Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Paternity Leave

I just received a notice from the National Postdoc Association detailing a postdoc's guide to paternity leave, and I was forced to reflect back to my experiences and ask a few questions.

My first child was born during my last year in grad school. Not the best timing, but occasionally a goal slips by the keeper... In any case, my adviser was.... well let's just say less than supportive. Expletives ensued as well as me answering why "this always happened to them." By the end of the discussion I talked them off of the metaphoric ledge they were about to jump from, mainly by mentioning that I had plans to graduate and this wouldn't change anything (other than me being a lot more tired). Flash forward 6-9 months to me writing my thesis at 4am with a baby strapped to my chest, screaming hysterically (he started teething at 4 months). This was the period where I discovered that drinking whiskey was not just something for "really old people" to do and I learned to sleep while standing up on a moving subway train. I took all of two weeks off (I was entitled to 6 months).

Second child was much better. I was in a different lab with a very different family vibe. I still only took a couple of weeks off, but I knew that my schedule could be as flexible as needed. I got emails and phone calls making sure my wife and the baby were OK. And I was told NOT to come to work. I still didn't get much sleep, but it seemed much easier with the second, until he got older. #2 is now a hell-raiser and I don't think my wife or I could handle another child, but I think that's a different discussion entirely.

My questions are as follows:
1) What are people's perceptions of paternity leave? A sign of weakness in the current generation or a sign of parental involvement? I'd argue for the latter, but I'd like to hear the opinion of others.

2) How much time would you take off? In my case I only took 2 weeks both times, but I was entitled to 6 months (paid) at both institutions. On the flip side, I know my father's generation had to go to work ASAP, but I'd also argue that his generation was much less involved in parenting and raising a baby than I was.

3) Was I a sucker for not taking what I was entitled? I'd argue that taking it as a postdoc would be problematic (my publication record is weak as it is), but it probably wouldn't have hurt anything as a grad student (assuming that my relationship with my PI was not forever ruined).


  1. Recent research presented at AERA suggested that unless institutions make paternity/parental leave mandatory, men will not use it even when they are entitled to it. One common reason they don't is that they think that since they are not physically recovering, they don't "need" to use it the way women do.

    1. While it's true that men aren't physically recovering, I look at paternity leave as an opportunity to help your spouse/significant other recover. To me it's the father's responsibility to help with errands/Dr. visits/late-night feedings/etc.

      That was why I was so exhausted and needed the two weeks - because I made a conscious effort to help my wife and children....

  2. There is nothing that points it out to me more that I'm a product of my Scandinavian upbringing as paternity leave. My dad was home with me in the 70ies.... after my mom, but both were home for 6 months. My brother and my male friends back home have "paternity months" that only can be taken out by the men (3 months). Some take that, some take more, some less... it's available though, and it's paid.

    Needless to say though, here in the US where I live - I struggle to see anyone of my male friends and friend's spouses to take more than 10 days at the most. Even from the one who has "6 months leave from his institution"... I'm sorry to say that I feel a little disappointed by him, but to each their own.

    As for me, I'd be sad the day - if it happens - if my child's dad wouldn't take paternity leave, if possible for 1 month at least (living in the US). Partly since I really really feel that the bond between father and child, not to mention the appriciation and dynamic between father and mother, is greatly improved by dad being home alone with baby. Why? Because then dad can learn on his own and not be "taught" by mom... it might take a little while, but it's so different anyway.

    Anyway, I'm grandstanding but it is so hard for me to compare with my friends back home who complain about the time they get paid and can stay home with their children when all i can possible get here is 16 weeks unpaid. And the father of the baby has nothing in writing, apart from 3 days?.... to answer your questions.
    1) strenght for family to have paternity leave
    2) not a man, but 8 weeks at least?
    3) it's not my place, hind sight is 20-20 and if I had been you, i might have made the same choice. grad school and post doc are hard places.

    1. I think that there is a cultural shift RE: paternal involvement occurring in America right now, and I think that it's for the better. Although we know the stereotypes of older generations, new fathers today seem to want to be more involved in parenting and generally more willing to help their spouses. Most of my married male friends share household chores like cooking/cleaning, and do it willingly and happily.

      Another issue that you raised - are you more in favor of taking the time off together (which is what I did) to help do all of the initial chores (diapers/cleaning/cooking) that suddenly become more difficult, or do you advocate staggered time? I had investigated the latter option, but as a family we decided the former would be more helpful.

    2. you have to remember, I live in la-la-land ;) I would totally be scared of being home alone with a new baby, regardless of just having birthed them, and do all the other things. Plus that I have a romantic side where I would like the "new family" to have a time to cocoon....

      that said, in my ideal world the dad would have possibility to both take off in the early time, maybe more like you said to help with the new adjustmnet, and then later to be able to be alone with his child and see "what the mother has done all the time" (aka 'it's not being off just b/c you're home').

      As earlier stated though, these are all my ideal romantic views that probably have nothing to do with practical reality. At least where i work, the only way a dad can take of parental leave is "within the first 3 weeks"....

    3. Actually, what you describe as your ideal world is the same as mine. I would have loved to have taken 2 leaves of absence (and even worked in institutions that were progressive enough to allow it), but career-wise it would've been a bit rough.

  3. Some of my female role models (powerhouses in the high tech world) have amazing maternity stories. Some started companies while pregnant...some gave lectures 5 days after giving birth...some defended their PhD within a month of giving birth...you get the picture. While I am extremely impressed, and think of this as proof that women can build amazing careers while having a family, I can see it could swing too far in the other direction - young ambitious women thinking they have to get back in the game a week after giving birth.

    So while I could totally see myself doing the same thing (with my personality type), I will not allow myself to feel the pressure that I HAVE to do that. I think with men, since you don't "physically" need the rest, there's even more pressure to just get back in the game as soon as possible. With women, there is the medical evidence that yes, getting some rest after giving birth is good for your health

    And I should mention - my female role models described above, while they gave lectures and other things within a week of giving birth, they did take time off to rest. They didn't just start working full time immediately, but found ways to keep going while mainly resting at home. That's what's impressive - I'm not for anyone adversely affecting their health just for work.

    1. I've had friends (women) who went right back to teaching/research almost immediately after giving birth, but I think that almost every one of them felt compelled to do so based on career assumptions. And they also all wished that they "could have" taken off time. Not only to physically recover, but also to adjust to "post-baby life."

      I don't mean to try and tell you or anyone else what to do - only you know what's best for you. I think the key is that you mentioned that they didn't work full-time immediately and to some degree eased back into their career by staying at home. The most important thing, for women as much as men, is to strive to reach a balance that is healthy for you and your family. And adjust when necessary.

    2. "The most important thing, for women as much as men, is to strive to reach a balance that is healthy for you and your family."

      I couldn't agree with this more...and I think one point that is often missed is that it's not the same for everyone. As a young female engineer/researcher, I get advice from different angles all the time - some say "don't stop your career while you have a family," other say "you can't get being a mother back after your kids have grown, so take time off"...and everything in between. Maybe there is no "right" answer. I think in the case of some of my female mentors, they were simply too ADD to not work for long periods of time, and would not actually ENJOY taking months off from work. Others need that time off after giving birth, and come back more powerful and ready to take on the world as ever.

      And I think that's why we do need laws saying how much time everyone is ENTITLED to take off...to somewhat ease the pressure of "oh she only took this much time"...etc. And those who can't stay away are perfectly within their rights to come back immediately.

  4. Yeah, I didn't have any maternity leave (didn't even qualify for unpaid leave). Luckily for me my son was born over a vacation and there was a freak snow storm so I got a few weeks off. Of course, I found out later that all my senior male professors just assumed I got leave because that's what women do when they have babies. So I didn't get any credit for not having the leave except from my department chair who needed me to teach. If I'm gonna not get the leave, I want credit for not having it.

    This time around I'm getting a teaching reduction and using up a bunch of accumulated sick leave.

    Whether or not leave should be mandated is a difficult question. On the one hand, we don't want employers to discriminate against women because they're more likely to leave temporarily and disrupt work schedules... so that would argue that we want to mandate paternity leave. On the other hand, in the US we don't like mandating things that affect individual freedoms and business practices. If someone doesn't want to take leave for whatever reason, should they be forced to do so? It's a difficult trade-off.

    1. You didn't get ANY leave?!? That's ridiculous! I think I've heard of instances of humanities grad students in similar situations, but I'd argue that such policies are also unfair....

      As for mandating, I don't like the idea of ever making personal decisions for someone else. Give 'em the option and a legitimate choice (no penalties for choosing one way or the other), but I think it ends there.

  5. The fact that you can get paid leave as a father and I have never in my adult life worked a job where I could get paid leave (I can take unpaid leave), depresses me. Nothing against you, but that's a flawed system. I'm all for paternity leave. Of course that's all individual choice/best for that particular family etc. But I wouldn't complain if my husband took leave--it's relieve some of the pressure on me. I can't say I would know how much either parent should take, I just firmly believe that it shuold be a paid option for both parents. Too many women are "heros" for going back to work right away--which is bullshit. 1) It says that those who don't go to work right away are some how lesser and 2) All the women who I need did that because they had to to keep their jobs etc...that's not heroism that's shitty working conditions for mothers. ok, I'll stop ranting now.

    1. I totally think that it is a flawed system - my wife also didn't get paid leave. I should mention that paternity benefits vary widely and that part of the generous policies I was offered may be my close affiliation with medical campuses.

      And I don't consider it ranting if I agree 100%

  6. I'm late to the party, but I thought I'd throw in my experience. I live in California and my husband and I both work in industry. I'm a PhD level scientist/manager, but on the techie side of things. He is a software engineer with a M.S. We had our kids relatively late- I was 34, and well established in my career before we had our first. We have two kids. I had my two kids at two different jobs, and am at yet another job now. (Biotech is a volatile industry.) My husband has been at the same employer all along.

    In terms of what we "got"- since we're in California and both work at companies with more than 50 people, we both qualified for the Family Medical Leave scheme, which provides partial pay for up to 5 months. It has a fairly complicated pay scaling system, though, and I never did figure out what percentage of my pay I got. I also got paid disability (again, via a state program, but supplemented with the private disability insurance I paid for via my employer). Paid disability is 6 weeks for a regular birth, 8 weeks for a C-section. That also had a cap and a pay scale, so I got less than full pay.

    What we took: I took 3 months off both times. My husband took a couple of weeks at the start the first time, and a month at the start the second time. We then both took the 4th month part time. I worked 3 days a week, he worked 2.

    Neither of us experienced any negative repercussions from taking our leave, as far as we can tell.

    I also work with a couple of fathers who have made similar arrangements to "split" a month with their wives, and so has my husband. Perhaps it is a new trend? I recommend it highly. It did wonders for my husband's parenting confidence with the first baby, and made a nice transition back into working (and pumping!) for me.

    I doubt we'll ever get to mandated leave here in the US, so I don't even really consider that option. I do think more fathers should take more leave, both for the sake of helping their spouses adjust and because it is a great chance to get to bond with your child. Also, I think @Nicoleandmaggie know of some research that shows that it correlates with a more equal split of parenting and household duties down the road, and I'm all for that. I think, though, that this is a change that men are going to have to make for themselves. That is, they are just going to have to decide to do it and live with any negative consequences, and then vow to make it easier for the next man who does it. Which is to say, I think that men will have to get work-life balance the same way most women have to get it! It sucks, but that is how our country is.

  7. 1) What are people's perceptions of paternity leave?

    I don't think it is a sign of weakness, but my husband experienced that point of view because most of his coworkers have stay-at-home wives.

    It is hard for men who are equal participants in child-rearing but fewer people talk about it.

    1. To be blunt, I never care what other people think of my choices, so long as I (or in this case my family) carefully weighed our options and made what I/we felt was the best choice. Of course, it helps that I am in a relatively independent working situation right now - I can't say that I'd have the same approach if I needed to convince my boss I was doing what was best for the company....

      One of the things that I hope to bring about through this blog is to talk about equalizing parenting responsibilities between partners. Whether the parents are traditional, LGBTG, or any other variation it is always important to remember to do things as a team. And support each other in everything.

  8. wow - 6 months paid paternity leave is great. in the uk dads only get 1 week paid, and 1 week unpaid. most only take the first week.

  9. I just found this blog when searching for "postdoc dad", and it's been good to read, thanks. My wife and I are both at the postdoc level and working in US research institutes. We just found out that my wife is pregnant with twins and I've been wondering about parental leave. Back in the UK, mothers get 6 months full pay and a further 6 months on reduced pay if they want it, so the US system seems pretty backwards and barbaric. My wife has no official paid leave in her position, but the government research institute I work for allows 8 weeks paid leave. My PI is pretty amazing and has told me to take off as much time as I need, but I don't think that I'd be comfortable taking off all that time at once. My plan is to take 4 weeks off completely and then come back working a more flexible schedule. To answer your questions:

    1. Definitely not a sign of weakness, although US culture seems rather unfortunate here.
    2. Already answered that - I imagine I'll probably take at least 4 weeks.
    3. Only you can really know that answer to that!

    1. First off, CONGRATULATIONS to you and your wife! Starting/expanding your family is an often overlooked, but critical aspect of life/postdoc/career.

      There is never really a "good time" to have children and continue a career, but PI/mentor support is key to everything. Is your wife's PI supportive? Even if not, federal law requires a certain amount of time off (although unpaid). Most institutions also have measures in place to ensure that she will get paid time off - check with the postdoc/dean office to get the details.

      On an unrelated note, I'm so glad you found me, and feeling inspired to post a bit more. My mood has taken a bit of a death spiral in the past few months, and I didn't think I should share that with too many people. But then again the original intent of this blog was to post me experiences, arts and all...

  10. Thanks! I'm oscillating between excitement and abject terror, although I assume that's probably a normal reaction! Yep, my wife's PI is also very understanding, given that she (the PI) is on maternity leave at the moment. Considering how things could be in the US, we've both been pretty lucky. I imagine that the next six months will be a desperate push to try and get as much lab-work in as possible before our life gets turned completely upside-down!

    I've been reading through some more of your blog and it sounds like you've had a pretty tough time - well done for still keeping it together. The early science career is a pretty rough ride - I'm a little over two years into my postdoc and already worrying about what comes next...