News stories and conventional wisdom suggest that men still feel judged when they take paternity leave, so I was struck, while speaking with a New York City dads’ group, by how many of its members had received positive reinforcement from bosses and colleagues after announcing their decision to take leave. A different study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family has found that for men, joining the “parents club” tends to have positive professional consequences: fathers are more readily permitted to adjust their work hours than are mothers, who are often viewed as less committed and less promotable. The study also found that men tend not to ask for formal work-life policies; they use “stealth” methods instead, like slipping out to coach soccer practice. Part of the leniency toward working dads, of course, may be due to the fact that they simply haven’t asked for much.
But now they’re asking. Rich Gallagher, who works in public relations in New York, had a supportive employer when he took his first leave. But he’d switched jobs by the time his second child was born, and found that taking time off “soured” his standing and won him dirty looks from colleagues. He left that job, and even now that he doesn’t need paternity leave anymore, he looks at potential employers’ leave policies as a benchmark for whether they are committed to work-life balance.
Most men who take leave, it’s important to note, don’t take anything close to six weeks, and many are obliged to use vacation time for part or all of whatever time they do take. In the U.S., we are only just starting to wrap our minds around longer paternity leave. “Two weeks for men may be the best we can hope for in the medium term,” says Scott Behson, a management professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, who blogs about fatherhood. He suggests a compromise in which men receive two weeks of paid leave, followed by a flexible schedule that would enable them to take a paid day or two off each week. Companies like Deloitte, which offers three to eight weeks of paid paternity leave, are finding that many men prefer to stagger their time off, taking a few weeks when the baby is born, for example, and then more time when their wives go back to work.
Options like these may help to address the somewhat surprising fact that, regardless of whatever plaudits or premiums they may or may not enjoy in the office, working fathers increasingly report feeling more work-family conflict than working mothers do. A 2011 report concluded that the most-conflicted men are those who are stuck working long hours yet feel they should be at home.
In another sign of how paternity leave can narrow the gap between working mothers and fathers, more than one man I spoke with had made a decision long familiar to mothers who find themselves trapped in the office after bedtime too many nights. Upon the birth of his first child, Lance Somerfeld planned to take paternity leave from his teaching job at a big elementary school in the Bronx. He looked forward to being home, and his wife’s career was going well. As they thought about the future, they reckoned that child-care costs would eat up most of his after-tax salary, so he decided to extend his leave indefinitely. When Somerfeld informed the school that he would not be returning, at least not anytime soon, his principal went on the PA system and announced, “Mr. Somerfeld will be leaving us next year to become a modern man!”
*Due to an editing error, this article originally stated that New Jersey and Rhode Island offered 12 and 13 weeks of paid leave, respectively.