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Paternity Leave

NPR ran a story last week about paternity leave, noting that very few employers provide paid paternity leave, though more fathers desire or even expect it.  The full story is available here.

The District of Columbia has a strong policy in favor of children having relationships with both parents.  We see it in many areas of family law – most notably in the presumption of joint custody found in D.C. Code § 16-914(a)(2).  The District of Columbia also has gender-neutral custody laws, allowing equal opportunity for parents whether they are married or unmarried, male or female, same sex or different sex.  Many people talk about this concept in terms of “father’s rights” but it is really more than that – it is the idea that all people have the equal opportunity to be part of their child’s life.

But workplace policies, social stigma, and even hospital policies lag behind.  At many hospitals second parents are unable to stay with a newborn child on the child’s first night of life.  This is a completely backwards idea for parents who embrace equal roles and responsibilities.  And “Mommy Culture” is strong – from Amazon Mom to Washingtonian Mom, mommies get all the programming.  DC Urban Moms and Dads literally italicizes “and Dads” as a shout-out to the strange phenomenon of men who would scour an internet forum for tips on good charter schools or the location of the nearest spray park.  These cultural forces are strong and it takes equally strong volition to insist on equal treatment for both parents, beginning on day one.

The first weeks of a child’s life are not weeks a child remembers, but they are weeks parents remember.  The NPR story includes the following quote, which I find particularly striking:

“Fathers who take leave end up doing more of the routine work later,” Coltrane says. “They do more of the transportation, more of the cooking, more of the child care, more of the doing homework with the kids. It’s just kind of an early buy-in that helps men stay involved later.”

To say it another way, fathers who take leave will spend more time on DC Urban Moms and Dads sifting through potential nanny share options and figuring out the best way to fly with a toddler and an infant.

I spend time most months volunteering as an attorney negotiator at the District of Columbia Superior Court.  Anecdotally, one of the hardest things I see are couples where one parent (usually the mom) is the primary custodian and willing to allow the other parent (usually the dad) as much time as he wants if he would only be consistent in seeing the child.  I wonder what social messages the uninvolved parent has received that makes him see his involvement in the child’s life as so unimportant.  At what point did that parent’s role become marginalized, and at what point did he stop caring that it was marginalized?

I submit that an open invitation to spend the first night of the child’s life at the child’s side positively impacts the way a parent sees his importance in the child’s life.  I submit that spending the first weeks of the child’s life focused solely on being everything the child needs positively impacts the way a parent sees his importance in the child’s life.  In sort, seeing fathers as equal parents from day one – not just day one of a custody dispute – sets children, fathers, marriages, and families up for success.


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