Glacially, at a pace slower than the melting of the ice caps, we are moving toward an acceptance that fathers deserve — nay, should be encouraged — to spend precious time with their newborn children. Among a handful of U.S. companies, paternity leave has become the gold standard of employee benefits.
Still, it remains so rare, so atypical that when a dad publicly announces he will use this singular opportunity, we take notice. Especially if that father is a young, hard-driving billionaire.
Paternity leave popped up in the news a few days back, when Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg announced he would be taking time off when his second daughter is born, just as he did after his first go-around as Daddy. He’ll be out the first month and then take another month in December. Facebook, by the way, is one of the few companies to offer fully paid paternity and maternity leave, four months to be exact.
Writing that he would always be grateful he got to spend so much time with his eldest in the first months of her life, Zuckerberg posted an endorsement of parental leave “because studies show that when working parents take time to be with their newborns, it’s good for the entire family. And I’m pretty sure the office will still be standing when I get back.”
I love that last sentence — but more on that later.
Zuckerberg is one of the lucky daddies. His company is generous, and he adjusts his schedule according to his family’s needs. Few employees can count on similar privileges. While companies with 50 or more workers are required by law to provide time off for parents after birth or adoption, they don’t have to pay employees a penny during that leave. In 2016, the National Compensation Survey, conducted annually by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported that only 14 percent of non-government employees receive paid family leave.
Most fathers can’t afford to take time off without pay. Many must cobble together vacation and sick time in order to help out during those first exhausting days, but others, usually lower-level employees, get neither vacation nor sick time. Quite simply, no work equals no pay.
And even with parental leave available, some dads succumb to guilt or fear when they take time off. Anxiety that they might be replaced or pressure to be connected to the job 24/7 serves to pull many back to the office — the very same reasons that more than half of American workers don’t use up all of their paid vacation time. If only more of us would take a cue from Zuck and acknowledge that we are hardly indispensable. Yes, our employer will still be standing when we return.
Moms may not have it any better. Even as there’s a growing recognition of the necessity for paid parental leave, many new mothers must take time off without a paycheck. Companies that do offer paid leave usually tie it to disability insurance, so women don’t get a full paycheck. What’s more, fathers and adoptive parents aren’t eligible for the same consideration, nor are hourly and part-time workers.
The hard reality is that paid parental leave is popular only in certain circles and at certain levels. The rarity of it makes headlines, giving us the impression we’re moving in the right direction. But a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Families and Work Institute found that the percentage of U.S. companies paying leave at full salary fell from 17 percent to 10 percent from 2005 to 2016, and that max leave-time actually slipped from 15.2 weeks to 14.5.
For a culture that likes to brag about its commitment to children, for a society that claims family is important, we sure have a funny way of showing it.