Paid parental leave is most often framed as an issue that matters to working women. Parental leave is also critically important for fathers. Paternity leave and especially longer leaves of several weeks or months can promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children and increase gender equity at home and at the workplace.
Longer paternity leaves are associated wth increased father engagement and bonding. Longer leaves mean more time to bond with his new child and more involvement in the care from the newborn period on. A father’s hands-on engagement can set a pattern that lasts long after the leave ends. One study of working dads in the U.S., those who took leaves of two weeks or greater, were more likely to be actively involved in their child’s care nine months after birth. This care included feeding, changing diapers, getting up in the night and taking the children to medical appointments.
There are several studies showing that increased paternal engagement leads to improved health and development for children. A young child’s earliest relationship with his parents impacts the developmental architecture of the developing brain. These relationships require care, consistency and above all, time. Better developmental outcomes means fewer behavioral problems and improved cognitive and mental health.
Fathers taking parental leave helps not just children, but mothers also. Paid paternity leave carries many benefits to the mother. A recent study from Sweden underscored that the father’s presence in the household following childbirth was associated with the reduction of stress and improved maternal mental and physical health. Studies continue to emerge showing that paternity leave benefits the relationships between parents and contributes to reducing the risk factors associated with divorce.
Fathers still face economic and social barriers that keep them from taking longer paternity leaves or taking them at all. In the United States where parental leaves are rare, cultural biases along with gaps in policy make fathers even less able to access time away from work with their children. An early study from 2004 suggests that even when fathers do gain access to parental leave they may be reluctant to take it. Some studies continue to show that taking paternity leave can damage a man’s professional reputation and affect his future earning potential.
Public policies that promote time for parents to care for and bond with their newborns and very young children without jeopardizing the ability to pay for basic necessities is sorely needed. National paid Family (and Paternity) leave will benefit the parents, their children, the entire family and the future of our country.