How Taking Paternity Leave Can Strengthen Your Marriage

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Photo: Jessica Peterson/Getty Images

Just over two weeks ago, a law went into effect in Massachusetts that got little national press but will have potentially significant consequences for families: Businesses must now extend fathers eight weeks of unpaid paternity leave. Yes, the Family Medical Leave Act already does as much (it allows up to 12, in fact), but only if the father’s organization has 50 employees or more; with this new law, Massachusetts dads who work for companies with as few as six employees will be guaranteed eight weeks at home with their newborns.

Whenever this species of legislation is proposed at a national level, conservatives line up to oppose it, insisting it would penalize small businesses. There is, however, a conservative case to be made in favor of generous paternity-leave policies, and I’d like to make it now: They strengthen marriages.

Ask any social scientist in any university marriage lab, and he or she will tell you that the household division of labor remains one of the sorest points of contention between mothers and fathers. American women may have come a long way in terms of labor participation rates — four in ten are now the primary if not sole breadwinners, according to Pew — but we are still, to this day, contending with what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild called “the stalled revolution” at home, assuming a disproportionate share of the domestic chores and responsibilities; today, mothers still do roughly twice as much housework and caring for their children as dads. (Hochschild, by the way, coined the term “stalled revolution” way back in 1989. At this point, one could say it’s not so much stalled as paralyzed.)

Now, it is true that fathers still do more paid work than mothers. Add up the ledgers at the end of the week, and they’re basically even between the sexes, once compensated and uncompensated labor are taken into consideration. The problem with this analysis is that (a) those ledgers only even out once the kids are 6 and older (mothers with young children still work five extra hours a week, many of them in the wee hours of the morning — I needn’t recite the literature of sleep deprivation here to explain why this is a mental-health disaster waiting to happen) and (b) women’s time at home is different from men’s: They multitask more, they do more deadline-sensitive work, they devote more of their energies to disciplining their children, which is exactly no one’s idea of a good time.

Which brings me to what, precisely, is so marvelous about a policy that actively encourages fathers to take paternity leave. A variety of researchers have looked at this question, and what they’ve almost uniformly discovered is that fathers who take paternity leave are far more likely to assume more household responsibilities further down the road, thereby helping to diminish the possibility of future marital strife. Earlier this year, for example, the economist Ankita Patnaik examined the effects of Quebec’s parental insurance plan for fathers. Her findings? Dads who took advantage of it devoted 23 percent more of their time to household chores — even one to three years after their leave ended. Meanwhile, the researchers Lenna Nepomnyaschy and Jane Waldfogel (of Rutgers and Columbia, respectively) found that American dads who take two or more weeks of paternity leave were more likely to be feeding, dressing, bathing, and — most likely of all — diapering their kids nine months after their leave had ended. In Denmark, where parental-leave policies are among the most generous on the planet, men do nearly the same volume of child care and housework as women, according to Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed. “Now that more men are taking leave,” one Danish father tells her, “they … understand why their wives are tired.”

Yet today in the United States, men take precious little paternity leave. According to the Department of Labor, 70 percent of the new fathers who make use of the Family Medical Leave take just ten days or less. (Meaning that if dad takes his leave on the day his baby is born, odds are he’ll be returning to work before his child can smile, coo, or tilt his or her head).

Ten days clearly isn’t a lot of time. But one senses that fathers pine for more of it. Indeed, most studies suggest that fathers experience as much work-life conflict as mothers, if not more. One of the reasons, I suspect, is that they feel reluctant to ask for time away from the office — whether it’s to spend time with a newborn or to duck out for a ballet recital — because it simply isn’t custom.

But paternity leave has proven nothing if not contagious. Once Quebec instituted its program, Patnaik’s research shows, the number of fathers taking paternity leave increased by 250 percent. In Norway, if a fellow exercises his right to paid paternity leave, it increases the odds of one of his co-workers taking it by 11 percent. In California, one of just a handful of states to offer paid leave to new fathers, the number of dads who opted in jumped from 18.7 percent in 2005 and 2006 to 31.3 percent in 2012 and 2013, according to the New America Foundation’s Liza Mundy.

The redoubtable historian Stephanie Coontz is fond of noting that dads who do more housework also have more sex. As much as I’d love to believe this delectable factoid — and Coontz’s scholarship is as throughgoing as it comes — we’ve also seen studies drawing the opposite conclusion. But one thing is clear: The more involved fathers are at the outset, the more involved they are later on. If all of us, as parents, believe we should lay the foundation early for our children’s good habits, why shouldn’t we do the same in our marriages?

How Paternity Leave Strengthens Marriages