Maternity leave, Paternity leave, or both?

 

This post has been inspired by my recent experiences in a hospital pediatric medicine unit where I had an opportunity to interact with many different families. I observed new mothers sit by their newborn’s bedside for the entire day after an extremely painful and emotionally tolling delivery, ready to take on the caregiver role, while many fathers joined them after work hours. 

Interestingly, I witnessed other, fewer, families where the fathers took on this primary caregiver role. These fathers had taken on the responsibility of child rearing, putting their own careers on hold while their wives resumed work. Alternatively, other families shared the parental responsibilities and split parental leaves. For example, the mother took the initial half of the leave while the father took the second half. However, these cases were very rare.

Despite fathers taking on a more active and nurturing role, it is usually women who take maternity leave to stay with the child for the first period of the newborn’s life. Although the number of Canadian fathers receiving paid paternal leave has increased to 20% in 2006, it is still low compared to Nordic countries - Sweden (90%), Norway (89%) and Iceland (84%) (Marshall, 2014). The big question remains: Why are so few Canadian fathers taking paternal leaves?

Why should fathers be interested in parental leaves after a newborn child? There are many benefits of sharing parental responsibilities evenly that benefit the individuals, workplaces and society at large. 

Individual level:

  • Positive partner relationships: After the arrival of an infant, the transition can cause stress in some parent relationships, which often stems from one parent feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. Raising a child(ren) is both time and energy intensive. Stress from this adjustment can also lead to postpartum depression in new mothers, which can be extremely difficult to cope with for both parents. Research indicates fathers taking paternal leaves has many positive outcomes on partner relations (Allen & Daly, 2007). Sharing caregiving responsibilities can reduce the stress for new mothers, and lower levels of stress results in better health of both parents and overall, a healthier relationship. 
  • Positive impact on the social, emotional, physical and cognitive development of children: Research indicates a father’s involvement as co-parent has positive impacts on the cognitive development of children (Allen and Daly 2007). A review by Allen & Daly (2002) found that infants of highly involved fathers are better able to handle strange situations, are more resilient to stressful situations and can react more competently to complex and novel stimuli. Later in life, these children were better academic achievers, experienced greater overall life satisfaction, and lower levels of depression. They were also less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour, such as substance abuse, truancy, theft, lying and acting out (Allen & Daly, 2002). 
  • Better health of fathers: Diemers' (1997) found greater father involvement in childcare results in better physical and psychological health for the fathers.

Company level:

  • Better health of employees: Shared parental leaves result in better mental and physical health of parents and research indicates healthy and happy workers tend to be more productive at work (Oswald, Proto, & Sgroi, 2014).
  • More attractive company: A company that values and strives for gender equality and opportunities presents an attractive public image. Companies should be proud leaders in reducing stigma surrounding paternal leaves and in promoting equal opportunities for both genders. Providing such opportunities can not only strengthen your company’s reputation but also improve employee retention.

Societal level: 

  • Equal opportunities: Shared parental leaves contribute to more equal opportunities for men and women within the workplace. For example, women that are expecting or planning on having a child may be overlooked for a promotion as employer’s fear maternity leaves can interrupt performance. Although they may be equally qualified, some employers favour men for higher positions. However, if both genders share parental leave, this type of discrimination would be reduced and would hopefully disappear. Shared parental leaves reduce the length of leave mothers take, providing more time at work to take on greater responsibility, while fathers spend quality time with their new infant. 
  • Breaking stereotypes: Fathers may be hesitant to take parental leaves due to fear of discrimination/stigma. Child rearing is still considered “de-masculine” or a domestic duty. As more fathers take on this new nurturing role, we can break free of the stigma attached to fathers taking parental leaves. 

On the bright side, Canada is not too far behind. Ontario’s Ministry of Labour provides new parents (both mothers and fathers) the right to take parental leave. Employers cannot penalize eligible employees in any way for taking parental leave and they must get their job back after return from the leave. In fact, did you know Canada has recently changed its paid parental leave policies to encourage shareable parental leaves? In 2001, the federal Parental Benefits Program (PBP) increased shareable paid benefit weeks per family from 10 to 35 and eliminated a second two-week unpaid waiting period (Marshall, 2014).

Workplaces can also do a few things to encourage new parents to share parental leaves:

  • Educate employees on their legal rights to take paid parental leaves
  • Provide equal opportunities for promotions and greater responsibilities to all employees
  • Create an open and supportive environment for employees taking parental leaves (male or female)
  • Be a proud leader in reducing stigma surrounding paternal leaves and be supportive of new fathers wishing to take parental leaves

We would love to hear your views on this topic! What is your company doing to support shared parental leaves? What are some things your company is doing to create equal opportunities for men and women? 

 

References

Allen, S. & Daly, K. (2002). The Effects of Father Involvement: A Summary of the Research Evidence. Father Involvement Initiative - Ontario Network, 1, 1-11. Retrieved from http://www.ecdip.org/docs/pdf/IF%20Father%20Res%20Summary%20(KD).pdf

Allen, S. & Daly, K. (2007). The Effects of Father Involvement: An updated research summary of the evidence.  Father Involvement Research Alliance, 1-26. Retrieved from http://www.fira.ca/cms/documents/29/Effects_of_Father_Involvement.pdf

Diemer, GA. (1997). Expectant fathers: influence of perinatal education on stress, coping and spousal relations. Research in Nursing and Health, 20, 281-293.

Finnbogadóttir, H., Crang Svalenius, E., & Persson, E. (2003). Expectant first-time fathers' experiences of pregnancy. Midwifery, 19, 96-105.

Marshall, K. (2014). Fathers use of paid parental leave. Retrieved from Statistics Canada website: http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/2008106/article/10639-eng.htm

Oswald, R., Proto, E., & Sgroi, D. (2014). Happiness & Productivity. University of Warwick,1-42. Retrieved from http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/eproto/workingpapers /happinessproductivity.pdf

Sweden Institute. (2015). Facts about Sweden. Retrieved from https://sweden.se/society/gender-equality-in-sweden/