Why paternity leave helps dismantle the patriarchy

*Caveat: This article refers primarily to parents in a heterosexual relationship, not because I don’t believe other relationship forms aren’t valid, but because this structure is so common and the way our culture handles sex roles in parenting helps perpetuate the patriarchy.*

I am a mentor (and mental health referral source) for an Ohio-based postpartum support network. On the mentors’ orientation Zoom meeting, we each talked about our experiences dealing with postpartum depression or anxiety (PPD / PPA), since most mentors have gone through these mental health challenges themselves.

Now, as I write this, I’ve only had one baby (but thanks to scheduled posts, two by the time you read this!), but I felt very clear about my answer I gave back then. The only reason I was able to avoid PPD or PPA (if I did at all… which might be debatable) right after the birth of our daughter was because my partner was home with me for 6 solid weeks.

I’m not saying there is something magical about 6 weeks or even that it has to be one’s partner. But the way our society operates now, we often live far away from our families of origin. We’re so focused on the “nuclear family” that many tend to dismiss the importance of extended family or chosen / created family (e.g. close friend groups, communal living, kinship networks). Raising children used to be much more of a communal activity, with moms, grandmas, sisters, aunts, or cousins available to help out a new mom. Now, this is mostly not the case (although in rural Ohio where I live, I observe these dynamics much more than I experienced in the cities I’ve lived in).

We have lost touch with this, but raising a new baby should not have to be a solitary activity. Being a new parent is hard, and they need all the support we can offer them.

As a new mom – even one with a bachelor’s degree in child development and a career thus far oriented around working with children – I was often overwhelmed by the enormity of the task before me. Our first night in the hospital after her birth, my daughter was unable to be settled (not even for the nurses!), traumatized by her entry into this world and having to leave her cozy womb. I was exhausted, hormonal, and scared. How am I supposed to bring her home with me? I wondered. How are we going to survive this? How long will this last?  

Motherhood, especially early motherhood, is isolating and creates tunnel vision. You are so focused on the small details that feel enormous: the minutes at a breast, whether the baby will even nurse, the minutes sleeping (you or them), the minutes between sleeps, the number of poopy diapers. The “witching hour” (around 5pm) that creates a feeling of dread when the baby cries seemingly inconsolably. Another night looming with little or very broken sleep. Going through your next day running on empty, still bleeding from birth, still tender and unable to move how you used to, feeling like your body that was once familiar has become a stranger.

If I had to go through all that alone?

I needed someone with me. I needed my partner, whose baby this was, who loved her just as much as I did, to be present. And not just present, but actively parenting (learning to parent) with me. I needed to know we were not alone. That it wasn’t just me and this stranger of a baby, whom I’d birthed out of my body but was just learning to know, all by ourselves trying to survive.

Thankfully, my husband has a job where he was able to negotiate his own terms of parental leave (he’s a pastor in a mainline denomination). He was not too proud to take parental leave and insisted on calling it “parental” over “paternity,” to emphasize this was leave that any parent (and any gender pastor) deserved to take.

In other countries, paternity leave is offered to dads – a shocking idea to those of us in the United States, I know. Often there is a given amount of leave available to parents and they have some amount of choice deciding which partner will take how much leave.

Sadly, scores of men here are offered zero parental leave whatsoever. Even for those who are, there is pressure to not take the leave, at least to its full extent. Career must come first for masculine men.

Career must also come first for scores of women who are not guaranteed any kind of paid leave. Who scrimp together as much vacation time as they are able to before baby arrives. Who daringly stretch out leave all the way to 12 weeks using unpaid FMLA while nearly every other developed nation (only Australia and New Zealand also do not) offers parents paid parental leave. Unless you live in a handful of select states, there is no guarantee in the U.S. that you will have any sort of income while you birth and do the challenging, exhausting work of caring for your newborn. Given how the Build Back Better package is still stalled out, circumstances will remain this way in the United States for the foreseeable future.

I was so mad when I heard what some *so masculine, oh so manly* men were saying about Pete Buttigieg a few months ago when he took parental leave to care for their newborn, prematurely born twins. Mocking comments about learning to breastfeed and very clearly demonstrating that such people have no idea what it is like to raise a newborn (much less twins!). Men like these mockers have no idea how to be an active father or a helpful husband if they think that’s how easy it is to have a baby.   Writer Anne Helen Petersen addresses the dynamics around parental leave and the pressure men experience to not take it. This excerpt addresses how our culture demands that women continue to be the end-all-be-all of primary caregiving, as a way to perpetuate the patriarchy.

Link: https://annehelen.substack.com/p/the-subtle-look-and-overwhelming – I highly recommend subscribing to her Substack!

Will dads all magically become equal participants in caregiving if they are given the chance to take parental leave? Lol. Definitely not. But at least it gives families a fighting chance for them to do that.

When dads, or other non-birthing partners, are also allowed (and actually TAKE) parental leave, it levels the parental playing field. No longer can dad play the helpless “I can’t take care of this baby” card. No longer is mom the sole holder of enough knowledge to raise the child. Dads learn how to give a bottle, change the diaper, soothe the baby, keep the schedule. Dads learn how to bond with their baby and experience them as a family member to love and care for, not a little being you solely need to monetarily provide for.

And maybe this is the difference that scares conservatives or others who are so against paternity leave in particular. Dads who snuggle and bond and rock babies to sleep do not fit the archetypal “masculine man.” Dads’ hormone levels actually shift* after having a baby, depending on how much time the dad spends with the child. Testosterone drops, sexual lust decreases, and nurturing increases. Quite the opposite of stereotyped “masculinity,” which for an insecure man might feel quite humiliating.

Offering paid parental leave to both parents early on in baby’s life helps create a solid beginning for the child. It finally gives a nod to all of the “free” labor that women (nearly entirely) have been doing for so long. Their labor is hardly free –it is actually quite costly– although it is unpaid. And maybe the hormonal changes that the men experience might be a really great way to scientifically reduce our levels of toxic masculinity! Seems like an experiment worth making to me.

Even having my husband home for 6 weeks, I was still the one “in charge,” the one who did the research and problem-solved and reminded about the daily routine. We share childcare duties more than probably the vast majority of parents, and even then, I still carry the “mental load” about appointments and schedules and what we need to know next for our daughter’s development. I suspect nearly all moms have this role. I appreciate there is much he offers her that I don’t (abundant patience and a creative playmate, for starters), but in various ways our division of labor falls in sex-stereotyped ways. I don’t think even the most ardent patriarchy supporters have to fear that we will suddenly have a dramatic sex-role reversal occurring.

Making paternity leave available and normalized for men is no panacea for dismantling the patriarchy. But at least it’s a place to start. Our children, our mothers, and our fathers all deserve better.

*https://www.nbcnews.com/sciencemain/your-brain-fatherhood-dads-experience-hormonal-changes-too-research-shows-6c10333109

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