Aug 18, 2017

We havin’ a baby

I found out in April that my wife was pregnant. Aside from the obvious emotions–happiness, excitement, trepidation about the difficulty of becoming a father–one feeling that gradually sank in was fear. Not just fear of parenthood, fear of career ramifications and setbacks as a result of my desire to be a “present” father.

We’re now just three months away from the due date, and while I still feel most of the things mentioned above, one thing I’ve stopped worrying about is what will happen if I take time off work.

Paternity leave in Canada

Men in Canada simply don’t take a lot of time off when they become fathers. As several recent articles have very eloquently illustrated, the same pressures that exist for women (be a good mother, but at the same time be a career-oriented go-getter) exist for men, though somewhat reversed. While women’s so-called “traditional” role was to be homemakers, mothers, and caretakers, men’s lot was typically to be breadwinners, money-makers, job-havers.

According to the 2010 Survey of Young Canadians, only about 26% of Canadian children outside of Québec have fathers who take paid leave, and of that 26%, almost 90% take two weeks or less. In Québec, fathers receive a government-mandated 5 weeks of non-transferrable parental leave, in addition to be able to split roughly 35 weeks with mothers (who themselves receive 17 non-transferrable weeks). Nowhere else in Canada does such a provision exist, an easy explanation for the difference in numbers.

The survey above by Statistics Canada has one blind spot mentioned in their methodology. They do not ask about employer top-ups, which anyone with an IQ greater than that of a ham sandwich could tell you makes an enormous difference. My own employer offers a top-up for women for the first 16 weeks post-partum, but nothing for men. On one hand it’s understandable in that women are the ones physically giving birth, but apart from the convalenscence argument, it’s just as financially difficult (or more so) for men to take time off from work. EI doesn’t pay much, and the hit in take-home earnings is a huge disincentive for both parents to stay home.

Fathers only received the right to share in parental leave benefits in 1990, roughly 20 years after mothers were initially permitted to use unemployment benefits for maternity leave. The initial “splittable” offering was a paltry 10 weeks, which expanded to 35 in 2000. More recently, the length of time allowed for parental leave has increased to 18 months, but the amount of money provided during that time has not increased one whit; you can either take one year total at ca. 55% of average earnings (up to a maximum of around $5-600 a week) or you can take 18 months of ca. 33% earnings.

Even with 35 weeks of splittable parental leave, however, most men don’t take it. The reasons likely include things like financial repercussions (men remain the more highly paid gender overall), social stigma (being seen as weak or un-committed to your job if you take significant time off), or others.

Personally, these no longer factor into the equation for me.

Why do it?

To be there to get to know my kid. To share the responsibilities of child-rearing with my wife and partner. To get to see all the weird shit kids do at that age (literal and figurative). Because it’s a challenge and I like the idea of getting good at something as important as being a good father.

Unless you hate children, I see no reason not to take parental leave. And if you hate children, then what the hell are you doing getting someone pregnant?

If the values of good parenthood, responsibility, and simply presence are valuable to me, I don’t think it’s possible to really “balance” being excellent at my job and being excellent at being a father. There simply aren’t enough hours in the day. So at least for the first few months, I’m planning to put the job aside and take the crash course in how to become a good father.

This, one would think, presents issues.

What I’ve seen and heard

I work at a pharmaceutical company. One that, more than many others, espouses a “work lean” philosphy, which basically means that on top of your advertised job responsibilities (which can include odd hours and overtime quite routinely), you’re encouraged to take on smaller tasks that keep things running, that improve the company and the culture, and that make you and the company look good. This means the workload can get extremely intense, and that it rarely dips below heavy.

Possibly as a result, I know of only three men who have taken, or are planning to take paternity leave. And I’m one of them.

It’s been suggested that men are more likely to take paternity leave if a colleague or relative does. Based on what I see at my own employer, I find this easy to believe. Recently-minted fathers that I can think of took almost no time off, in some cases absolutely none. These represent the norm.

However, this contrasts sharply with the advice and anecdotes I’ve received when talking to managers and senior managers about this.

From the beginning I was open about my desire to take time off. I had a lot of uncertainty going into meetings with my manager and my departmental manager about this. As it turns out any fear I felt was misplaced.

From my manager, I was told on no uncertain terms that if I didn’t take the time off, I would regret it for the rest of my life. My own feelings on the issue were candidly tossed right back at me by someone who I respect, speaking from experience.

When I spoke to my departmental manager, they chose a different tack. When they began working at the company back in the mid-1990s, paternity leave didn’t exist, and mothers got a measly six months of time off. The unfairness of this clearly rankled. I was told that since I have the right to take the leave I should–and that my wife and I should use the maximum amount possible due to the incredible stress of becoming a new parent, and the need for recovery time after the birth. One part of me viewed this as the type of self-evident advice that it was, and another more cynical part was dumbfounded at the candor and forthrightness of my superiors.

I think of the men who don’t, or can’t, take paternity leave. I feel bad for them. I don’t know their journey but I can’t square their choice with my own philosophy.

I look at the other two men I know who took, or will take paternity leave, and their job performance. They’re totally fine, or better than fine. If I can be another example of that, it will make me more than happy, and maybe encourage other men to do the same.

I listen to the advice of people who could not or did not take paternity leave, and hear an emphatic message that I should avoid their mistakes if possible.

Everything I see and hear is telling me to take paternity leave.

So I will.