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Thursday, June 04, 2009

Paternity Leave

If it's June, it must be PrawfsBlawg.  Thanks to all the Prawfs regulars for sharing their space with me for another guest stint.

I thought I'd kick off my visit by talking about my experience this past semester of life on paternity leave.

When we had our first son, two years ago, I was in my first year at Cornell, without tenure, eager to get to know people and make a good first impression.  The result was that, when my son, Sidhartha, was born in the middle of the semester, I missed just one day of class and never really took an extended period of time off to spend with him until the summer.

When we found out my wife was pregnant with our second son, J. Julio, who was due to arrive around the beginning of the fall semester, she pushed me to ask Cornell for a paternity leave in the spring.  That way, she would be able to take her leave in the fall, I would take a leave in the spring, and our son would have at least one of his parents around for most of the first year of his life.  I agreed to ask, and Stewart Schwab (our dean), approved.  I became, I believe (though I'm not 100% sure about this), the first father on our faculty to take advantage of Cornell's generous parental leave policy by taking off an entire semester from teaching.

I found the experience extremely rewarding. It was a lot of fun to spend so much time with our younger son.  I'm close to both my sons, but I think the time I spent during this past semester allowed me to bond with Julio.  On the other hand, I found the lack of the daily routine of teaching to be a little bit disorienting.  I did come in to the office several times a week, both for appointments commitee duties and for workshops, etc.  But Cornell is a place where there is an ethic of coming into the office, and I felt a little bit distanced from the school by my absence.  That was totally self-imposed -- no one did anything to make me feel that way.  But I did feel it.

I have to admit, I also felt a little bit insecure about the whole idea of paternity leave.  I think there's a lot to the notion that, in our culture, men derive a great deal of psychological satisfaction from going to work every day.  Being out and about, running errands, with or without my son, in the middle of day made me feel a little bit strange and somewhat marginal.  If I was with my son at the coffee shop in Trumansburg, for example, I was very likely to be the only man there.  Again, no one stared or made me feel uncomfortable, but, again, I have to admit that I did feel it.  I'm not particularly proud of that, but there it is.

Which leads me to my final observation.  Michael Lewis (of Moneyball fame) has a new book out, called Home Game, in which he talks about his experiences as a first time dad.  I haven't yet read the book, but I heard an interview with him about it on NPR.  In that interview, he said something that I found very interesting.  He talked about the differences between his experience of fatherhood and his dad's.  He said, jokingly, that he thinks our generation of fathers has gotten a raw deal compared to our dads' generation.  His point was that we have more of a role in the domestic sphere, along with the same (or greater) demands outside that sphere. 

He seemed to recognize that, in large part, that raw deal is really just a rebalancing of things to rectify the even rawer deal that our mom's generation of women received.  But, even so, I think he does have a point.  Men today are expected to take a greater role in child-rearing and house-keeping.  And this is all for the better.  I enjoy spending time with my kids; and I even like cooking and (less so) cleaning up.  Plus, it's great to be married to a high-achieving spouse who contributes to the family income and in whose professional accomplishments I can and do take a lot of pride. 

The problem is that this reconfiguration of the American family has not been matched, in my view, by a reconfiguration of expectations in the American workplace.  I obviously don't have a great deal of standing to raise this point, because I work in a sector of the legal industry where this is the least true (see above, where the dean gladly granted me paternity leave).  Michael Lewis may also not be in a really good position to complain.  But if I were working at a law firm, or for the government, or really in any other corner of the legal profession, my wife would have the same expectations about my participation.  I would have the same desire to be involved in my children's lives, but I would have much less of an opportunity to do it.  In fact, I'd probably have less of an opportunity than men of my father's generation, because the hours have gotten worse.  One thing to note, though, is that Lewis is probably assigning blame to the wrong phenomenon.  Men's lives are harder today because we have more demands on our time, but that is due as much to things like stagntating middle-class wages that have forced a lot of families to rely on two incomes, as it is to the changing allocation of responsibilties within the family.

This has been a rambling post, and I apologize for that, but I'd love to hear in the comments from men (and women) who have thoughts on or experiences of paternity leave, both in the legal academy and in other areas of the legal profession. Is it available in your workplace.  Do people actually take it? How was it?  And how, apart from paternity leave, have you responded to the challenge of balancing work and family in your legal career?

Posted by Eduardo Penalver on June 4, 2009 at 10:59 AM | Permalink

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Comments

Just wanted to say this was a great post, Eduardo.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 4, 2009 8:23:48 PM

Outside of the observation that primary caregiver men often encounter problems from a society that is still unused to seeing men in that role, I don't understand why this is particularly a men's issue. The statistical fact of the matter is that for a solid majority of married couples with children, both partners work. And in most marriages, even when both partners work full-time, women continue to shoulder the majority of childcare duties and other domestic time obligations. This means that women face the same problems that the new generation of fathers does, except worse. Women now have full-time jobs but don't receive 50% contribution to childcare and domestic chores. This statistical observation plays out in the debate about paternity leave. One concern I have heard raised by female faculty members about paternity leave is that because so many more of the male faculty members have stay-at-home partners (or wives who only work part-time), there is a significant concern that universal paternity leave would be for some men essentially an extra sabbatical that they would use to work on their next article, an option that would not be available to female faculty members (almost all of whom have spouses who work full-time). This concern is not merely petty jealousy. If paternity leave helps young, untenured male faculty squeeze in an extra article or two pre-tenure, it would disadvantage women by comparison.

The women's movement is and has been for many years trying to push harder for things like non-stigmatized part-time work options, paid primary caregiver parental leave, and on-site child care for precisely the reasons you note in your post--it's difficult to have a full-time job and child care obligations that can't be pushed off on someone else (e.g. a stay-at-home partner).

It's good to hear men complaining about this issue, too. Women have faced it for decades. In fact, I think the mere fact that men are now complaining about it is likely at least in part a result of the successes of the women's movement in insisting that fathers pick up at least some of the domestic obligations. Hopefully, the new challenges men face mean that more men will be in the battle that working women have been fighting now for decades.

Posted by: Anonymous | Jun 4, 2009 5:19:13 PM

Fantastic post.

I did not take paternity leave and I don't even know if it was offered (it certainly would not have been paid, so there was no point to looking into it). I agreed to teach all evening classes that semester, thinking that would leave me around and able to do a lot during the day and then overnight and that would be the best balance. Boy, was I wrong about that one.

But I want to touch on, and strongly echo, Eduardo's point about often being the only man on child-care duty during the day. He experienced it as discomfort; I experienced it as a hybrid of discomfort and annoyance.

Society has not caught up with the idea of genuinely involved and capable fathers and equal parenting. This is reflected in the absence of regular support systems and networks for dads carry (or helping to carry) the lion's share of parenting. In the annoyingly large number of people who offered (and continue to offer) unsolicited parenting advice ("button her jacket" "I think she's tired" "Are you sure you're giving her the bottle the right way"), on the assumption that, even today, a father out with a small child is a "TV Dad" comically in over his head. And I think it remains unusual enough and out-of-the-ordinary enough (owing to the sort of socio-economic and career factors Eduardo describes) that people do notice a father out with the kids--he stands out--even if they are not looking at it with any sort of disdain or dismissiveness.

Posted by: Howard Wasserman | Jun 4, 2009 4:18:34 PM

Eduardo, thanks for this great post, which raises lots of things that have also been on my mind of late. As some of you know, Wendi and I are expecting our first later this summer, and FSU does have a parental leave policy for faculty--as I understand it, you can take one paid parental leave for a semester, but only one paid parental leave per faculty member (regardless of the number of kids). If you take it, you are also committing to stay another year after the leave is taken, or you have to pay it back. http://dof.fsu.edu/parleaveqa.html

This paid leave policy is an improvement on what we had when I got here, which I think was zilch. That said, fortunately, I was able to arrange a relatively light teaching load this fall (one seminar) instead of taking the leave so I hope that will allow me to try to be as engaged as you and some other faculty dads I know (like Ethan). Wendi thought it made sense for me to probably take the leave if and when we get to kid #2, since its value in terms of time will be probably be more substantial once more kids are thrown into the mix. I think that was the right choice--I guess we'll soon find out!

Posted by: Dan Markel | Jun 4, 2009 3:03:19 PM

I took a paternity leave while in practice when my oldest daughter was born, and my sense was that it was no big deal. I wasn’t the first at my firm (one of the larger ones in Minneapolis) to do it, and I’m guessing I wasn’t the last (it was nearly nine years ago). Of course, my firm may have been an outlier – it was the sort of place where a senior partner once took over my chair in a negotiation (he literally walked into the conference room at the appointed hour and told me to leave) so that I could go on a canoe trip.

Posted by: Chad Oldfather | Jun 4, 2009 2:51:42 PM

Eduardo -

Thanks for the interesting post. I've never really had a paternity leave, so I can't speak to that directly. But my oldest son was born when I was in law school and my wife worked full time. So while I wasn't home all the time, I had primary caregiver responsibility. I cherish that year because I had time with him that I have never had with our other kids.

Just a couple of observations:

1. I think there are obvious differences between our generation and our fathers' generation in terms of how domestic responsibilities are allocated. But I'm not sure at all that fathers in the preceding generations felt like they had a better deal. I suspect that many of them felt almost as trapped in the "provider" role as women felt trapped in the domestic role. Your feeling about men getting psychological satisfaction from going in to work every day is, in part, the residue of that culture in which men were judged by how successful they were in their careers. So I imagine there were lots of dads in that generation who realized how much they were missing out on with their kids but who didn't feel like they had a choice.

2. Things are better, to some degree, in terms of mens' ability to rebalance life more towards being home. But I think you're exactly right that it's only better "to some degree." I never felt when I was working at a firm that I had much flexibility, even though I was expected (and wanted) to be more involved on a daily basis at home. That led to me feeling like I was never doing the right thing - when I was at work, I felt guilty about not being home, and when I was at home I felt like I should be billing. We're very fortunate now to be in jobs that allow much greater flexibility. Most men don't have that.

3. I think the rebalancing has been overwhelming positive, but I do think it's important to say that it's not easy at all. I don't think the expectations about work success or providing are gone (either societally or in my own head), so domestic expectations often just get added on top. The result is that I feel like I'm constantly running around from the time I get up until the time I go to bed. I'm sure there are lots of moms out there who have that same feeling about their own lives, and while it's very much worth it for me, it is clearly a cost.

Posted by: Mark McKenna | Jun 4, 2009 11:37:19 AM

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