Even though the United States is woefully behind other countries when it comes to parental leave policies, many mothers are able to take at least some kind of maternity leave for the birth of their children.
But what about fathers? Paid paternity leave is less likely to be an employer benefit — only 40% of companies offer paid leave to both the birth and non-birth parent, according to a 2018 Mercer study. Here are alternatives if dads want to take time off when they have a child such as using vacation days or taking up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act. However, these come with their own trade-offs.
So what are fathers to do? I reached out to three dads to find out:
- Nick Elkins, a financial coach at Family Finance Freedom
- Akil Kaveti, a tech worker and husband to The Swanky Mommy
- Jacob Murphy, owner of GPS Tracking Made Easy
They all stressed the importance of taking as much time off work as possible when a child is born, but none of them said it was easy.
Why dads take — or don’t take — parental leave
Whether it’s the first child or one of many, the decision to take parental leave often comes down to three factors: time, money and workload.
Even when your workplace offers parental leave, it can be hard to take the full amount of leave to which you are entitled. “For the first kid, I took the full six weeks off,” Kaveti said.“But for the second birth, I could take only two weeks to meet work commitments.” In many cases, fathers have to consider not only their work responsibilities, but also the family budget. “In my company and many others, paternity leave is not fully paid, and so many opt not to take it.”
Taking parental leave becomes more complicated when your workplace does not offer a formal leave policy. “The company I worked for when my first son was born did not have a paternal leave policy,” Elkins said. “In fact, I actually had to take a PTO [paid time off] day just to be there for the birth. It was a small company that didn’t really have policies but wasn’t willing to give me any more time off than they had to.”
Murphy also used paid time off when his children were born. He could have taken up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off thanks to the Family and Medical Leave Act — which only applies to certain companies and types of employment, so it’s not available to all parents — but could not afford to lose the money. “I’ve been pretty fortunate that I’ve had paid time off to take during each of the children, but nowhere I’ve been has a dedicated paid leave outside of what you’ve ‘earned’ as PTO. I’d do [FMLA] if I could, but unfortunately, that’s too much time without an income.”
The pros and cons of parental leave
The biggest pro of parental leave is, of course, the opportunity to spend time with your new baby. “Bonding with my newborn children was a very special feeling that I will cherish forever,” Kaveti said. “It made me connect with them in a pure and surreal way.”
Dads can also pick up some of the workload at home during their parental leave. “We had a lot of help from grandparents, but there was always a need for one more hand on the deck,” Kaveti said. “Taking parental leave helped us manage family and life in an effective and less stressful way. It immensely helped bonding with the newborn and also giving mom much needed postpartum rest by taking care of baby chores.”
Murphy agreed about the importance of spending those early days — and weeks, if possible — with the family. “If I have time to take off, it’s best I don’t leave when they could really need me.”
However, taking that kind of leave involves trade-offs — especially if the leave is unpaid. “Our yearly family vacation was limited in order to save money and paid time at our professional jobs,” Murphy told me. “This let us keep a bit back for the arrival of the third.”
Sometimes, the financial trade-offs go beyond taking a smaller vacation. “For my second and third kids, I worked for an even smaller company. I took one week off for each of those births — again because we were tight on money,” Elkins said. “If I had to do it all over again, we wouldn’t have over-extended ourselves so much financially before we had kids.”
Advice for new dads
The three fathers said that it’s important – regardless of your leave situation – to try to spend as much time with your growing family as possible. “I have no regrets about staying home the absolute maximum time I can, plus extra time that I might not be getting paid for,” Murphy said. “Especially for this third one, this will be the last time in my entire life I get to experience this. And I want to.”
Kaveti agreed. “Every dad should take at least the first couple of weeks off right after birth to not miss this time,” he said.
If money is an issue, consider a side hustle. Although it’s probably not a good idea to launch your new business while caring for a newborn, having an additional stream of income already in place can help you while you take unpaid parental leave. “A lot of my work in my side businesses can be done online,” Murphy explained. “So it’s not a situation where I need to completely walk away [from work]. There are some opportunities to still complete tasks.”
If you missed your chance at parental leave, don’t worry. There’s still time to be an important part of your children’s lives. “I’ve structured my entire life now to revolve around being a present parent,” Elkins said. “Truth be told, I think that lesson of not being there at the very beginning as much is one of the driving forces for me to be as present as I am now.”
Nicole Dieker is a full-time freelance writer. Her work regularly appears on Bankrate, Lifehacker, The Write Life and numerous other sites. She is the author of Frugal and the Beast: And Other Financial Fairy Tales. This article is sponsored by Haven Life Insurance Agency.