How Paid Paternal Leave Could Help Dads, Moms, and Kids Thrive

Could paid paternal leave for new fathers enhance whole family health?

Last week in the New York Times, family researchers Dr. Darby Saxbe and Sofia Cardenas argued just that. The pair pointed to a recent study of theirs that backed up this argument with research. In particular, Cardenas, Saxbe, and their colleagues found important links to better protection of parent mental health. Both fathers and mothers in the study reported less stress, fatigue, and depressive symptoms when the dads took paid paternal leave (as opposed to unpaid leave or no leave at all).

Historically, patriarchical cultures like ours have demanded mothers rear the children in a family while also tending to the vast majority of household duties. Many women consequently suffered (and still may suffer) immense stress from social pressures and expectations — not to mention the physical and emotional weight of the actual domestic labor necessary for caregiving. In order to improve maternal health, mothers and family advocates push against these norms. This movement has helped make advances (albeit slowly) in national family leave and childcare policies.

Yet, as Saxbe and Cardenas point out, the solution is not only how we treat women. Men and people of nonbinary genders also deserve better than this and deserve to experience the full joy (and struggle) of nurturing young children. We know, thanks to decades of research, that families benefit from involved fathers.

In short, when dads invest emotionally and materially in their children, both child and parent fare better in long-term measures of well-being.

Men’s Health Must Address Paternal Mental Health

At the Institute of Family & Community Impact, our Father’s Feelings Project research team currently is studying fathers during the perinatal period — that is, the time before a baby is born until they are about 1 year old. What we know from dads is that they need support during this time. Paternal depression is real, and the stressors can quickly compound for working parents.

Interestingly, one of the strongest predictors that we know of for paternal depression is maternal depression co-occurring in the father’s childbearing partner. Likewise, we know that parents who suffer from depression and similar mental health issues need extra support for their families. “It takes a village to raise a child” refers not just to our personal networks but how we care for each other and each other’s children as a society.

If policies such as paid paternal leave can help new fathers better manage their mental health, the evidence appears to point exponential benefits for families.

Paid Paternal Leave Can Help Dads Stay Involved — and Stay Healthy

It stands to reason, therefore, that everyone would gain from giving dads more time to care for their children. Especially during the perinatal period when child brain development is so important. The more time that dads can spend with their babies, the better.

But why do involved fathers matter so much? Sometimes in our culture we get wrapped up in gender differences and roles. As long as the kid is with a parent, isn’t that all that matters?

Yes, and whom a child’s parents are matters, too. “Father” is a caregiver identity, and children of course need care from their caregivers. So we need to give fathers the freedom to care for their children, their babies, and their homes. Paid paternal leave can help that happen.

By extension, paid leave also can improve family health. Involved fathers have better long-term outcomes, as do their children. If fathers spend more time and effort as caregivers, then they and their children will prosper. As a bonus, it also reduces the burden on mothers, helping to reduce their stress.

So what needs to happen?

Make Paid Family Leave Happen, Including Paid Parental Leave

We ourselves, as a society, are the only barrier standing in the way of improved family health and relationships. If we hold our lawmakers and policymakers accountable — as Cardenas and Saxbe suggest — then we can effect real change. Research such as theirs gives us the scientific data to support the path forward. It’s helpful to know exactly how paid paternal leave could benefit health. And certainly, we need research and science to back up our policies, especially when they impact families.

But I suspect that if you asked parents, they’d have told you the same long ago.

Read More

Saxbe, D., & Cardenas, S. (2021, November 8). What paternity leave does for a father’s brain. The New York Times.

Cardenas, S. I., Corbisiero, M. F., Morris, A. R., & Saxbe, D. E. (2021). Associations between paid paternity leave and parental mental health across the transition to parenthood: Evidence from a repeated-measure study of first-time parents in California. Jounral of Child and Family Studies.

Goodman, J. H. (2004). Paternal postpartum depression, its relationship to maternal postpartum depression, and implications for family health. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 45(1), 26-35.

Institute for Research on Poverty. (2020). Involved fathers play an important role in children’s lives [Research brief]. Institute for Research on Poverty, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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