August 20 2014

Paternity Leave Not a Silver Bullet For Fathers

Sabrina Schaeffer

A recent NPR segment on the growing number of men taking paternity leave piqued my interest.

It’s nice to know that more men feel excited about their roles as fathers and that they want to participate as best they can in the early weeks of their child’s life. And if private businesses see this as a benefit employees want, that’s a fine thing.

Certainly as the mother of three children, I can say that it is wonderful to have the father around in those early weeks with a newborn – at the very least to help care for the older children.

Still part of the report frustrated me. 

Scott Coltrane, interim president of the University of Oregon, who researches fathers and families, says …"Fathers who take leave end up doing more of the routine work later," Coltrane says. "They do more of the transportation, more of the cooking, more of the child care, more of the doing homework with the kids. It's just kind of an early buy-in that helps men stay involved later."

This is a perfect example of the confusion over correlation vs. causation. Perhaps Coltrane has run a longitudinal, randomized controlled study that followed fathers over the course of several decades, but I have my doubts. It’s more likely this conclusion was drawn from a combination of survey research and observation.

The implication of his statement is that the option of having paternity leave causes more men to be more involved with their children and family over a longer period of time. Certainly it’s possible, although I imagine the impact is pretty small. (Frankly, everyone’s so sleep-deprived that years later most men probably don’t even remember if they had paternity leave!) What is more likely happening is that we’re looking at a self-selected group. Men who choose to use paternity leave are already likely preparing to be engaged fathers and see themselves as a critical part of their children’s life. So we have a correlation between men who take paternity leave and men who become involved fathers down the road.

This is not to downplay the importance of having fathers around – I’m a big proponent of marriage and having a father in the home (see here and here) – but too often this kind of statement is used to encourage the growth of government policies and mandates. As the segment noted:

Some states are acting on their own, mandating paid family leave for most workers. In California, the number of men taking it has doubled in a decade. Coltrane says that's good for men, kids and women.

At the time of our first child’s arrival, my husband had a fellowship that didn’t allow him any official leave time, but he figured out a way to stay at home for a week. We certainly appreciated the week of paternity leave his next employer provided at the time of our second child. But by the time our third child arrived, he had become his own employer, and thus his own “provider” of paternity leave. We patched something together each time; but the challenges of raising a family don’t end after 2 weeks and the need for fathers to be around doesn’t end there either.  And that’s not something government can “fix” with a new program.

Paternity leave comes with a cost. A cost to the employee in the form of less take-home pay, to the employer who loses a worker for a period of time, and to other employees who might have to pick up the extra work. That’s not to say that it’s not a wonderful thing if you can make it work. But we should be careful not to inflate the benefits as a way of justifying more government intervention into the workplace and our lives.

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