I found myself somewhat sympathetic to Liza Mundy’s Atlantic article about the benefits of paternity leave. In many ways, maternity leave is a throwback to a time when having a baby was the kind of thing that could leave a woman needing to recover for weeks, if not months. These days, most women are out of the hospital in two days, four after a cesarean. In my experience, what necessitated the time off was getting used to not sleeping. (Let’s just say if I had returned to work after three weeks instead of seven, a lot of errors might have started to appear in copy I was supposed to be editing.) But for women who are not nursing there is no reason why they need to be the ones up at night. And for those who are, there are some work-arounds.
Mundy’s suggestion that adoptive parents moved things along when they “made the sensible case that not giving birth to your child doesn’t invalidate the need to spend intimate time with a small, vulnerable person who has just joined your family. This crusade helped pave the way for dads, encouraging the idea that leave is as much about forming attachments as recovering from medical trauma.”
Mundy also argues that getting men more involved in childcare from the outset will change domestic life to make matters more equal right away and in the longrun. She cites studies that show “fathers who take paternity leave are more likely, a year or so down the road, to change diapers, bathe their children, read them bedtime stories, and get up at night to tend to them.” I’m a little skeptical that this isn’t just a selection issue. Men who are more likely to take paternity leave are also more likely to change diapers. She says that even the men at companies that offer paternity leave but don’t actually take advantage of it show these same results. Again, I have to wonder if it isn’t something about the professions these men are choosing. Presumably men in professions that are more family-friendly are also more likely to change diapers.
Ultimately, many companies may find that a gender-neutral parental leave policy makes more sense, particularly in an era of gay marriage.
It is one thing to say, though, that there is good reason for a man to take off when a child is born. It is another thing to say that the government needs to make it mandatory, which is what Mundy is suggesting. Mundy acknowledges that the insanely generous maternity leave policies in Scandinavia have had very poor effects on employment. Employers are less likely to hire women because they assume they will take advantage of, say, a 13-month leave. Mundy claims that mandatory paternity leave will help combat the stereotype that only women take off time to be with young children.
But these problems suggest that government mandates on employers when it comes to family leave can create more problems than they solve. Despite all of these changes women with small children are still more likely to want to work fewer hours than men. Letting employers work out these matters as part of a package of benefits their employees receive makes more sense than letting the pols sort it out.