In the latest Healthy Families e-newsletter from the BC Council for the Families, an article on parental leave caught my eye. The writer cited two studies that suggest that extended parental leave does not positively affect child development. The question, then, is why is parental leave so important?
The writer goes on to state that the second study, carried out by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) showed that lengthier parental leave is associated with lower incidences of maternal depression. Maternal depression clearly has a negative effect on family functioning and well being; therefore, the writer concludes, extended parental leave contributes to healthier families.
While this resonates with me, it also has me thinking about “new normal” families and how fathers’ roles are shifting over time. My wife and I are blessed with the opportunity to both be at home with our newborn daughter, at least for the first six months. While this has meant sacrificing some income, the benefits for me as a new dad far outweigh the costs:
– Learning curve: a valued friend pointed out that my wife and I would be on the same learning curve with our newborn. She stayed home with her first child, while her partner had to return to work right away. Consequently, her childcare skills quickly outstripped those of her partner, which was problematic and frustrating for both of them.
– Co-parenting: related to the learning curve, having both of us at home means that we can truly co-parent. We can both take ownership of our transition to parenthood, and can also spell each other off when one of us badly needs a break!
That’s not to say that our roles are completely interchangeable, breastfeeding being one example. Being at home, however, does allow me to truly understand how much work it is for my wife to nurse our daughter. It isn’t as easy as the television sitcoms might have one believe, but at least I can be here to provide as much support as possible.
– Bonding: I don’t know what it’s like for dads that have to go right back to work, but I expect that I will have created an enduring bond with my daughter before I return to my cubicle warren. My father didn’t have that luxury. He generally worked away during the summers and my mother told me that, as a baby, I had to get to know him all over again when he returned home for my first autumn.
I am sure that there are a number of other benefits of parental leave that I haven’t even thought of. I am also very conscious of the fact it is a privilege for me as a new dad to be able to stay home for a while. For me, this highlights the importance of policies that support women (given that the work of childcare is still disproportionately performed by women) as well as policies that support the family unit as a whole (e.g., so dads can continue to take on more responsibility for childrearing).