What paternity leave was like and why America should embrace it

“These guys who fear becoming fathers don’t understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of childraising is not the child but the parent.” - Frank Pittman, MD, Man Enough[^1]

After two and half weeks paid paternity leave I’m sad it’s coming to a close. I didn’t expect to feel this way. I thought I’d be anxious to get back to work and that my days alone with a 3-month-old, disengaged from the adult world, would become tiresome and lonely. It has been a special experience, one I would not trade for anything else.

Sprout Social recently started offering a full month’s paid paternity leave and after Arin was born in February, I opted to use a portion immediately and then another chunk once my wife Megan’s maternity leave was eaten up after 12 weeks. As the days to paternity leave approached I began to contemplate what they would be like. How often does he eat? How often does he nap? How will I keep him engaged? What milestones should I watch out for?

I’d obviously been around for the first 3 months (engaged I might add, not just hanging out on the sidelines), but I don’t think I fully comprehended what daily life was like. I helped out however I could and Megan made sure I stayed on track. I assumed it was hard. But to assume something doesn’t mean you really know what the hell is going on.

And so paternity leave began. It wasn’t so bad. Maybe even easy?

Well, I shouldn’t say that. Easy, makes it seem like the job itself is easy, which isn’t fair. You throw any desire to control time out the window and live and die by the nap. Your boss becomes a fickle small person. You find yourself cursing the moments when an angry baby demands to know why you were cleaning loudly while he was sleeping or why you don’t have his bottles ready ASAP post-nap. From time-to-time he’ll also spit on you for no reason. And showering becomes exceedingly low priority to the point that days may pass before you realize things are starting to get funky.[^2]

But what made it feel easy was all the other stuff -- the important stuff. He started rolling over. He smiles nearly non-stop. I know precisely how to make him laugh (and cry), how to generate deep 3-hour naps (10 minute walk outside and then wheeled back into the abyss that is our laundry room, with check-ins every 15 minutes to make sure he’s still breathing) and how to change his diaper but be ready for when he tries to pull a fast one mid-change. For such a short period he’s grown a lot. His personality is emerging quickly and I didn’t get to see this in the same way with my older son Adya, for which I am already deeply regretful. I wish I could have.

And that’s just the Arin stuff. There’s a lot of other good that came from exercising paternity leave.

The immediate gain was Megan was able to go back to work without our feeling the need to send Arin straight to daycare at 3 months. Instead we get to extend it by a little longer with paternity leave and then some quality grandma/nanamma time in the next month. If we had more flexibility we’d push it to at least 6 months, but this works.

With Megan back to work I also got to see what daily life was like at home and I think I’m a lot more sympathetic to what it takes to properly run a home with two kids and two working parents. It’s not easy. I think I took a lot for granted even though I’m sure I said, “Oh yeah, I understand”. I didn’t. And it makes sense, The New York Times noted, “Fathers who take longer paternity leaves are more likely to perform certain daily child care tasks nine months later than those who take no leave, even when controlling for variables such as the father’s prior parental involvement.”

My biceps and back have grown stronger. My patience has improved. I got to hack parenting a little bit while studying up on 3-month-olds and implementing strict schedules. I did more cooking in the past two and half weeks than I probably have in the last year.

My bond with Arin has grown stronger than it would have without leave. On the whole my parental skills have jumped a level or two.

Which brings us to another point in all of this: Why did Sprout let me take off a month for paternity leave? What’s the benefit for my employer to pay to lose me for a month outside of my regular PTO (which is also pretty fantastic)?

Before I dive into this, I think it’s important to disclaim the opinions and speculation in this piece are 100 percent my own and not necessarily that of Sprout Social. It’s likely that I’m right about most of this but just in case, I want it to be clear that I didn’t actually ever bother to ask anyone why they would do such a nice thing.

So, let’s start with the mushy stuff. I think Sprout actually cares about its employees. Since Day 1 the PTO policy at Sprout has been roughly, “Take as many days as you want whenever you need to, but get your work done.” Put differently, “Take care of yourself first, take care of the company second.” When I started with the company, Sprout was tiny and young but even then the intention behind the PTO policy was to prevent burnout. At the time we also had very few employees with children and certainly far fewer resources. But as we’ve grown that’s changed a lot. More and more staff have or are expecting children and I think Sprout recognized this and wanted to provide an extension of their existing PTO policy that made sense for a growing demographic within the organization. Ultimately I think that emanates from a deep understanding of what the company can provide, who their employees are and what those employees need to be happy, healthy and productive.

So that’s Sprout at the ‘feels’ level, but let’s assume for a second that Sprout doesn’t care at all (they totally do) about its employees. I still think there are a lot of good reasons for why a company might want to provide paternity leave.

There’s the competition aspect. Sprout’s paternity leave gives it another leg-up on recruiting fresh talent as well as retaining existing talent. This is important as Sprout not only competes with other companies in Chicago’s tech sector but also at a national level as it tries to attract developers to Chicago and keep them from heading to Silicon Valley and New York.

“Paid maternity leave is also good for business. After California instituted paid medical leave, a survey in 2011 by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that 91% of employers said the policy either boosted profits or had no effect. They also noted improved productivity, higher morale and reduced turnover.” — YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki wrote in the Wall Street Journal

At a macro level, it’s probably good for the economy and society. We know paid paternity leave likely helps stabilize incomes and encourages mothers to go back to work and simultaneously combats unfair work practices against mothers. America could do with continuing to challenge the idea of what a family should look like and how it should operate.

There’s also this: The United States remains the only developed country to not guarantee paid parental leave .[^3] On this point I’m unsure whether or not I’d want a federal mandate, but I’m certain American society should make paid parental leave a priority for the wellness of employees and their children. That doesn’t necessarily need to come from a federal mandate. I’d prefer companies compete with one another to make this the norm and not necessitate government involvement. That said, the argument for paid parental leave at a national scale would be a boon to low-income households, which may be worth pursuing.

“…low-income families don’t have the option for one parent to stay home from work, or for either parent to take unpaid leave. Paying for adequate childcare is also more of a challenge. Since having parents at home is an important ingredient in a child’s success in school and life, the discrepancy between paid leave for lower- and higher-income families will only exacerbate growing inequality,” — Forbes contributor Ana Swanson.

This is something all companies should strive to provide for their employees. It will improve fathers. It will improve fatherhood. It will improve the lives of their partners and children. And it will thus improve life as an employee. Happy and productive are stitched together.

Special thanks to Alan Boyce and Megan Malladi for reading drafts and providing great feedback during the course of writing this piece.

[^1]: via Real Simple (I took my domestication seriously. / They have fantastic recipes.)

[^2]: Paradoxically, infants who as recommended, don’t bathe for days always seem to smell delightful.

[^3]: John Oliver’s take, also a must-watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIhKAQX5izw