Paid leave is not enough

If we want equality at home and at work, men need to take it

Day in the life of a stay-at-home cat mom


In 2004, California did something pretty feminist: It began offering paid parental leave for certain categories of workers. The benefit is a limited one — partial pay for just six weeks max — but still better than the federal policy of absolutely nothing. Research from around the globe shows that paid leave means women are more likely to stay in the workforce, which in turn means more financially stable families, better-off children, and happier mothers.

In California, though, that didn’t happen. Women who took advantage of the paid leave policy were less likely to return to work, and they earned less a decade later.

Researchers are surprised. I’m not.

The success of paid leave policies depends on what those policies are and how you implement them. Too short of leave and families are stressed. Too long, and women find themselves too far behind at work, or replaced entirely. Too deferential to family choice on who takes leave, and it’s only women who take it — while men continue to get ahead at work, leaving women to do all the labor at home.

These were all failures of the California plan.

First, men didn’t do their part. Just 15 percent of parental leave claims in 2014 were from men. Those men took an average of two or three days off of work to care for a new child.

Surely some of that is from financial constraints — a partial salary is better than no salary, but it’s still a big hit for most families. But women, including a tremendous number of single mothers, make it work. Men do not. And I would bet every dollar in my bank account that a huge number of men in California could make it work financially but choose not to. Perhaps they’re worried they won’t be seen as adequately dedicated to their jobs. Perhaps they’re worried their career will take a hit if they take time off to care for their baby.

Welcome to being female. And welcome to what men have been asking women to do forever.

It also doesn’t surprise me that women who got just six weeks of partial-pay leave were reluctant to go back. Six weeks is just not enough time (have you seen a six-week-old baby?) This is just spitballing, but it seems to me that if parents have adequate paid leave —nine months is really the ideal — it may be easier to feel ready to go back to work after you’ve had that length of time to deeply bond with your baby and get through those exceptionally tough first months, when so many babies don’t eat, don’t sleep, and get sick. It’s not that at nine months things are suddenly easy, but it is that someone who has been a parent for nine months may feel more competent and comfortable leaving their child for the workday than someone who is still in the thick of those earliest weeks.

The fact that men don’t take leave likely also contributes to this dynamic. When mom is the one at home, she quickly becomes the expert and the familiar. A lot of heterosexual couples write this off to biology and maternity, but if one person is feeding, changing, singing, and rocking the baby for most of the day while another is away for the majority of waking hours, of course the person with more hands-on experience is going to seem like they are “just better” at parenting. Of course the child will be more quickly comforted by the person they spend more time with. There is an incredible learning curve in the first week or two of parenthood, and if both partners aren’t in it 100% — if one is at work while the other is at home with the new baby — inequities get built in, and there is no real way to even then out. That dynamic will only build on itself. And typically, it’s mom who establishes the parenting expertise early on. As time goes by, that gets magnified. Who can be surprised, then, that when it’s time for her (and only her) to go back to work, families look at astronomical childcare costs and decide maybe it just makes sense for her to stay home?

What this doesn’t take into account, of course, is the financial precariousness of giving up your job, even for a few years. There will be a lifelong hit to your earnings and your ability to move up the ladder. No one goes into building a family thinking they’re going to get divorced or that their partner will die, but life happens and it’s not always predictable or good or within your control. You will not go back at the level you were at before (and I think there’s a real question of whether you should — I’ve been out of the lawyering game for several years now, and I don’t think I would be fully competent to return at my previous level). If a woman is still relatively young when she returns to work with a big resume gap, employers may also wonder if she’ll get pregnant again, and leave again. That may not be right or fair, but it is the current reality. And it’s one only women bear.

A better paid leave system is both more generous and requires more of men. First, parents need nine months. Much more than that and women don’t go back; much less and it’s just not adequate. In tandem with paid leave, we need affordable, high-quality, and regulated childcare. No one should be paying nearly as much in daycare costs as rent, and no one should be worrying about who is caring for their children and whether their kids are safe. Luckily, we already have a pretty great model for this in our K-12 public education system. Expanding that to include younger children in separate high-quality care facilities is perhaps less ambitious than it sounds.

And then there’s men. America is the land of free choice, but if we want parental leave policies to benefit whole families — including women — then men need to take leave. And we know that men don’t take leave unless they’re more or less forced to. The Swedish system, for example, offers several months of leave that are “use it or lose it” for the secondary parent — that is, the secondary parent (usually a man) has to take those months, or no one gets them. And of course we need a social shift. Instead of seeing men who take leave as less committed, we should all be side-eyeing the white-collar men who don’t take paid leave when it’s on offer, and instead leave the earliest weeks of childcare to their female partners alone.

Families cannot figure this out themselves, and small-scale, limited programs like California’s may actually make things worse. Care for children is one of the most fundamental gender equality issues out there, even for people like me, who do not have children and perhaps never will. Caregiving is also a space where policy directly shapes so much of women’s lives and our opportunities. As we head into the 2020 elections, pay attention to who is talking about this, and how they talk about it. Do candidates come at this with a feminist lens? Do they presume that women working is a good thing — not just just good for the economy and good for families, but good for women themselves? Do their policies incentivize men to take leave, or just leave it up to families who are already being pushed and pulled by myriad sexist social forces?

People who have an interest in maintaining the status quo will tell you that these decisions are personal and private and that every family should do what they want and need. And sure — these decisions are personal, and most families are cobbling together what they can. But all of these seemingly private, personal decisions are shaped by policies (in politics and in the workplace) created to uphold an old system of men in the public sphere and women in the private, of men making and controlling the family’s finances and women tasked with the family’s care. This is not a good setup for anyone. As you’re thinking about who to support politically — not just for the presidency, but for any high level elected office — ask yourself who is tacitly upholding this system, and who recognizes it’s worth bulldozing to the ground. Ask what it is they plan to build anew. And, perhaps most importantly, ask how important this is to them. Is it one item in the middle of a long, long list? Or is it a top priority? Because if paid leave and affordable childcare aren’t at the very very top of a politician’s To Do list, well — then women aren’t, either.

xx Jill