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A Comprehensive Guide for Men to Understand Paternity Leave 

Updated: May 9

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A Comprehensive Guide for Men to Understand Paternity Leave

Couples who plan to have children face skyrocketing childcare costs. In some areas, families can expect to pay upwards of $20,000 annually per child, and that’s just the beginning of the high cost of kids in the modern world. 

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

The Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) grants certain categories of women and men up to twelve weeks of unpaid job-protected leave for the following reasons: 

  • the birth and care of a newborn child

  • the placement of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care

  • to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition

  • the employee’s serious illness or injury. 

Family leave policies include wage replacement in much of the world, but not the United States. Nearly ninety countries provide men with paid leave through paternity or parental leave.

State Paid Family Leave Laws Across the U.S.

Thirteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted mandatory paid family leave systems, and eight states have voluntary systems that provide paid family leave through private insurance. 

Family Planning in the United States

Paid leave is a significant benefit for couples planning to have children in the United States. Until recently, many married couples with an expecting mother were faced with three choices following the birth of a child:

  1. Both spouses continue to pursue their professional ambitions and pay for full-time child care after the mother (birthing parent in same-sex couples) returns from FMLA leave.

  2. The mother (birthing parent in same-sex couples) takes FMLA and then changes course professionally to become the lead caregiver.

  3. After the mother returns to work, the father changes course professionally to become the lead caregiver. 

Paid paternity is increasingly provided as an option, adding more choices for families, including fathers prioritizing caregiving over their professional ambitions.

Paternity Leave for Fathers

Despite the lack of access and cultural barriers to paid paternity leave in the United States, as much as 88% of American fathers take some time off after the birth of a child, and less than half of them take paid leave.

Paid paternity leave is now offered by 32% of employers, and men are increasingly taking advantage of it. According to the SHRM Foundation

"In California alone, men filed 44 percent of bonding claims in 2022, which was up from 31 percent a decade prior, according to the state's Employment Development Department.”

Paternity Leave vs Parental Leave

Paternity leave is leave provided to fathers who need time off of work to care for a newborn or recently adopted or fostered child. Parental leave under the FMLA includes paternity leave, but some organizations offer additional leave options, such as paid parental leave, including paternity leave.

Paternity Leave vs Maternity Leave

Maternity leave is granted to mothers around the time of childbirth or adoption; paternity leave is reserved for fathers around the same time. After maternity and paternity leave ends, parental leave provides gender-neutral leave for parents to care for small children.

Paternity Leave vs. Vacation Time

Still, many new fathers are not awarded paid or unpaid paternity leave, which is why those men are forced to use vacation time. According to the Census Bureau, 35.1% of men (and 9.9% of women) used paid vacation leave to cover their time off. 

Men Taking Leave

You can see below the rapidly growing number of men using leave following the birth of their first child. 

A Comprehensive Guide for Men to Understand Paternity Leave

The Relationship Between Paternity Leave and Fatherhood

According to an abundance of research

  • “Spending time with a child increases the likelihood that a father will know how to meet his child’s needs, enabling fathers to become sensitive and responsive parents.”

  • “Fathers who are attached to children early in life are also more likely to have closer relationships with their child later in life.”

Paul Sullivan founded The Company of Dads, the first platform dedicated to creating a community for Lead Dads. Its mission is to help Lead Dads feel less isolated and more confident that they have made the correct choice to take on the bulk of the parenting and family duties - or at the very least not embrace stereotypes around who does what at home.

"Parental leave for fathers is ground zero to changing how companies look at caregiving," Sullivan said. "It's not whether companies offer decent or even equal leave. It's how managers discuss that leave. Too many still joke that men don't need parental leave because they didn't take any time off when their own children were born. That's like saying because they had to lug home briefcases stuffed with paper we need to do the same even though all of that and more is on our smartphones." 

Sullivan added: "Without well-supported parental leave for fathers, working mothers are going to continue to be disadvantaged in the workplace. Parenting will persist in being seen as a responsibility that is the perseverance of women. It's like that's why the head-exploding emoji was created!"



Why Some Women Need Men to Take Paternity Leave

An American mother's income drops, on average, by 40% after the birth of a child. According to the Urban Institute, the lifetime costs of caregiving average $420,000 for college-educated mothers and $202,000 for mothers who completed high school but did not attend college. 

Strong evidence shows paternity leave buffers the financial implications for women and households relying upon a mother's income.

  • In Sweden, a woman’s earnings increased by nearly 7% for each month of parental leave taken by her partner.

  • The mothers’ probability of reemployment following childbirth increased by 11% after Spain enacted thirteen days of paternity leave.

Providing adequate leave to both parents can increase gender equality at home and at work—particularly if men are incentivized to take it. For example, after Iceland introduced three months of leave reserved for each parent, the share of couples saying that infant care was equally shared during the first month more than tripled.

Paige Turner is a working mother of four who uses her platform on TikTok and Instagram to share her thoughts on the mental load, parenting, and her career. Her goal is to raise awareness about the mental load of motherhood and advocate for equitable relationships for couples. 

I asked Turner why she thought it was for men to take paternity leave to help women. 

"As a mother of four, I've witnessed firsthand the transformative impact of paternity leave on families. It's not just about fathers bonding with their children; it's about fostering a more equitable balance in both the home and the workforce. 

Turner added, “When men actively participate in caregiving responsibilities through paternity leave, it not only eases the burden on mothers but also helps to mitigate the motherhood penalty in the workplace. By sharing childcare duties more equally, women are afforded greater opportunities to pursue their careers without being unfairly penalized for their roles as mothers.”

Turner continued, “Ultimately, embracing paternity leave isn't just about nurturing stronger familial bonds—it's about empowering both men and women to thrive in their professional and personal lives, creating a more inclusive and supportive society for all."


Related: Reference our household chores articles for ideas to manage the home as a team.


Why Some Men Do Not Use Paternity Leave

Paid paternity leave can be a priceless benefit for parents, enabling them to bring children closer to their fathers and enabling women to continue advancing in their careers. However, deeply rooted societal norms can rationalize what seems irrational. Take, for instance, the following data-backed fears that men face, particularly if by taking paternity leave they are putting their careers at risk. 

When men are not the financial providers

According to a PEW survey

  • 71% of women say it is very important for a man to be able to support a family financially to be a good husband or partner. 

  • By comparison, 25% of men say it's very important for a woman to do the same to be a good wife or partner.

According to the Institute for Family Studies

  • In marriages where women had more education, women were 93% more likely to marry men with higher income than themselves.

  • Women who earn $38,000 or more than their husbands have an 8.4% chance of divorce, compared to couples where the husband earns more, who have only a 2.9% chance of divorce.

According to the University of Chicago

  • Marriages with breadwinning women are 50% more likely to end in divorce. 

According to research conducted by Drs. Gul and Uskul, 

  • Many men feel shame, humiliation, and resentment about serving as a primary caregiver, and these negative feelings are driven by concern with reputation loss in the eyes of other men.

A man doesn’t need to be a math wizard for this to strike some fear into his own place in his marriage. 

Ed Coambs is the Past President of the Financial Therapy Association. His professional journey, which led to a highly successful career, came with the emotional challenges of not being the breadwinner in his relationship.

Mr. Coambs shared, “There were so many unexpected emotions like anger, jealousy, resentment and social realities like spending more time with my buddies wifes on play dates while my wife worked. It just felt wrong. Or fellow husbands saying it must be nice to have a breadwinning wife.” 

Mr. Coambs continued, “I hated it. It had taken ongoing personal and relational growth to develop greater security in love and money.”  

Divorce and the kids

What’s clear is that the majority of women continue to expect men to be capable financial providers, but most men do not expect the same from women.

Every story behind every data point is unique. There are plenty of good reasons women should leave men or that the mother should be awarded full custody. However, these data points are significant enough for some men to be fearful in their marriages. 

  • A study by M. Rosenfeld from Stanford University discovered that women started almost 69% of all divorces among about 2,000 surveyed couples. 

What must be acknowledged is that men are not just fearful of sacrificing their careers to be lead caregivers or risk paternity leave; they fear it could cost them their marriage. 

Working fathers 

According to research from PrismWork with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, 

  • 57% of men struggle with the dual pressures of wanting to be a committed, inclusive leader at work and an engaged parent and partner at home. 

The same study positioned a surveyed stress of being a financial provider as an "outmoded idea of what it means to be a man at work (provider bias)." But they are very wrong; such pressure remains very true today. 

Career Planning: Menwork vs. Teamwork

Household income decisions

Fifty years ago, it was the work of men that provided financially for households. It would have been unthinkable for men to change careers to provide mothers the needed flexibility to continue their career paths. At that time, only 1 in 20 women were the breadwinner in the household. 

The world has changed. Today, women earn around the same or more than their partners in 2 in 5 households. For decades, the majority of American households have included two income earners. 

A Comprehensive Guide for Men to Understand Paternity Leave

This financial calculator was designed to highlight the impact on American families caused by fiscal policy failing to adequately address the cost of child care. Couples can also use it to gauge the loss of total lifetime compensation from women temporarily exiting the workforce. 

Bear in mind that the calculator uses 2016 numbers. Since that time, inflation has roughly increased by 18%. A more true picture is to add 18% when you calculate the financial implications of leaving the workforce temporarily. 

The gender pay gap = household income shortages

A Comprehensive Guide for Men to Understand Paternity Leave

It's not only women who suffer from the gender pay gap; it's all of us. When our wives are shortchanged, our families are shortchanged. Our kids have less. Husbands have less.

The gender pay gap is not just a women's issue, it's a family issue.

Fight for our wives and families

We should be fighting for our wives. There are an abundance of reasons for the gender pay gap, some of which, as husbands, are in our control.

We can coordinate taking time away from work so our wives do not fall behind. We can reduce or eliminate the mental load that accompanies managing a home. We can give them the confidence they deserve to be leaders. We can help them fight the current they face to close the gender pay gap.

Equal parenting and home management roles

The majority of Americans think both parents should be equally focused on work and home. 

According to PEW, 77% of Americans believe that when children are being raised by a mother and a father, they are better off if both parents focus equally on their job or career and on taking care of the children and the home.

As mentioned earlier, paternity leave leads to a more egalitarian relationship in the home.



Be a good teammate 

One study found that the greater the gap by which a wife’s income outpaces her husband’s, the less he does around the house. 

Another study found that a husband's presence can add more housework. Research shows that divorced women with children sleep and rest more than those with a male partner. They do three hours less housework and sleep an hour longer per week.

We are better than this. We will be good teammates.

Helping Men Use Paternity Leave

I am blessed to be married to someone who believes marriage can only thrive if we work as a team. The only pressure in our relationship to be the breadwinner for most of our marriage comes from myself. 

My wife is now the breadwinner and has made it a point to express her appreciation for how I support her and our family in my new role. She has never made me feel like I am less of a contributor. In fact, we are as happy in our marriage now as we ever have been. 

Supportive spouses

I could never have founded Modern Husbands without the support of my wife. I would never have believed in the mission to manage money and the home as a team if I felt pressure to be the breadwinner. 

For readers married to a man, make him feel confident in himself and the relationship. Show appreciation and importance in the numerous ways he can provide for the family, just as he should do the same for you. 

Many men grapple with intense emotions when weighing whether to sacrifice their careers, and as you've read, for good reason. Just as professionally ambitious women need and deserve to be supported in their careers, so do the men who provide that support. 

Strong leadership in middle management

Broadly speaking, women are expected to take time away from work when the baby is born. And let's be frank, they did just have their bodies torn apart at birth. 

On the other hand, paid paternity leave is a relatively new benefit that some managers might not accept, despite corporate policy. Some men thus face the choice between taking paternity leave and then switching jobs or not taking paternity leave.

We recently hosted Dr. David Smith on the Modern Husbands Podcast to discuss many of these issues. 

Dr. Smith, a sociologist trained in military sociology and social psychology, teaches at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School. Before that, he commanded a Naval squadron in combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. He co-authored Good Guys: How Men Can Be Better Allies for Women in the Workplace

In the episode, Dr. Smith stressed the importance of strong leadership in middle management. Strong middle managers create a culture that demands a healthy work-life balance and leads by example. 

They might sometimes leave work "loudly," ensuring employees know he has a strong role in their home and can't work long hours. He could also set "Out of Office" messages that lead by example.

Modern Leadership 4 Men

Modern Leadership 4 Men offers a whitepaper for management with ideas and an inclusive leadership toolkit. 

Podcast: How Husbands Can be Better Allies for Their Wives

A Comprehensive Guide for Men to Understand Paternity Leave

Questions Answered 

0:00:00 Introduction

0:01:11 Some listeners might not be convinced that women face gender specific obstacles at work. How can you convince those listeners otherwise? 

0:06:16 Beyond doing the right thing for their wives, how would husbands and families benefit from women receiving support from home and in the workplace to thrive in their careers?

0:12:28 Let’s assume you want to do more than help your wife, but you want to help all women in the workplace. Could you name two or three key things excellent male leaders, allies, and mentors for women actually do?

0:17:50 A lot of men are concerned about the inequities their wives face in the workplace and are committed to fixing systems that hold back women they care about. What can be done from home by supportive husbands? 

0:23:54 Where can listeners learn more about you and where can they purchase your latest book?

0:24:36 What is one simple and actionable piece of advice that you would like to share with our listeners based on today’s discussion?


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