Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, October 18, 2021

Fatherhood and Paternity Leave

In one of those constantly recurring tempests in the Twitter-pot, everyone started talking about paternity leave due to the breaking of the news that Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has been on paternity leave for the last two months since he and his 'husband' adopted twins via what is rumored to be a surrogacy arrangement.  

Much of this took the form of people dunking on controversialist Matt Walsh for saying that there isn't much for a dad to do when a baby is a newborn and thus a week or two of paternity leave is plenty.  

I'm not here to defend Matt Walsh in general, but it's a part of my honor code as a blogger that when everyone good and right thinking turns out to condemn some view I hold as unacceptable, I feel like I have to stand up and be counted as holding the unacceptable opinion.  

We have had seven children.  Back when we had our first two I had a job with minimal benefits, and had to use my regular vacation days in order to get any paternity leave at all.  In both those cases I was out less than a week.  That was pretty tough.  Especially with the second child, since that meant there was a mobile (and heavier) child trundling around the house whom MrsD was not in good shape to chase  just a week post partem. 

Later children were had while I worked at other companies.  None of them actually had a formal paternity leave policy until we had our seventh, but I did have bosses who followed an informal policy (which I in turn extended to people who worked for me when I became a manager) of telling recent parents to take some extra time off and simply not marking them absent in the HR system. Finally, with our seventh, there was a new policy of two full weeks paternity leave for a father, and I took it all.  (Not much later, that was extended to six weeks, but I probably would have stuck with 2-3 weeks.)

The biggest reason I was needed at home during those early days was because, having just delivered a baby, MrsD found it physically hard to move and lift things.  She also obviously was not going to be doing her own cooking.  So I fetched and carried and cooked and cleaned.

I also, truth be told, had a fair amount of time to myself.  MrsDarwin and I are each others biggest time sinks, and shortly after a baby arrived she needed a lot of rest and so did baby.  In the earliest days, a lot of their time consisted of her communing with baby, nursing baby in bed, and then falling asleep with baby in bed.  Once everything was settled down, I'd come and claim my 18 inches of the edge of the bed to sleep in.  

Baby's are pretty nocturnal, and I definitely spent my share of time watching tiny little fists wave around, or the way baby would draw his or her little legs up in order to yawn the more efficiently, but there is a great extent to which dad is the spare wheel in the first days of baby's life.  I cooked and cleaned and kept track of the other kids and took a shift laying next to baby while MrsDarwin took a shower, but it was also very much mother-and-baby time, as is good and right and natural.  And once MrsDarwin was healed enough that she could move around and carry baby, it was not particularly hard for me to return to work. 

After all, I worked through a month long period when MrsDarwin was on bedrest while pregnant with child #6. There were days when I came home a bit early, and we ate take-out a few times, but it was straight forward for me to come home, make dinner, deal with kids, put them to bed, clean up, etc.  Compared to that, a two week old baby who slept eighteen hours a day was pretty easy on the family.

A couple of female co-workers expressed surprise at our arrangements, in particular that MrsD covered any wakeful baby periods between midnight to 6am.  They said that they'd agreed with their husbands going in that everything would be 50/50, and so they pumped breastmilk and stored it so that their husbands could get up and nurse the baby with a bottle in the middle of the night while they slept.  "It's great for the father to be able to bond through nursing too!" they explained.

"Why the hell would I pump so you could pretend to nurse when I can do it for real?" was MrsDarwin's sensible response when I told her about this.  And there was a clear trade-off to her letting me sleep through the night while baby drowsily noshed at her side: She and baby tended to sleep right through me getting up and leaving for work and take things slowly in the morning.

I think this is one sense in which it's hard to separate the paternity leave question completely from the source that kicked off this particular tempest.  With Buttigieg, we're talking about two guys who are masquerading at having given birth.  Neither has the natural advantages of being able to nurse, and neither has the bodily and hormonal results of having carried the baby for nine months and having birthed him or her.  Indeed, the woman who did actually carry the Buttigieg twins has been kept completely out of the Instagram-ready chronicle of this family formation.  

But Walsh is talking about a natural situation in which a woman gives birth and her husband is helping her, and that is my own experience too.  And while in the early days it is absolutely essential for the person who didn't just have to dilate to 10cm and strain every abdominal muscle to be available to carry the baby over to the changing table, change her diaper, and bring her back for another round of nursing and snoozing, once Mom has healed it is in fact pretty possible for Dad to go back to work so long as he's able to be around enough to help support a spouse who's attached at the breast to a constantly feeding new addition.  I wouldn't say that there's not a lot for the father to do, but there's definitely less.

Which connects to the other reason why this has been a somewhat strong opinion of mine for many years: In our early days it was a serious struggle to be able to afford to have MrsDarwin stay at home full time with the children.  When we sat down to do the math on parenthood as we were expecting our eldest, we realized that although MrsDarwin made less than I did (thanks, theater employment market) we couldn't get by without her part of the family earnings.  So much of that pregnancy was spent on my desperate search for higher pay, which eventually resulted in my quitting my job for another more risky one, getting a counter offer, swallowing a fair amount of pride, and accepting the safer money.

As I have moved through the rest of my career, I've put a lot of effort into making myself the kind of employee whom it would be hard to go without for several months.  As time has gone by, that's taken us from scraping by, and as we were expecting our second child moving in with family and accepting a 1.5 hour commute to save on rent, to living a fairly affluent life. But I've done that by being essential.  In this job as in my last three, I'm the single head of pricing in the company that I work for.  My team can get routine work done while I'm on vacation or leave for a couple weeks, but draw that out to a month, and things aren't getting done.

I have European colleagues who work on the 1-2 month leave model.  But they make less, and pay way more in taxes, in order to fund the kind of system in which it's possible for someone to vanish for multiple months.  Not a single one of them has a single income family.  So to the extent that we value our ability to have a parent with our children all the time, we pay for that by having me more dedicated to work than in a system in which both parents work but both get long, subsidized parental leave.

The counter argument I've heard is that our families should have the first call upon us, not the economy.  I get it, in a sense.  I often see people making trade offs between work and family which I don't think are the right ones.  And yet, I think it's worth being clear: One of the key ways that I take care of my family is by providing for them.  And I do that by working.  Yes, I think that employers should try to be flexible.  As a manager I try to be flexible and help people put family first.  But at the end of the day, we make money by doing work, not by not doing work.  And thus I make money by working.  So if I'm going to be a good provider for my wife and my children, I need to go to work.

And in an age when admitting that the two sexes exist and are different is something of a radical act, I think that it's worth noting that there is indeed a closeness and an all encompassing nature to the relation a mother and child have during the first weeks of life which is not the same for a father and the child.  Yes, I've changed thousands of diapers in my life.  I've held babies and been in awe of their tiny features.  But I'm also not a mother, and I never will be, nor should that be my object.  

Which is why in some sense it's significant that this whole tempest was kicked off by two guys who acquired a pair of twins via a mother who goes unmentioned.  I'm sure that's hard and takes a lot of time.  I'm also sure that it's wrong and not how the world is supposed to work. 


Kimberley said...

Mom of four here, and I also hate to agree with Matt Walsh but I share this unpopular opinion. My husband gets ten weeks of paternity leave. The HR people who thought this up clearly did not expect to have many employees who take that amount of time more than once. He ends up taking four weeks off and then working part-time for twelve more. The real value of this for me is that it lets me keep running my part-time appellate legal practice (amost all research and writing from home) while getting extra rest.

I've suggested he offer to sell some of his leave back to his company -- reduce it to 4 weeks for an extra six weeks of his hourly rate -- but he has not wanted to try this for varoius reasons.

Also, we adopted our eldest. I am here to tell you that, while adoption has its own stressors, a bottle-fed infant one has not given birth to is a significantly less taxing experience than otherwise.

CMinor said...

Thank you for the strong dose of reality—and thanks, Mrs. Darwin, for your own contribution. In all this silliness, there’s been little attention paid to the fact that somewhere out there there’s a woman who’s actually got something to recover from, who’s basically been excessed because she’s no longer essential to the story. And she’s having to do it without the natural rehabilitative effects that come with nursing a newborn.

In the battle of one-liners that this story has devolved into, the point that fathers make a critical contribution to their wives’ and children’s well-being by doing whatever pays the rent and heat and brings home groceries has frequently been lost in the shuffle. It’s easy to rhapsodize about the importance of bonding and spending time gazing rapturously at your infant when your economic status allows for a two-month paid vacation. The majority of us who didn’t land in those kinds of jobs (really, how many employers can provide that without going under?) or who actually birthed and nursed and frequently kept house and marshalled older children with an infant on one arm are less inclined to romanticize the situation.

I grew up in the 70’s when women were encouraged to return to work (and between the late 70’s economy and the rise of divorce, many had little choice but to do so) and the attachment needs of infants were often downplayed as a consequence. As at least one random commenter I’ve encountered has pointed out, the FMLA was passed to protect ordinary workers from getting fired for having to take time to recover from a birth (remember, women were getting excessed just for being found to be pregnant, back in the day) or care for a seriously ill family member, not to provide vacations to wealthy political appointees. It’s interesting that the critical importance of bonding becomes the coin of the realm when it serves the interests of a couple of guys who seem to merit special privileges by virtue of falling into a protected class, plus being young, cute, photogenic, and holding political views favored by the media (and who in all likelihood didn’t spend the previous nine months bonding with the kids in the usual ways and now need to try to make up for that).

I think employers need to respect genuine family needs of their workers, and I think it’s in their interest to do so to retain skilled and competent people. But workers and their families need to be realistic, too: sometimes the job just needs you and you have to weigh that against the claims of someone who might be able to get on just fine without you being there every minute. Also, prestige jobs come with perks, but they also come with levels of responsibility that aren’t necessarily compatible with your preferences for family life. If family life is what you truly value, you might want take on something with less glamour and lower stakes—especially if failure to meet job objectives might leave significant sectors of the economy in paralysis.

CMinor said...

Didn’t see Kimberly’s post as I think we were writing simultaneously, but it made me think of something. DMinor is a longtime federal employee. One option he and his colleagues have is to donate a certain amount of unused leave to a central pool. This has been a blessing for colleagues who have had to take more than the standard amount of leave for long-term illnesses.

Agnes said...

This is a problematic question on multiple levels. I'm a mother of 3 in Hungary where mothers get up to 2 years of (somewhat) subsidized maternity leave if they choose to stay at home for so long. Fathers get 1 week of paternity leave. The complexity of the question is: 1. how much paternity leave does a new family actually need for both the bonding time in the family and the practical help another person's constant presence can provide the new mother? In my opinion, it depends a great deal on the individual family situation: are there older children whose needs must be taken care of, how any, how old?; is there any other person who can help, even part-time? the mother's strength and general health; any specific family related issues like a difficult birth or twins or anything else. While I personally am inclined to think that 2 months are a luxury for the parents especially as no birthing was involved, it is also true that twin babies require a LOT of energy/attention and leave very little time for the mother to either relax or do any other work. 2. How does it translate to an adopting family where there are no birthing related issues? And 3. the injustice of some people getting so much as 2 months because of privilegized jobs? or (hesitate to mention) because of the particular situation of an LGBT family who might declare homophobia if not getting all possible benefits? And I'm sure Darwin is right in mentioning 4. how are those jobs getting done in case of an extended paternity leave of months? Who pays for the financial support of otherwise well to do people in good jobs who get this sort of paid paternity leave?

Anonymous said...

One other complication not discussed here is the fact that many jobs in the US do not offer decent maternity leave in the first place, and paternity leave could provide a family with the flexibility they need in the early days. I am a (pregnant) assistant professor at a large, public university, and like everyone at my institution, I will have zero days paid leave when my child is born. I wish my husband had paternity leave, though my concern is only a little about him helping me and bonding with the baby (but I'll confess--you seem a lot more chill about that than I am haha). My main concern is about childcare when I have to go back to work prior to the time that we'll feel comfortable leaving the baby with someone else. I think it would be good for the baby if we could tag team for a while.

Some people will say something about how this is why women shouldn't work. But I don't know. My job is important, I do it really well, and it's extremely difficult to have a family on one income. There are all kinds of legitimate concerns about paternity leave, many of which you mention here, but from my point of view, the hope of the idea is pro-family, it's just that "family" includes families where both parents work. I don't think that this idea of family is as starkly in tension with the Church's view of family as one with two dads is.