The Risky Business of Paternity Leave

When men take time off to care for family members, their long-term earnings suffer—just as women's do. Here's why it's worth it.
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As a family sociologist, I’ve spent decades studying how and why men might take more responsibility for childcare and housework. My colleagues at the University of Oregon and I recently reported that when men take time off from work to care for family members, their long-term earnings are depressed. We’ve known this about women for some time, but because we haven’t typically studied men as parents, we haven’t isolated how fathers’ work and family situations might compare. We are finally in a position to draw some conclusions about whether we should be encouraging fathers to take family leave.

Research shows that working men and women tend to make different adjustments when they become parents. Women typically reduce their work hours, while men typically increase theirs. And when women take maternity leave or temporarily cut back to part-time, many employers, rightly or wrongly, perceive them to be less committed to their jobs. These women end up on a “mommy track,” where they earn less than non-mothers and single men—and substantially less than married fathers. In fact, when men become parents, their earnings tend to go up.

So what happens when men cut back on work to fulfill family obligations?

To answer that question, my colleagues and I drew on survey data from over 12,000 U.S. respondents, collected in biannual interviews from the time they were teenagers until they were in their 40s. Our main research question was whether men who reduced or restructured their workplace commitments could expect lower earnings than men who didn’t. We controlled for a host of other variables to isolate the specific effects of taking time off to care for family members.

Although the magnitude of the earnings loss proved to be greater for women, we found that men who reduce their work hours or take time off for family reasons were also likely to experience lower earnings over the course of their working lives. In other words, taking time off for family carries financial risk for men, just as it does for women.

This conclusion is hardly surprising, but it does suggest a different way of thinking about the earnings gap between men and women. Today’s jobs still seem designed for the 1950s, when one partner was the sole breadwinner and the other was fully devoted to caring for home and children. Based on that model, ideal workers are still expected to be totally committed to their careers with few obligations at home.

But as Joan Williams, director for the Center of WorkLife Law at UC Hastings, and others have suggested, these inflexible, all-or-nothing workplaces drive women out of breadwinner roles and men out of caregiver roles. 

In our research, U.S. women were over 10 times more likely than men to report that they’d modified employment for family reasons. And we speculate that many fathers, facing pressures to conform to masculine breadwinner ideals, refrained from even admitting to their employers that they wanted to modify their schedules for family reasons.

Were these men right to be cautious? Or do the benefits of paternity leave outweigh the loss of long-term earnings? To answer that question, we need to focus on countries like Sweden and Norway, where over 80 percent of men take paid family leave. Researchers have been able to study how this time away from work affects family earnings, labor market participation, and domestic satisfaction for both men and women.

As Liza Mundy notes in the January/February Atlantic, men who take parental leave tend to remain more involved in childcare as their children grow up. And they tend to share more equally in household labor, which increases women’s satisfaction. When fathers are involved in childcare, women enjoy more wealth, power, and authority in society at large. And studies show that their children enjoy some social and cognitive advantages, as well as more gender-balanced worldviews.

Research also shows that Swedish fathers who used a higher proportion of leave went on to spend fewer hours on the job and more time with their children on workdays. They were more likely to be involved in direct physical care of children, and more likely to report satisfaction with the amount of contact they have with their kids. Small sample studies of Nordic fathers taking parental leave, including one of Finnish fathers, find that the men most value the opportunity to develop closer relationships with their infants.

And this involvement might have other payoffs. One recent study by researchers at the Swedish National Institute of Public Health found that men who take paternity leave live longer than others. As reported in the journal Public Health, fathers who took paternity leave in 1978 and 79 had a 16 percent decreased death risk by 2001, and those who took the longest leaves experienced the greatest benefits. The researchers speculate that the men who opted for paternity leave in the late 1970s may have been more health-aware than their peers. But they conclude that there could also be something about increased parental involvement that moderates some of the detrimental effects of traditional masculinity on men’s health behaviors.

Only a handful of U.S. states currently have government-mandated paid leave for fathers, even though our culture as a whole is beginning to change. Women’s educational and career opportunities are much more plentiful than they once were, and as our recent research shows, marriage and parenthood are no longer negotiated on men’s terms alone. One of the biggest shifts in recent years is that many women will simply not put up with partners who don’t contribute at home.

Still, most men can’t afford to take more than a few days off after the birth of a new child. Especially because parental leave can depress long-term earnings, new policies should focus on wage replacement and ensuring fair treatment of parents in the workplace, regardless of gender.

But even without programs as generous as those in Scandinavia, I suspect that any costs associated with taking paternal leave will be outweighed by potential gains. Men will develop better nurturing skills. Women will enjoy increased earnings, career advancement, and satisfaction. Children will benefit from having two involved caregivers. And corporations and governments, who want to see a more resilient and equal-opportunity work force, will realize it is in their best interests to help balance work and family obligations for everyone. 

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Scott Coltrane is a professor of sociology at the University of Oregon, where he is also dean of the college of arts and sciences.

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