Paternity leave, or paid leave for all parents, has some clear benefits for parents and children: It narrows the pay gap for women, because women don’t miss out on work opportunities when they fall back for childcare. It increases bonding between fathers and their newborns, and decreases the stigma around men as caregivers. It’s great for babies, too — their developing brains respond to your touch, voice and scent, and the more you’re around, the more the connections in their brain multiply.
But here’s a new one for just Mom and Dad, or Dad and Dad: It’s better for your relationship when dads take some kind of leave during the first nine months of the baby’s life.
A new study from Indiana’s Ball State University looked at 4,700 breeding couples and found that relationships are strengthened when men take time off to help care for that baby. The mothers reported greater relationship satisfaction and lower conflict when dad was around to split newborn care alongside her.
This is profoundly intuitive: A baby’s first few months of life are extremely challenging in terms of you getting sleep, making it go to sleep, feeding it and yourself, and keeping it (and yourself, and your relationship) alive. Four hands are better than two, and when it comes to diaper blowouts, there aren’t enough hands in the world. (The baby’s two hands are only good for smearing it around.)
Back in the day, a couple might’ve stayed close to home so her family could help soak off some of that load, but nowadays, we live farther away from our families of origin, and we wait longer to have kids, so grandparents are often much older by the time we breed. Now more than ever, there’s no one to help a new mother at home struggling with care, and possibly dealing with the baby blues or worse. Paid leave is crucial to surviving this, to say nothing of what career opportunities might be lost thanks to that resume gap.
We’ve written about how difficult it is for men to take leave even when it’s a paid company perk, and to be clear, that’s not that common anyway. There is no mandatory paid leave in this country, and the U.S. is alone in refusing to offer it. If it’s not paid, which is often the case, couples are in no position to go without income for a precious few weeks of bonding, and in the end, they choose to survive by letting mom handle it.
But those early months are also hell on a relationship, and this study proves that it doesn’t have to be as bad when two people can really throw in on it together.
There were a few caveats: Though fathers also reported higher relationship satisfaction when he took leave, the length of leave was not relevant for dads, just moms. If the mother worked in the study, she reported fewer conflicts, the more leave he took. This makes sense, because her work is less disrupted when the care can be split.
But here’s the twist: Mothers who didn’t work reported higher conflict if the father took leave. That’s not so crazy: If a woman’s already intending to stay home to take care of the child, and the father has agreed to work and support them, his being around more is likely to cause territorial disputes.
But outside of that arrangement it’s a boon for the couple. It’s a symbol of his commitment, it promotes greater equality in the home in terms of dividing childcare, and overall, it helps everybody balance work and life when both parents work, which is increasingly the case.
So now that we know, all that’s left is to make it a law. The good news is, we’re working on it. The bad news? Like two sleep-deprived parents whisper-screaming over how to feed the baby, we can’t seem to agree on a damn thing.