Many mornings this year Matt Nuttall and his friend Ryan Faulkner met up in one of several neighborhood parks located between their houses in Pleasant Hill, California. While they changed diapers, dispensed snacks, and made sure their little ones didn’t fall off the playground equipment, the dads “talked to each other in adult,” as Nuttall puts it. Before too long, their children would begin to fade, and they’d head back to their respective houses to prepare lunch and oversee afternoon naps.
“We didn’t do much, just sat around and kept the kids and ourselves from going crazy,” says Nuttall, who teaches ninth- and tenth-grade English at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory in San Francisco. After his wife returned to her job, Nuttall took 12 weeks off from his. For half of that time, he received $945 a week through California’s Paid Family Leave program. The program, which has been in existence since 2004, offers workers up to six weeks off with maximum pay of $1,067 a week to care for a new baby or sick relative.
For Nuttall, the decision to take paid paternity leave, which is funded by deductions from employees’ pay, was a no-brainer. “This is money that comes out of my check every month,” he says. “Not to take advantage of something I’d been paying into the whole time would be foolish.”
While at least 81 countries provide paid paternity leave and all but a handful provide paid maternity leave, the United States has yet to enact any national paid leave. As a result, only about 1 in 20 fathers nationwide takes more than two weeks off after the birth of a child, and only 1 in 100 takes more than four weeks off. But in California, one of three states that has paid family- and medical-leave laws, the percentage of dads taking at least some time off to care for their children is on the rise. (The other two states are New Jersey, where the program is four years old, and Rhode Island, where the law goes into effect next year.)
In the first eight years of the program, men in California went from taking less than a fifth of all leaves to taking nearly a third of them, according to Eileen Appelbaum, an economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, and Ruth Milkman, a sociology professor at CUNY Graduate Center, who have been tracking the effects of the program since its implementation. Their book, Unfinished Business, which will be published this fall, puts the number of California fathers taking paid time off at more than 53,000 in 2012, more than double the number that took such leaves eight years ago.
“The law is creating cultural change,” Appelbaum says. “It’s a signal not just to the other men but also to the companies that it’s OK to take leave.” While mothers in California still take significantly more time off after having a baby—an average of 12 weeks as opposed to 3 for fathers—the gender imbalance has been steadily tipping as awareness of the program spreads. Although most Californians still don’t realize they have paid time off available to them—70 percent, according to a survey done by Appelbaum and Milkman—taking leave is becoming easier and more acceptable as people learn about it.
Eric Forsberg, an agricultural standards investigator for Alameda County, had his first child in 2006, when the law was still new enough that no one in his department had used it or, for that matter, heard about it. When he announced his intentions to get paid while he took a few weeks off to be with his newborn son, his supervisors “were like, ‘What are you talking about?’” Forsberg says. “It went all the way up to the commissioner and beyond. They had never heard of such a thing.” But Forsberg’s experience was considerably different when he had a second son four years later. Not only was his paperwork processed quickly, the attitude of his co-workers had changed, too. “The second time, it went from ‘Why do you need that?’ to ‘Wow, that’s great. I wish they’d had that when I had a child.’”
Nuttall has his own gauges of change. Although he only knows of one other male teacher at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory who took paternity leave before he did, this year two others did so to be with their babies. When he was on leave, he found plenty of fathers available for weekday play dates. In addition to Faulkner, Nuttall knows dozens of other fathers through a Bay Area stay-at-home dads’ group, which was launched last October and now has 53 members.
Some of those fathers have followed a path traveled by many mothers before them: extending their temporary leaves into longer stretches at home with their children. Brandon Wall, founder of the group, took his six paid weeks when his son was six months old. “It was like a beta test for us,” says Wall, a former manager of research and insight at the KIPP Foundation, who, when his son was a year old, left his job to be with his son full time.
The key factor raising the number of men taking leave, researchers agree, is that the time off is paid. “If we hadn’t had that leave money, we would have had a terrible time,” says Stephen McMullin, who had been working as a house painter in San Francisco before his son was born. But the “paid” part of paid leave offers more than the ability to stave off debt. “There’s something else going on here, too,” says Linda Houser, an assistant professor of social work at Widener University in Pennsylvania. She found that men in California whose private employers had offered paid paternity leave before the law was passed were significantly more likely to take it after the law was in place. “There’s something about a state saying we place this economic value on your time off that matters,” she says, “and it appears to translate more for men than women.”
Why would men respond more to paid leave than women? “The money butches it up,” is how psychologist Laurie Rudman puts it. Rudman, who has found that men who request family leave are more likely to be penalized and viewed as poor contributors at their workplace than women, thinks this is part of the reason so few fathers take time off to care for their babies in the rest of the country—and money may lessen the stigma.
Another possibility is that the policy is not so much creating cultural change as allowing workplaces to catch up with it. “Until the 1970s, being a good father meant leaving home to be a good breadwinner,” says Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law. “Now, many younger men, though not all, see being a good father as requiring involvement in children’s daily lives and activities.” One reason fathers in California appear to be embracing the paid-leave program, Williams says, is that it allows them to “live up to this new ideal as day-to-day nurturer and keep their old role as providers.”
There’s mounting evidence that the shift is good for families. More equitable parental-leave policies increase the likelihood that mothers will return to their jobs after having a child. Some might worry that helping women stay in the workforce means they’ll spend less time at home with their children. But because many women without paid leave go back to work in less than six weeks, the law also increases the amount of time some mothers have with their young children. Paid leave makes families more economically stable; research shows that mothers and fathers who take paid leave are less likely to receive public assistance in the year after a child’s birth.
According to Appelbaum, almost all of the parents in California who took paid family leave felt the time off had a positive effect on their ability to care for their children. Most also felt it enabled them to make child-care arrangements. According to a 2007 study by Columbia University researchers, fathers who take longer leaves wind up more involved in child care months after they return to work, which many studies indicate is beneficial for kids.
The country has been stuck in a circular conversation about the possibility of expanding parental-leave benefits for years. Policy watchers note, on the one hand, the impossibility of passing such a law without cultural change and, on the other hand, the difficulty of inducing cultural change without first passing a law. If California’s experience with paid family leave hasn’t resolved the chicken-and-egg question of whether policy creates cultural change or the other way around, it has clarified that progress on both fronts is possible and far easier than people might expect.
Although there were plenty of dire predictions about the consequences of paid family leave in California before the law passed (the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, and the California Business Roundtable all denounced it as a “mega job-killing bill”), the program has been overwhelmingly well received. Appelbaum and Milkman interviewed more than 250 employers in California and found that the vast majority thought paid family leave had either no effect or a positive effect on productivity, profitability, turnover, and worker morale.
Even before the law went into effect, most Californians were in favor of increasing the payroll tax to provide these benefits for workers, especially because the change came at no direct cost to employers. According to a 2003 poll, 85 percent of all adult Californians—and 77 percent of self--identified conservatives—supported the program. Recent national polls also show high levels of bipartisan support.
The across-the-political spectrum enthusiasm is good news for advocates trying to create similar paid-leave programs elsewhere, including in New York and Washington state. But, because only a few states have the infrastructure to administer their programs easily, most observers believe that federal action will ultimately be required. House Democrats introduced a bill for paid family and medical leave in the current session, but no one thinks it will get through this Congress. It may be two years, or five, or even ten before the United States offers paid time off to working parents. But judging from California, whenever it happens, many American fathers will want to spend time with their babies.
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