So it’s no wonder that—amid all of that upheaval—new relationship dynamics start to emerge. But, because of the way parental leave works in this country, for millions of families, those new dynamics emerge while one member is largely absent: He’s already back at work.
When I was researching my book, I surveyed more than 2,000 women and asked them how much paid parental leave their spouses had. (The survey included same-sex couples and single moms, so that figures in.) Seven percent had four or more paid weeks; 65 percent had none. And in many cases when men had paid paternity leave, there was social pressure at work not to take it. One woman, who asked not to use her name in order to protect her husband’s job, shared that when her husband applied for parental leave he was ribbed by his colleagues. She was astonished. “It’s a family-friendly company,” she said. “All of these guys have kids.” It turned out that, while they were taking some time off when their children were born (one or two weeks, usually), no one was classifying it as parental leave. The cultural norm is that dads are the “providers,” marching back into the office as breadwinners, and women are the nurturers, cloistered at home while caring for an infant.
That perception is costly to women—literally. In a 2005 study, the Cornell sociologist Shelley Correll conducted a laboratory experiment in which participants rated the competency of a series of job applicants. Overall, she found that mothers rated as “less competent, less committed, less suitable for hire, promotion, and management training, and deserving of lower salaries.” Fathers, meanwhile, seemed to benefit from their status.
Women aren’t only losing out at the the office—they’re also losing out at home. Having a baby is an opportunity for a couple to reset as a family—to put into practice all their ideals about equal partnership. But the differential in family-leave policies inhibits that from the get-go.
Being a parent isn’t much different from starting a new job. At the beginning, new employees are overwhelmed: They have responsibilities to learn, an unknown context to understand. They might feel in over their heads or sometimes even not up to the job. But as time passes—at least four weeks, but often three or even six months—they figure it out. They build up their competence and confidence, and that’s due in part to exposure and practice.
When women are home on maternity leave, they’re settling into another new job: They’re developing their skills at soothing a fussy baby and becoming experts at washing a baby’s hair without getting soap in the baby’s eyes. They’re building muscle memory for dealing with burps, and they’re getting fluent in the foreign language of baby cries.
It makes sense: The mothers are around to do these things. When it’s time to go back to work, mothers are already so much better at those tasks that they often keep doing them unilaterally, even though she and her husband are now both at work. Over time, she takes ownership of the mundane stuff that goes into caring for a family: screening babysitters or prepping for daycare, deciding what to have for dinner tonight, and arranging outings with other families. As Kay Moffett, the head of marketing and communication for a charter-school network, calls it, the “administrivia of family life.” Sure, mom will delegate tasks to dad, but sharing an equal sense of responsibility is a much higher hurdle.