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Paternity Leave Is Hard Work If You Can Get It

New dads who are given time off still struggle to make it work

People breed, and somebody’s got to stay home with the kid for a while so one or both parents can get back to work. In the United States, some 53 percent of workers have access to some form of leave, but only 13 percent of workers will get paid to take it.

Think piece after think piece has tried to suss out a solution for getting more leave for one or both parents, with a particular focus on getting more men to spend time bonding with their newborns at home. News that Mark Zuckerberg would sit out two months of running Facebook to care for his newborn daughter was widely praised as a game changer that would help fight the remaining stigma around men as caregivers and encourage them to step up.

But the pressures keeping men from pausing their careers after having a kid are more burdensome than you might expect, even when paternity leave is stipulated in the benefits package.

Take Michael, a 35-year-old New Yorker in the tech industry whose benefits package offered 10 full weeks (which is actually a bit low compared to Amazon’s 20 weeks and Apple’s 18). Even better, he could take it all at once, or he could chose to spread the time out over the entire first year of his child’s life. “It’s a generous policy,” Michael admits. “They pretty much said, ‘Here’s your 10 weeks, let us know when you’re going to take them, good luck, have fun!’” he says.

And yet, he still found it difficult to extricate himself from the office.

“I didn’t feel any pressure from my manager or the organization to not take the 10 weeks,” he says. “But I put pressure on myself, because I had just started this job two months before my baby was born. I wasn’t going to take 10 weeks at that point. It wasn’t part of the calculation.”

In part, it helped that his wife had four months off. And Michael found himself unable to tear himself away from the glue of establishing himself in a new position — the meetings and the camaraderie essential to establishing a foothold. So he took three days off when the baby was born, came back to work for two weeks, then planned to take two weeks off after that to spend time with his son and give his wife a break.

That didn’t go so well, either.

“Right as I was about to take the time, my manager said, ‘I need you to go to this other office for a few days, and then you can start your leave.’”

He could’ve taken the leave right there, reminding his manager of the generous policy, the plans he’d set in motion, the importance of these early bonding moments. But he thought it was too much of a gamble.

“It seemed like a choice, but it kinda wasn’t,” he says. “I was like, ‘Eh, okay, fine.’ So I did it. And ultimately, for my career, it turned out to be a good boost. It was an important project.”

He felt sure that for him, and many other men, the guaranteed leave was far more fungible than it was for his wife. He couldn’t imagine her company asking her to leave the baby at home for a few days to take on a new project, no matter how important.

He eventually took two weeks off, but he spent a lot of time checking in during those long periods of down time. And what was it like, when he finally got the time?

“The first day two days were hell,” he says. “I wasn’t mentally prepared.” He’d taken care of his son plenty: changing diapers, feeding him, getting up in the middle of the night to supplement his wife’s care. But he found that the amount of energy required to watch and be responsible for a four-month-old from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. was nearly impossible to sustain. It was, he says, a “holy shit” moment.

And as difficult as it was, as incredible as the bonding was, as much as he saw his wife’s care in a new light, he was ready to go back to work. In the end, he sees it as the grand bargain he and his wife made. For him, working comes first, while his wife’s top priority is raising the kids.

Men like Michael are widely considered some of the the most engaged fathers in history. “The majority of young men and women say they would ideally like to equally share earning and caregiving with their spouse,” University of California, Santa Barbara sociologist Sarah Thebaud told the New York Times last year. “But it’s pretty clear that we don’t have the kinds of policies and flexible work options that really facilitate egalitarian relationships.”

And yet, even when companies put such policies into place, men feel their careers could be dinged in a way that’s unacceptable when they are more likely to earn more than their wives. Though men who take on an integral role in the early days are said to be more involved later on in their children’s lives, writes Claire Cain Miller at the New York Times, the reality is that men who do so are more likely to be passed over for pay or promotions.

So couples negotiate something that historian Stephanie Coontz describes as feeling “equal in their hearts,” even when the distribution of caregiving and housework is anything but. This means that while men hold more egalitarian attitudes than at any other time in history, families fall back into traditional roles when necessary to get by.

When Alex, a 37-year-old buyer at a Fortune 1000 fashion retailer, welcomed a son six weeks premature, he scrambled to get leave. His wife, a teacher with summers off, had the next several months to tend to their baby in intensive care. But because his company offered no leave, and his vacation time hadn’t reloaded yet for the year, the baby’s early arrival meant he didn’t even have a single week to spend at home with his new son.

His manager floated Alex a few days off the books and let him come and go that first week, taking long lunches, arriving late and leaving early as needed until wife and baby were safely discharged. His wife couldn’t drive after the delivery either, so his presence was crucial to getting settled at home.

Those early nights were touch and go, sleeping next to the crib, worrying obsessively about sudden infant death syndrome (which often affects preemies) and “running around trying to be the glue that held everything together.” But doing so while holding down a day job took its toll.

“We’re thrown into the parenting thing rather violently and then also told to do our jobs and to not let anything affect our performance at work,” he says. “Trying to do a detailed, numbers-oriented, client-facing job is just really difficult when you aren’t getting enough sleep at night. And the person who really suffers is your already-suffering wife at home, because you aren’t as dialed in as you should be during those early important days.”

While this is par for the course for young working mothers, it’s a new frontier for men who still feel responsible for pulling in the lion’s share of their household’s earnings.

Offering leave and seeing other men take leave certainly normalizes the behavior. A study out of California found that men were 46 percent more likely to take leave when it became offered in 2004. For unknown reasons, 58 percent more men filed paternity leave claims when the child was male.

Michael says he doesn’t think having a son had any bearing on his reasons for taking leave, though it’s hard for him to say in hindsight. And Alex still wishes he could’ve cobbled together a month of time off, which he says would’ve “done wonders” for his family.

“It could have paved the way for a less bumpy ride toward finding balance in general,” he says. “It would have been a fortifying and bonding experience; I think every father would benefit from the opportunity to have some time off.”

If only they felt like they could take it.