Ari Joseph answers the door of his Brooklyn apartment with 7-week-old Selma strapped into a nursery-gray Boba baby carrier. All that's visible of the infant is a shock of black hair against her father’s chest, where curls the same color tuft out of his v-neck tee.
It almost feels like being pregnant, he says, wearing a baby like that; he can’t bend down and can only reach things at a certain radius. He fans his arms around like he's doing calisthenics to demonstrate. While his wife, Emily, grabs a little sleep, he tidies up the fuselage of new parenthood and makes breakfast. (“Burnt toast,” he says. “Perfect.”)
Joseph, 34, changes Selma with precision and care, but she pees on the changing table without a backup diaper underneath — rookie mistake. He stutters something like this never happens, appearing self-conscious the way so many mothers reflexively judge themselves as not good enough. The difference is he’s bumping up against the bumbling-dad stereotype that’s foisted upon anyone who parents while male these days. But by 10 a.m., he’ll be off to work as an art director, and until then, his tiny daughter is fed, clothed, and quietly sleeping in his arms; his partner is getting well deserved rest before one of those nonstop-but-standstill days of maternity leave from her job as a director of programming at a non-profit. He’s doing his part.
“There's definitely an identity shift, but when you don't have that time to let it sink in, it is kind of more fungible than it is for Emily, because she's with the baby all the time,” Joseph says. “For me, it happens in five-minute increments, and then I start to think about how I’m going home at the end of the day, and it's like, Oh, Selma’s there, awesome — and that's kind of a bittersweet feeling.”
They say a woman becomes a mother the minute she finds out she's pregnant, and that a man becomes a father when he holds his baby for the first time. Cast another way, that means women have about 10 months to shapeshift into parents and a paltry few weeks’ maternity leave to get used to it (if they’re lucky); dads dive in blind on day one, fitting their metamorphoses into evenings, weekends and, like Joseph, mornings before work.
Let it be known this is not an homage to the male struggle — study after study finds an unfair division of household labor between male and female partners. But this imbalance is as much owed to male reticence to take on the added burden as it is female resignation to keeping it. Dip a toe into the manifold channels of Mom Facebook and you’ll see thread upon thread complaining about hapless husbands doing it wrong, which slam right up against memes of men being treated like goddamn royalty for so much as pushing a stroller in public. But that’s by design: Men in straight couples are set up as secondary parents from the start, thanks in part to a gendered imbalance in paid parental leave.
The moment when men are supposed to be learning how to parent, they are instead sent back to work to provide.
In a sweeping survey released Thursday, PL+US, a non-profit pushing for paid leave reform, found that among the 44 largest companies in the United States, 17 offered dads no paid leave whatsoever — including CVS and Kroger, one of the world’s largest grocery chains. Seven companies offered significantly less paid leave to fathers and adoptive parents than to birth mothers, Apple and Walt Disney among them. And only 10 — less than one quarter — offer paid parental leave equally to men (and all adoptive parents) and women who give birth.
The report asserts that such disparate leave policies can amount to sex discrimination, and announces a case filed against JP Morgan Chase by the Women's Rights Project, on behalf of a father in Ohio who claims he was denied caretaking leave made available to women. Fights like this may finally be harbingers of change.
CNN reported last year that there had been an uptick in companies offering paid parental leave for fathers, but still less than 20% of employers in the country did, according to 2015 stats from the Society for Human Resource Management. The rarity of that benefit sends the message that most guys don’t take time off to care for their kids.
“Some may feel that taking leave is not a manly thing to do. Others no doubt have both eyes open, and see that they’re going to be penalized for doing that,” says Joan C. Williams, a legal scholar at the Center for WorkLife Law and a prolific writer on the subject of feminist policies.
This week, Johnson & Johnson released a survey of its 40,000 U.S. employees which found that while 84% felt supported by their coworkers to take all the parental leave offered, only 50% of men had opted to do so. The most glaringly obvious reason for a father to not take parental leave, Williams points out, is that none is offered, which is the case for a full 86% of American workers.
This creates the perception that “dads are the spare part,” says Ellen Bravo co-director of Family Values @ Work. Rhetoric like that is only encouraged by policies that consider caregiving to be women’s work. Dads double down at work, and moms then become President of Parenting Forever, just by virtue of having to do the most, first, when they have leave. This feedback loop was cutsily called “maternal gatekeeping” in a 2015 study of the division of household labor.
Casting mothers as caregivers hellbent on keeping dads on the bench is a persistent parenting narrative — and it's not good for anyone. Andrew Bentley is an entrepreneur in D.C. who was so inspired by new parenthood he walked away from a plum job at Google shortly after his son was born in 2015. But he was taken aback by how unwelcoming the world was to new dads.
“I took a birthing class, I read Happiest Baby, but the majority of things — whether it was clothing or gear or research or classes — the vast majority focused on the mother,” he says. “It made me feel like my emotions, my love, my anxiety weren’t valid, like I was a second-class parent. It’s assumed that the mother is the one that is going to be the primary caretaker and needs the most information and support. What that does is forces dad into a particular current and gender role. I think a lot of dads probably feel resigned to that.”
Not him. “I think it’s a magical thing, the relationship between fathers, grandfathers, and their children, and I wanted to re-create that. But I had a job that was extremely demanding and took me away from a lifestyle that would make me an active parent.”
And so, he left and started his own company, Father Figure, which offers apparel tailored to the new dad (like a button-up shirt with a super soft panel in the crook of the elbow, exactly where dads cuddle their babies; and burp cloths in Americana-workwear prints).
Opting out of your career to dive headlong into parenting (and parenting gear) is extreme. Others simply take notice of what leave possibilities are out there. Nick Murphy, CEO of Mid America Careers, a network connecting businesses and prospective employees throughout the Midwest, says the younger workforce isn’t exactly cherry-picking jobs based on their plans for parenthood — but they’ve got eyes on leave options, anyway.
“Millennial job-seekers in particular are using it as a benchmark to gauge company culture: Companies that are offering paid paternity leave, or reducing or eliminating the restriction of being female to take advantage of leave, are the ones that are more flexible with remote work, with flexible scheduling, and some of the other things millennials are attracted to in the market,” he says.
It’s no coincidence, he says, that the companies everyone wants to work for are the same ones offering lush leave. And that’s why outfits like Facebook, Netflix, and Etsy are revolutionizing their offerings for a jobseeker who acts like a very discerning consumer. The PL+US survey adds Ikea, Target, and Levi’s among the few offering equal leave to all new parents. (Murphy, who is an ex-NFL player and a father of five doesn’t remember being offered, nor taking, any time when his kids came along.)
Often, the leave conversation happens when the necessity is born. Ari Joseph in Brooklyn, for example, negotiated for two weeks’ paid time off followed by three weeks of working part-time (also paid in full). He was the first to broach the subject at his job. “The thing that's tough, in retrospect, is we’re going into negotiating blind, asking for what you think you’ll want. Then she's born, and you're like, wait I don't want to do anything else in my life, I just want to hold the baby. We’re all operating with incomplete information,” he says.
One has to know what to ask — and since leave has long been a bargaining chip for women, many of them do. “Savvy young women now want to work at companies that have PA-ternity leave, and that support men as fathers, because they understand that truly makes sure that they, as women, have equal opportunities in the workplace,” says Josh Levs, author of All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — And How We Can Fix It Together.
When his third child was born in 2013, Levs filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charge against his employer, CNN, for parental leave rights (which it did end up offering, though too late for him). The Atlanta-based writer and consultant points to Mark Zuckerberg as a role model who fell slightly short, because he took two of the four months his company offered for parental leave.
“I remember seeing a director back at Google the day after his child was born,” Bentley says. “That sends a message to the entire team that that is how you’re supposed to operate, that that’s how men are supposed to act. To me, that was absurd, and I was just baffled by it.” As a result, he said, his male coworkers would take a week or two of leave, even though they saw parents who took the full benefit come back healthier, happier, and more loyal to the company. (Johnson & Johnson affirmed this in its 2016 study, too.)
Bentley felt lucky to be established at one of the country’s most progressive workplaces in terms of leave benefits — Google offered 12 weeks to parents regardless of gender. And he had an understanding manager, a mom herself, who supported changing his workload to minimize travel. But still, other expectations were being set by those bigwigs who didn’t want to publicly appear parental.
“You can have whatever you want on paper but if nobody takes it and the culture is 24/7, it doesn’t matter what the written policy is,” Bravo says of the silent — and sometimes explicit — pressure for men to leave their benefits on the table.
Following the boss’ lead is one, and Levs points to the sometimes-solitary responsibility of considering the family’s needs as another biggie. “The wage gap is real, and men are usually making more money. Especially after you have a child, you become concerned about money in a way that you weren’t before. The last thing you would want to do is anything that would jeopardize your employment status at that time. It can be paralyzing.” And that paralysis spreads — to women, who are stuck on the lower rungs of the corporate ladder.
“You can not fix the problem of not enough women in leadership positions without also making sure that men have equal opportunity to be caregivers,” he says. (The World Economic Forum found in 2015 that countries offering paid leave to men have fared better than others in closing the gender pay gap. Imagine that.)
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Fatherhood Is Like A Drug
When men do have leave, and feel empowered to take it, it is transformative. “I will never forget the moment my wife left for work,” says Bentley. “We lived above the F train [in Brooklyn], but our apartment was so quiet. My son had colic; we had to bounce him on an exercise ball like eight hours a day or he wouldn’t sleep. It was physically very tough. I feel like that was the most important moment of my life; it forced me to learn to take care of my son. I gained so much confidence that put me on the path of helping him develop, and in that, I found something I truly loved.” And what changed for him? Everything, he says, no beat missed.
“Being a dad is central to who I am now. Everything in my life reverberates from the fact that I am a father and now I have this strong bond to this child. I haven’t done hard drugs but I imagine it’s what some form of drugs are like; it’s such a raw experience.”
Darious Bland, 29, a single dad in Huntsville, AL, had no paid time off work when his daughter was born 10 years ago. He and his then-girlfriend had just graduated high school, and he worked retail. When he called the store on a Thursday to say his baby was being born, they took him off the schedule for a couple days. He was back on by Sunday — he remembers, because it was Father’s Day.
Over the years he’s been DeAsia’s primary parent, buying diapers and food, getting her to doctor’s appointments, and making time to have birthday tea parties at her school (on his birthday, because hers is in June and he didn’t want her to miss out), and, to much internet fanfare, styling her hair.
“Society seems to still be amazed by the man who wants to be an active dad,” says Justin Lioi, a therapist in Park Slope, Brooklyn, who sees a lot of men negotiating new parenthood. “People will say, oh it’s Mr. Mom, but they’re doing what they can and should be doing, as opposed to doing something heroic by taking on what is a female role.”
Bland says he’s gotten comments like that since he started changing diapers in his daughter’s first days — and they hurt. “To make me feel like it’s not my primary job or I’m just playing daddy daycare? It’s like, no, this is daddy taking care of his kids.” And it doesn’t have to be that special.
“If somebody else can do it, you can do it, too,” he says, a suggestion for guys, in general, to not shy away from the role he finds motivating, enriching, and what he is called to fulfill. For men who can hardly relate to Bland’s experience, that “somebody else” may be a woman. Maybe it’s their wife.
Starting to change the well-worn parenting stereotypes doesn’t just come down to having the right policies on the books. The Family Medical Leave act was passed in 1993, and since then men have been legally entitled to the same parental leave as women (those laughable unpaid six weeks, for certain types of workers). They just haven’t done it, and women have, says Joan C. Williams. But change is afoot among a small but motivated group of fathers, like Joseph, who she says are really stepping up to ask for what they believe will be best for them, for their families, and — as Levs explains at length in his book — great for American companies and our economy, too.
“This isn’t a matter of new policies or new legal rights, it’s a shift in men’s understanding of what it means to be a good father. That’s what’s driving the change,” Williams says.
The bulk of Lioi’s new-parent patients are men at the top end of the millennial generation, who’ve attained some measure of professional success. “I would say they are the ones who are struggling the most with wanting to do something different, not quite knowing how to do it, and trying to balance their understanding of masculinity with a female partner, and her understanding of how she wants to be a mom.” They’re asking, he says, “How do we co-create this new thing?”
For Josh Levs it meant filing his employer with the EEOC to move the needle for fathers who’d come after him. For Andrew Bentley it meant quitting his pie-in-the-sky job to strike out on his own. For Darious Bland it meant working his way through school to finally get a salaried job that affords him paid days off. And for Ari Joseph, a newbie just approaching his two-month mark? It means swallowing that bitter pill called hindsight: He should’ve asked for more.
The question now is why is it up to anyone to ask for this time, well-proven to be necessary for babies; and beneficial for parents, couples, the companies that employ them and the countries in which they live?
If there were a national benefit paid for by the federal government, something Senator Kirsten Gillibrand is fighting for with her newly reinvigorated FAMILY Act, time off would be available to anyone caring for kids, for ailing relatives, or dealing with a medical issue of their own for that matter. That would change the messaging to be loud and clear: Providing care is of value. So are our families.
Until then? Men just have to do what women have been doing for decades: Ask for what you need until you get it. Take the dings when they come, then keep working, harder, and doing more. Because you have to. Because you’re a parent.
Welcome to Mothership: Parenting stories you actually want to read, whether you're thinking about or passing on kids, from egg-freezing to taking home baby and beyond. Because parenthood is a big if — not when — and it's time we talked about it that way.