by Jennifer Haskin
When it comes to taking parental leave from the paid work force to care for newborns, we often think of new mothers as being the ones who temporarily take exit. Among the reasons for women’s temporary withdrawal from paid work include recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, and bonding with baby. Men are much less likely to take extended time away from paid work. As a result, a gendered pattern of parenting typically emerges in which mothers take on responsibilities for managing care work, and fathers take on the role of helper. What happens when parental leave policies encourage men to take an extended leave from paid work as they transition into parenthood?
In a recent article published in Gender & Society, Erin Rehel (The Advisory Board Company) compares the ways in which leave-taking men, and non-leave-taking men employed within a single financial services firm operating in both the US and Canada experience and understand the transition into parenthood, and subsequently enact parenting. In this qualitative study, Rehel specifically explores the role of parental leave policy on men’s ability to become active co-parents, rather than mother’s helpers. By selecting participants from the US (Chicago), Quebec, and Toronto, we are able to see the ways in which policy can influence the way new parents, particularly new fathers, transition into parenthood.
Rehel’s findings suggest that while there are many factors that influence leave taking (i.e., personal beliefs, maternal attitude, opportunity structure), some family leave policies do a better job than others at encouraging leave taking among men who might not have considered it otherwise. Additionally, fathers who took a leave of greater than three weeks were able to develop a sense of responsibility; a key element in what is typically associated with good mothering. By taking extended leave, fathers were able to gain experience, confidence, a richer sense of caretaking and responsibility; and subsequently engage in shared parenting.
In contrast, fathers who did not take extended leave from paid work did not develop the sense of responsibility that results from being a primary caregiver, and egalitarian co-parenting patterns were not established.
By comparing three different family leave policy contexts, Rehel’s findings underscore one of the many ways in which public policy can address gender inequality. By giving fathers the opportunity to immerse themselves in care giving tasks early on, we lift the veil on the notion that parenting comes naturally for women, and highlight the reality that parenting is learned and requires hands on experience. I, for one, had no idea what I was doing when my son was born!
I look forward to a day when all families have access to pro-co-parenting leave policies.
By Jennifer Haskin, Wayne State University, on the article by Erin M. Rehel, “When Dad Stays Home Too: Paternity Leave, Gender and Parenting,” published in the February 2014 issue of Gender & Society.