Have you ever met someone who was glad they had pneumonia? I have. And no, this was not someone who wanted to be sick.
It was a father, telling me about a time after his baby was born. His work gave him no paternity leave. But because he was sick, he could stay home. He couldn’t get close to his baby for fear of spreading the illness, but at least he could be in the house, where he knew his wife and newborn were safe and well.
His story, sadly, reflects a reality that families across the country have long faced. Men want to have more time at home with their children, but can’t. In a survey from Promundo and Dove Men+Care (which I partner with on research about dads), 85 percent of men across seven countries said they would “do anything” to be more involved at home after having a child. But they can’t lose their jobs.
The Family and Medical Leave Act offers some workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. But it does not apply to about 40 percent of the workforce, and most Americans can’t afford 12 weeks unpaid. Only about 30 percent of organizations offer paid paternity leave, according to the latest figures from the Society for Human Resources Management, which is an increase from previous years.
And as I explored in my book All In (cited in Scientific American in an essay by Daniel Barron), men have been fired, demoted or lost job opportunities for taking paternity leave or seeking a flexible schedule, because of stigmas against men as caregivers. So even when paid paternity leave is available, men often feel they can’t take it. Some fathers have told me their bosses even specifically told them not to.
Now COVID-19 has left millions of people working from home. And while there are only preliminary data on how parents may be dividing tasks at home during the pandemic, there’s no question that children are having more time at home with their parents. And with Father’s Day coming up, it’s worth looking at the myriad proven benefits to children of having more “dad time.”
The benefits can start at birth. A Swedish study found that skin-to-skin contact with their fathers had a positive effect on babies’ crying and prefeeding behavior.
Numerous studies highlight the benefits of children having involved fathers throughout childhood. Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine found that “children who have fathers in their lives learn better, have higher self-esteem and show fewer signs of depression,” and that “children who perceive their fathers as supportive feel a greater sense of social acceptance and show fewer signs of depression.”
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has reported that “Children with involved, caring fathers have better educational outcomes. A number of studies suggest that fathers who are involved, nurturing, and playful with their infants have children with higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and cognitive capacities. Toddlers with involved fathers go on to start school with higher levels of academic readiness. They are more patient and can handle the stresses and frustrations associated with schooling more readily than children with less involved fathers.”
The benefits to children reach well into adolescence. In my time at CNN, I reported on a Pennsylvania State University Study that looked at teens. The more time they spent alone with their fathers, the higher their self-esteem was. And the more time they spent with their fathers in a group setting, the better their social skills.
Paul Raeburn, author of Do Fathers Matter? What Science Is Telling Us about the Parent We've Overlooked, reported that having fathers present makes it less likely their daughters will become pregnant during teenage years. (Full disclosure: Raeburn interviewed and wrote about me for NBC’s Today.) Praising her father in Scientific American, Ingrid Wickelgren wrote that “research strongly suggests that girls who grow up with dads like mine are less likely to enter puberty early, to have sex early and to get pregnant early.”
Of course, having time with dad is not a prerequisite for a happy, healthy, successful life. People raised in other arrangements can of course thrive just as well, and people with abusive fathers fall into an entirely different category. But for kids who have loving fathers, knowing that they’re involved and caring can make a huge, positive difference.
To make sure kids get more time with their fathers well into the future, we need to end the stigmas against men as caregivers. This requires normalizing images of men engaged in caregiving—a big reason I support the #DadsCare campaign. We also need to make paternity leave standard, so women are not automatically made the default caregivers—a major reason I support the Pledge for Paternity Leave (both are part of my partnership with Dove Men+Care). And we need to make sure the real role of men as equal caregivers at home is recognized— which is why I fight to end myths about dads (one of which, about Black fathers specifically, has had a bit of a resurgence during the ongoing protests).
This Father’s Day, among all the awful, difficult developments facing us, here’s something to celebrate. Millions of kids are having more time with dad. And that, in many ways, is a very good thing.