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When Men Take Paternity Leave, the Whole Family Wins

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When my son was much younger, he informed me that he might not want children. I asked him why and he responded that if he pursues his chosen career, as a ninja, then it might not offer the best environment to raise kids.

I respected his logic.

He's since grown out of his ninja phase but I'm delighted that he understands that combining a demanding career with a fulfilling home life can be fraught with challenges. I'm not alone in presenting this perspective to my son yet that message to boys -- that work and children may conflict -- appears to wane as they age. In our broader, cultural collective, men's role as primary caregivers of their children, especially in those time-intensive, early years, still seems like a luxury.

That message hit home when a savvy MBA student attending Rotman's Women in Management Association's end of year dinner, reminded me that there exist no "men's groups" where male students can discuss these issues. In fact, she believes her male cohorts never even think about the impact their family life will take on their career. This poses a problem not only to families, but also to our perception of women in the workplace. If the expectation persists that men don't share equally at home, then women will continue to bear the cost to their careers for having children.

That would change if men needed to consider when to take paternal leave in the same way women fret about the best time to take maternity leave. In other words, establish a "daddy quota." A little social engineering can go a long way in changing our cultural perspective on who stays home to raise the kids. Rather than focusing on ways to bring women back into the workforce after having children, it's worth exploring how to incentivize men to step out.

In Norway, fathers receive 12 weeks paternity leave that remains non-transferable to the child's mother, meaning dads must "use it or lose it." In Sweden, dads get 60 days of non-transferable parental leave. In Quebec, dads get five weeks. Other countries are currently mulling similar approaches. In the U.K., dads enjoy two weeks of paternity leave with the government eyeing to extend it.

"Forced" daddy leave carries a lingering, positive impact on fathers. A study by Ankita Patnaik, a PhD student at Cornell University, showed that men who took advantage of the daddy quota spent more time on child care and domestic obligations even years later. Their female partners spent more time working outside the home.

Ms. Patnaik explains the results by suggesting that after the birth of a child, a couple must "renegotiate" their division of labour and any new patterns established in this critical time becomes their accepted practice. Also, the experience of caring for a newborn raises men's skill and comfort level with their child, which may result in greater father-child attachment.

Dr. Warren Farrell, author of Father and Child Reunion: How to Bring the Dads We Need to the Children We Love, discovered many other positive results stemming from a "use it or lose it" paternity leave approach. He notes that since Sweden adopted "daddy leave" in 1995, the country's divorce rates declined and instances of shared custody increased. Yet, Dr. Farrell believes the strategy only works when dads don't lose more than a small percentage of their pay, as is the case in Sweden. Lower divorce rates mean more children, which fuels a father's pressure to increase work to manage the costs, he explained.

The other benefit Dr. Farrell observed focused on the impact to children. According to his book, children are raised more effectively when dads are primary caregivers. He doesn't infer that men make better fathers than women mothers. Rather, traditional gender roles remain so powerful that when one deviates, they tend to be highly motivated, self-selected and more educated.

In his mind, this is social evolution at work.

The question remains: do men want more parental leave? I believe that answer is yes. A recent study conducted by the Pew Research Center showed that fathers are as likely as mothers to say that they preferred to stay at home rather than working. What prevents either parent from staying home comes down to loss of income.

In North America, I'd argue that the social stigma adds to men's reluctance to stay at home with the kids. Taking any amount of time-off that isn't considered strictly necessary seems frowned upon. A daddy quota removes that social barrier, turning paternal leave for dads into a no-brainer.

"I don't see the problem as being a lack on incentive," said Matt Schneider, founder and co-organizer of NYC Dads Group. "When men start to see their peers, mentors and leaders take paternity leave, they'll be more likely to take the opportunity themselves."

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