Culture & Conversation Law and Policy

Paid Family Leave Changed My Life

Dennis Carter

The time after the birth of my first child wasn't just difficult. It was a profoundly sad stretch, in which my wife's emotional, mental, and physical health deteriorated. I felt helpless, wanting to be there, but only getting to see our new baby for a few minutes every weekday after rushing home from work.

I’d rush out the door just as the morning sun peeked over the horizon, half-hoping my newborn son would wake up so I could see him before I headed to work, half-hoping he’d stay sound asleep so my wife could get those desperate last few minutes of slumber after another night of false starts.

It had been three days since we’d brought our first-born home. My wife, Melissa, had a pseudo paid family leave program—one that drew from an employee “sick bank”—through her employer, the local school district. Meanwhile, my employer didn’t offer a shred of family leave, paid or otherwise. So I was heading back to work 40 to 50 hours a week as she underwent the jarring transition from a day job to taking care of a newborn, trapped inside during the unrelenting cold of late December.

Why would I need family leave?

The answer became brutally clear in the subsequent weeks, as Melissa developed what we now believe to have been postpartum depression. Racked by chronic sleep deprivation and a sense of isolation that grew with every day she spent in the house, mostly alone and subject to the whims of a newborn, Melissa’s mood and demeanor changed in a way I had never seen during our decade together.

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It wasn’t just a difficult time. It was a profoundly sad stretch, in which Melissa’s emotional, mental, and physical health deteriorated. I felt helpless, wanting to be there, but only getting to see our new son for a few minutes every weekday after rushing home from work.

“I felt stuck in a cycle” of breast feeding and holding our baby, day and night, so he would sleep, Melissa recently told me. “I wasn’t prepared to deal with it alone, going in. I knew that. And knowing that the next day would not be any easier was one of the hardest parts.”

Melissa and I have been on both sides of the paid family leave equation. The issue continues to come up on the local, state, and federal level, and I think it’s vital to draw attention to the difference between having paid leave and not having it. For us, it was nothing short of life-altering.

Skip ahead three-and-a-half years to when my daughter was born. Melissa, once again, accessed her “sick leave” benefits, and I—thanks to my employer, Rewire—was able to be home for almost two months.

Not only did I enjoy a family leave option, but a paid one at that, meaning I wouldn’t stress myself into a daily meltdown over how our savings account was looking more paltry all the time. “Peace of mind” is just a tired phrase until you have it. Then it’s a godsend.

Here’s a short list of what paid family leave allowed for our family: I learned how to take care of a fragile newborn; I was there to feed her pumped breast milk when Melissa laid down for a much-needed midday nap after going to bed late and waking up before the summer sun; I could help keep the house from devolving into an infant-centric hellscape of constant messes and clutter; and we could more thoroughly enjoy time with our daughter and young son because Melissa was far less taxed than she was the first time around.

Melissa and I sometimes talked about what we would’ve done if neither of us were being paid during our daughter’s first few months. The answer to this hypothetical—one that is a reality for most couples in the United States—always came back to Melissa returning to work a month or two after giving birth. The mere thought filled us with angst, and we hadn’t even considered the logistical and financial stresses of child care.

“It becomes a tradeoff between financial security and your well-being,” she said. “That’s a bad position to be in.”

My hope is not to make family leave sound like a panacea for every conceivable challenge a new parent might face. It’s not. But that time off of work, joining Melissa in raising our second baby, showed me this much: Paid family leave is an explicitly pro-family policy.

You’d think paid family leave would be a priority in a country governed by people who ramble incessantly about the importance of family. You’d think it would be a rallying point for every legislator who wags their finger in front of the cameras and microphones and trumpets that, yes, families are good and right and should be supported by any means necessary.

You, of course, would be wrong.

New York in 2018 will become the fourth state to have a paid family leave policy funded through payroll taxes. A meager 14 percent of workers enjoy employer-sponsored paid family leave programs in the United States, according to a study released in February. Not only is the benefit exceedingly rare, but it’s almost entirely inaccessible to those in financially precarious positions: Six percent of the the same survey’s lowest-paid workers benefit from paid family leave, while 22 percent of the most highly paid workers have access to a paid family leave program.

More than half of workers who earn less than the median family income say they lost all income while on leave through the federal (unpaid) Family and Medical Leave Act, according to the Center for Law and Social Policy. In other words, the lowest-paid workers positions are put at an even starker economic disadvantage.

In addition to economic struggles, the mental health consequences of lacking family leave in the United States are well-documented. Researchers in 2012 found that having less than 12 weeks of family leave or eight weeks of paid leave are “associated with increases in depressive symptoms” for new mothers and, by contrast, “that longer leave may improve the health of new mothers.”

The dearth of paid family leave policies in the United States is curious, considering how it changes the way a worker views a company. A Deloitte survey showed that 77 percent of respondents said a paid leave policy could sway their choice of employer. Eight in ten companies with a family leave policy claimed that the benefit bolstered worker morale, while seven in ten said it boosted worker productivity.

For such a tremendous benefit, family leave has an inexplicable stigma among many men. They see it—perhaps not shockingly—as a program designed for women. A few guys in my life made every effort to feminize family leave, refusing to call it by its name or even “paternity leave.” With a smirk, they’d ask, “How’s your maternity leave going?”

The meaning of their slights was clear: What do you, as a man, have to do with raising a baby? Don’t you have a wife? Isn’t childrearing her gig?

With ever-rising blood pressure, I would explain to these men that family leave was like a health-care benefit—one that helped a couple maintain emotional and mental health during a demanding period. “I promise you’d like it if you had it,” I would say, wondering how someone could let their entrenched ideas about gender roles lead them to mock a clearly beneficial policy.

I asked Dr. Heather Ganginis Del Pino, my sister-in-law and assistant professor of psychology at Maryland’s Montgomery College who has studied family leave, if cultural biases had an effect on how family leave policies are perceived. Could the stubborn idea that family leave is a “woman’s program”—and the accompanying misogyny of not prioritizing “women’s issues”—erode public support for pushing better leave policies on the local, state, and federal levels?

“I absolutely would agree that when men take leave they are not seen in a positive light,” she said. “Many people believe women are automatically nurturing and loving with their child simply because we have the idea that women are more empathetic than men, and that because a woman carries the child, she must be bonded with it.”

Ganginis Del Pino said assumptions about stereotypical masculinity change the way many voters and lawmakers view efforts to provide family leave to workers. “Men can be empathetic too. They want to bond as well, but because that is not seen as a ‘manly’ trait and taking care of your child is not seen as a ‘manly’ practice, the idea of family leave for men is confusing to some.”

No one would claim that cultural dogma about the roles of moms and dads is the only factor holding back paid leave policies from taking hold on the state and national level. In fact, it’s a more concrete factor that stops these policies from gaining a political foothold: business groups that time and again fiercely oppose efforts to provide paid family leave benefits to working families, and wield their power accordingly.

Still, the interests of businesses should not override the interests of working families. The benefits of family leave are not secrets hidden away from policymakers on Capitol Hill and in state legislatures. They’re simply ignored by most legislators—maybe because they don’t see paid leave as a pressing issue, or maybe because their campaign funders don’t want paid family leave to take in even a breath of political oxygen.

But this is a pro-family issue. And it would change the economic and health outlooks for millions of working people.

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