Five reasons why paternity leave needs to get more attention

April 24, 2019

Photo: Simone Boneschi

I still remember the first night we came home from the hospital with our first child in 2015.  In a few days, the house transformed into a latrine, strewn with diapers, gauze, clothes and food; dirty dishes, piles of dirty laundry, out of place furniture, and above all, a general feeling of inadequacy in satisfying our new baby’s needs. I remember a day I was so tired that I flooded half the house, having fallen asleep in the bathtub with the tap open.

In a matter of minutes, our household dynamics and routines completely changed. New babies come with many demands, and the first few weeks and months of settling can be very challenging. 

This year, our second child was born. Things were simpler, as we already knew the hurricane that would follow. Reflecting on both experiences, I realize how fortunate I am to work for the UN system because each time my (working) wife and I became parents, we benefitted from the full month of paternity leave to which I am entitled.

Other friends, who have also recently become fathers, could only take four or five days of mandatory leave when their children were born. Some of my peer dads remained reluctant to take a full week off work, uncomfortable using offered paternal leave and/or to avoid being perceived as less dedicated employees. “The workplace culture, social stigma and the male breadwinner expectation still represent a mental block for men seeking to take more extended paternity leave”, I was told.

This made me reflect on why paternity leave needs to get more attention.

1. It’s still quite rare. Though men’s uptake of parental leave is rising marginally across the globe, almost two thirds of all children under twelve months around the world (approximately 90 million people) reside in countries with legislation that do not allow fathers to have a single paid day of a paternity leave. In Kyrgyzstan, the country where I currently live and work for UNDP, child care leave can be used by the father, mother or any relative or custodian taking care of a child.  However, as men are generally the main breadwinner in the family, their ability to take parental leave is limited because it is unpaid.  

2. A cultural double standard persists. Fathers are adulated for doing what they should normally do, while the mother's role is taken for granted as child care should fall mainly on them.  The praise I received from friends and parents just because I was home for my son’s birth or because I took four weeks to look after him and be with my wife made me realize that what seemed so normal to me may not yet be true for many.

3. Raising a newborn is an extraordinarily stressful experience and has the potential to create a complex, isolated and secluded environment for a new mother. Paternity leave gives fathers the opportunity to be a primary caregiver and to recognize and appreciate the unique challenges of the role – for both parents. It also takes the pressure off new mothers, who often feel like they’re facing this challenge alone.

4. Child care is clearly a responsibility of both parents. Paid leave should be framed not only as a benefit that helps working women, but also as critically important for the well-being of working families. Paid paternity gives new families the chance to bond and allows fathers to provide critical support in caregiving. Setting these standards early means they are more likely to become the norm.

5. More engaged and involved fathers benefit women’s empowerment. Dedicated fathers taking leave support women to boost their own careers. Seeing fathers are caregivers reduces gender discrimination in the labor force, including the pay gap (paternity leave decreases wage loss for women).

All of these are reasons that we at UNDP in the Kyrgyz Republic are reinforcing gender equality principles in our work. This includes encouraging our men staff members to apply for paternity leave and share the responsibilities of childcare.

Paternal leave promotes gender equity in both the working and private sphere. Increasing its duration to maternity leave standards could be a very innovative strategy to break down longstanding cultural norms about gender, work and household responsibilities; and could ultimately contribute to the achievement of SDG5

Editor's Note: If you found this story interesting, also check out: Kosovo can no longer afford to leave women behind