findings were not simply reflecting the effects of living in a richer country versus a poorer one,” the authors note.

It’s almost like trying to raise children and earn a living in a country with zero weeks of guaranteed paid leave and child care that costs as much as college is draining. Who knew?

Parents. Parents knew. (And know.)

But better policies benefit nonparents as well, argues social historian Stephanie Coontz, research director at Council on Contemporary Families.

“We have reams of research showing that investing in children’s well-being benefits all members of society down the road, in lower crime rates and more productive employees,” she says in a statement. “This study highlights that, even when it comes to personal happiness, supporting working parents is not a zero-sum game.”

Let’s hope it’s a game our policymakers want to win.

hstevens@tribpub.com

Twitter @heidistevens13

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