Tuesday, May 12, 2015



My wife has been back at work for just over three weeks now, so the kids are under my (questionably) responsible care for most of their day.  I'll divulge more of how it's going in a week or two.  I figure I'd let the dust settle a little bit first, if that is even possible.  Since Jess is back at work, I actually wanted to reflect on the time we all had at home together while she was on maternity leave.  If you've just welcomed a newborn into your world, planning on welcoming a newborn in the near future, or if you just like to follow modern parenting topics, you're probably aware that maternity/paternity/parental leave is kind of a hot button issue.  I figured I'd offer up my thoughts and opinions, since that is essentially what you are supposed to do with a blog, right?   

Jess took 16 weeks of maternity leave with Gus, the same amount she took after Havi was born (she took 12 weeks with Isla).  This time around was remarkably different though because we were all home the entire time.  When Havi was born, Isla was still in daycare, so when we felt the urge we could always send Isla there to relieve us of having two kids at home to tend to.  Not the case with Gus, as both girls had been home with me for almost two months at that point.  We had a newborn, a terrible two-er, and a four-going-on-fourteen year-old - a tantalizing recipe for multiple disasters.  It was incredible to have that amount of family time together though, and it started to feel like it was perpetually Saturday at our house for a while.  As much as we felt occasionally guilty about this, we recognized that this would likely (hopefully) be the last time we experience something like this and figured we should take advantage.

It was under the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) that Jess was allowed to take unpaid time off following each birth without fear of losing her job (the law also covers other medical reasons, like caring for an ailing family member).  If you follow modern parenting topics, you're likely well aware that the United States is the only developed country (aka non-3rd world) that does not provide or mandate paid time off for parents following the birth of a child; this groups us with the likes of Suriname, the Marshall Islands and a few other countries most people can't identify on a map. One of the reasons Jess started working part-time from home during all of her maternity leaves, was that she received no paid "maternity" or "parental" leave from her employer.  To help cover about half of the lost income during her maternity leave, along with working part-time from home, she exhausted her vacation and sick leave and borrowed future sick leave (she won't be able to take a sick day until next year).  

She was definitely not alone in this experience.  In 2013, the Bureau of Labor Services estimated that only 13% of workers in the US had access to paid family leave through their employer.  Also interesting, and relatively disheartening to note, is that the benefits of taking time off under the FMLA (even if it is unpaid), only apply to just over half of the U.S. workforce.  I would venture a guess that the ones who don't qualify to take time off under FMLA are probably the ones who could most benefit from it.  To contrast, I was one of those fortunate few who received paid time off, getting four weeks of parental leave from my employer when both Isla & Havi were born - a benefit given to either a female parent or a male parent following the birth of a child.  Had I been smart about things (and kind of a jerk), I should have kept working there until Gus was born, taking my paid parental leave and then "retiring" when it was time for me to go back.

When I returned to work after my time off after Havi was born, I made a point to contact our HR Director to express my gratitude for the parental leave benefit.  I knew she hadn't personally developed the policy, and it had been around for a number of years, but I felt the need to thank someone for allowing me to take that much needed time off (and keeping me on the payroll at the same time).  I hoped that she might share my gratitude with other senior administrators to get a first hand sense of what the benefit had provided one of the institutions employees.  One of the most eye-opening realizations for me when we had kids was how much undivided time they consume, especially as newborns.  It was great to have this opportunity to spend a substantial amount of time just being with our newborn children without needing to worry about what was going on at work or how we were going to make ends meet financially.

The data obviously suggest this is not a luxury that a lot of parents have, especially dads.  When I was off on parental leave following Havi's birth, I took advantage of the time off by scheduling a regular dental visit.  During my obligatory chit-chat with the dental hygienist, it came up that I was currently off on parental leave following a new addition to our family.  The hygienist commented on how lucky I was, mentioning that her husband was back at work before she even left the hospital following her births.  As I pondered her statement, I couldn't help but think about the environment that those kids were being born into.  A different time and a different circumstance, but my Dad even had to get back to the farm and chores shortly after I was born.  From what I've experienced firsthand, childbirth is an incredibly amazing and exhilarating experience, but it is also very stressful and emotionally and physically exhausting.  And of course it can be insanely painful for the mother.  I can't imagine how much more challenging this might be for a new mother if her spouse or partner has very limited time to be present because he or she has to return to work.  Even harder to grasp what single mothers must feel.

Given my bleeding-heart liberal views, you'd think my opinion would obviously be for the government to provide paid parental leave (at least for mothers) or mandate that employers do so for their employees.  Yes, I think it is critically important that parents, both parents, take a substantial amount of time off once a new baby is born.  I believe this is an essential part of creating a strong bond between the parents and their newly born child.  I know that having the opportunity to have that undivided time with our children has helped me grow and better understand my role as a parent, and I believe it created a better environment to foster love and support for our children.

But, I get it.  My wife works for the Federal Government, with it's seemingly bazillion employees (if you follow conservative punditry).  To grant them all a paid parental leave would be absurdly expensive, and we, the taxpayers, would be footing the bill.  I also understand that by my former employer providing me paid parental leave, they undoubtedly had to cut back on other benefits within my compensation package - most likely my actual compensation.  After returning from my leave with Havi, a childless colleague joked that she felt she should have a child just to get the paid time off.  I politely told her I would strongly advise against that.    

Having kids is a huge responsibility.  It is also a huge financial obligation (okay, maybe not the right wording there, but you get the point), especially pending what type of health insurance you have.  In an ideal world, we would have all expectant parents be at a place where they have attained a certain level of emotional maturity and financial stability.  Unfortunately, I don't think we can require a certain amount of cash in the bank before allowing people to conceive.  In one of his performance monologues, artist Kip Fulbeck remarks that he, "wants to live in a world where you have to pass a test to have kids."  While I don't believe this would ever fly in the good ol' U.S. of A., where freedom rings; it is an interesting theory to think about, considering anyone can procreate as long as their necessary anatomical parts function properly.  There are at least a minimum set of requirements for nearly every other human endeavor - getting a job, driving a car, serving in the military, owning a home, voting.  Having and raising a child seems to be the exception.  But how can we infringe on the right to bear children?  That's only something that would happen in one of those socialist Scandinavian countries.

Speaking of, someone who currently lives in one of those countries posted a link to this article about a photo-series entitled, Swedish Dads.  The project is a series of images and reflections from, yep, you guessed it, Swedish Dads about the benefits of their country's insanely generous parental leave policy - 480 day of leave while receiving a stipend from the state; 60 of which must be taken by the father.  The comments about the importance of spending a significant amount of dedicated time with your new child as a father are not only spoken in Swedish (safe assumption those dudes speak pretty good English too), but also echoed in studies conducted among American dads as well.  A study done by Boston College concluded that "early, more intense engagement in parenting for men has positive long-term effects for father and child, and mother as well."  Another report argued that paid parental leave for fathers may help promote gender equality for women.

I couldn't help but notice the sanctimonious poignancy of US Senator and Republican Presidential Candidate Rand Paul's comments a few weeks ago about the events that had taken place recently in Baltimore; citing some of the causes for the unrest as the "breakdown of the family structure" and the "lack of fathers".  Obviously paid parental leave wouldn't be the cure for all of our societal ills, but it does seem a bit bizarre (read: ass-backwards) that our society doesn't seem to provide the necessary support for the family structure at arguably its most critical juncture.  One can wonder if we would spend less on policing things that may have occurred because of the "breakdown of the family structure" if we invested a little bit at the start of that family structure to ensure it started on the right foot.  Although I don't see Senator Paul, or many of his colleagues, lining up to the support the President's proposal for paid family leave.  It often amazes me, not it a good way, how our country can claim to be founded on family values but develop public policy that seems to directly contradict that.        

So where does that leave us?  Personally, I think it has to be a multi-faceted approach.  Yes, it is great that some employers offer very generous paid parental leave benefits, but I don't believe that needs to fall on them (just like I don't believe employer sponsored health insurance or retirement plans should exist, but that's another topic).  This would be an impossible financial obligation for a lot of employers, especially small businesses.  It was a tongue-in-cheek comment by my colleague, but it can be seen as an unfair benefit for those who do not and choose not to have kids.  And what about those people who don't work outside the home and choose to stay home with their kids.  Aren't they essentially doing what a working parent is doing during his/her parental leave without receiving any sort of financial compensation?  I think it's a nice plus and recruiting tool when employers offer this benefit, but it can also create additional disparity between those employees who could afford to go without the benefit, and those who would likely benefit from it more.

Yes, I believe that the government has some responsibility to promote this.  Of course there are tax credits for having kids and the like, but I don't think we should be financially-incentivizing people to have kids.  We should be encouraging them to raise well adjusted children in a healthy family environment.  In numerous countries, there are income replacement stipends subsidized by the government for a portion of a worker's salary.  But this still alienates those who choose not to work outside the home.  In other countries, like Finland, parents receive a direct stipend following the birth of a child.  The most progressive benefit, but again, someone has to pay for this, and Finland, like its Scandinavian & European counterparts, has one of the highest tax rates in the world.  I do believe though, that in the $3.5 trillion Federal Government budget, some money could be set aside to provide financial assistance for new parents.  Again, maybe if more was invested up front, we'd be investing less elsewhere in programs and services, and wondering why our "family structure" and family values are in such disarray.

Ultimately though, it's up to us, as a society and especially those of us who are parents, to recognize the magnitude of responsibility that comes with parenthood, and ensure that our own actions match that belief.  We just celebrated Mother's Day this past weekend, and will celebrate Father's Day in about a month.  Most of us probably think we need to celebrate mothers and fathers year-round instead of trying to cram it all into one day, but what do we actually do to make this happen (I'm guilty of this as well).  Most of us are also probably familiar with the Forest Witcraft quote, and we love to broadcast it in frames at our offices or homes.  But how many of us actually take that quote to heart?  When I decided to stay home with my kids, I felt that was me doing my part to actually act on that sentiment.  By no means am I implying that if you don't do exactly what I do or did (like taking a substantial amount of time off when your kids are born or be a stay at home parent), you will be a bad parent and won't love your kids as much as I love my own.  I just know that for me, personally, having had that opportunity to spend as much time with my kids as I was following their births, and as I am able to today, I've become more of the parent I want to be and now better understand what is important in getting me to that point.  Be the parent you want to be.  Be the person you want to be, not what you think society wants you to be.       

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