Working From Home: Family Leave and Parental Dynamics

by Maria Harrast | 10/4/17 10:21am

Based on the Family Medical Leave Act, qualifying American parents must be allowed 12 weeks of job-protected leave to care for a newborn. Considering the average maternity leave is 17.7 weeks in advanced nations, American working parents are already at a disadvantage compared to the rest of the industrialized world, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Add in the fact that every other advanced country mandates paid maternity leave, and one can’t help but wonder why the U.S. lags so far behind.

The problem lies in priorities. Giavanna Munafo, a senior lecturer in the women’s, gender and sexuality studies program, believes that the federal government simply does not prioritize parental leave policies.

“The federal government doesn’t strong-arm businesses and other entities into absorbing the costs that would be involved in making mandated paid parental leave possible,” Munafo said. “The government hasn’t made it a priority; it’s not as important as other things to people who end up making those decisions.”

When paid parental leave policies are in place, studies show positive results, such as an increase in parents who are more likely to return to work. For example, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki reported for the Wall Street Journal that the rate at which new moms left Google fell by 50 percent when the company increased the duration of paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 18 weeks. Another study from the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University found that women who utilized New Jersey’s paid-family-leave policy were much more likely to be working nine to 12 months after childbirth compared to women who did not go on paid leave.

Despite the higher likelihood of parents returning to work after paid parental leave, many businesses will not change their policies because they believe maximum output equates to maximum success, and a parent on leave may not actively contribute to this output. Sociology professor Katherine Lin said that companies should look beyond this objective output when considering offering paid parental leave.

“Paid parental leave leads to questions, like, ‘Would businesses have to drastically restructure their finances in order to allow employees to take time off? What does this mean for the productivity of the company?’” Lin said. “You see research about how offering paid leave can ensure continuity of your employees, or they can up employee satisfaction, or they decrease the likelihood of burnout [. . .] but the ingrained idea that employees must give maximum output to be of value to the company is hard to overcome.”

Often, the decision to go on unpaid leave relates to job status. Most Americans do not work at companies that offer extended paid parental leave, so their circumstances differ drastically from those that do. In fact, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, only about 12 percent of large American companies offer paid parental leave, meaning the majority of working parents must consider the consequences of unpaid leave.

“Jobs are classed,” Lin said. “Working men and women in professional jobs versus working men and women in nonprofessional jobs — service industry jobs, retail jobs — have access to very different kinds of resources to help them make their decision.”

In the Hanover community, anyone eligible for employee benefits at the College has the option to enroll their children at the Dartmouth College Child Care Center. Munafo used the DCCCC’s services when she was raising her son. The DCCCC can provide up to 86 children from the ages of eight weeks to six years old, and it is open from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Mondays through Fridays. Fees are assessed based on family income.

Jeff Robbins, director of the DCCCC, said that although raising a child is an exciting time, it can also be a financial burden.

“Raising young children is a developmental stage for families,” Robbins said. “Good child care is expensive, and families of young children have lots of strain on their family resources. There is just about enough child care available in the community for people who are looking for child care, but there’s a huge lack of affordable high-quality child care in the country.”

Lack of affordable child care is a considerable problem for many families, and some working parents may decide to leave their jobs to stay at home and raise their children instead. When making the choice between continuing work or becoming a stay-at-home parent, Lin believes that the decision is substantially influenced by factors outside of the parents’ control.

“What we think of as a choice oftentimes isn’t a choice at all to the mothers and fathers who are making these decisions,” Lin said. “They’re presented with a few set of options, and frequently, these options are constrained by whatever policy they have access to but also the cultural norms of the job that they’re in, the unspoken understanding they have with their boss, the unspoken understanding they have with their colleagues.”

In recent years, there has been a shift in the typical view of the stay-at-home parent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the percentage of stay-at-home mothers has decreased significantly, from 49 percent to 29 percent between 1967 and 2012. Meanwhile, the percentage of stay-at-home fathers has increased from 10 percent to 16 percent between 1989 and 2012, according to the Pew Research Center.

Lin said that sociology research offers two arguments for the rise in stay-at-home fathers. One argument states that this increase represents a new masculinity and demand for fathers to be active parents, which shows a shift in gender ideology, while the other is that the rise is due to job loss or periods of unemployment, in which a father with a working wife can look for jobs at home while also taking care of the children, showing a shift in economic resources. 

“The average pathway for men is still long-term career attachment for the majority of their adult working lives, but we’re starting to see a bit of an increase in variation due to some of these other mechanisms, whether it is an economic restructuring or a shift in gender ideologies,” Lin said. 

When a parent is contemplating whether or not to leave their occupational career to become a stay-at-home parent, Lin believes it is important to fully explore all possible paths.

“Only when you know the full range of options can you really consider what you’re doing as a choice,” Lin said. “Otherwise, you’re just strong-armed into working — when you really want to be with your toddler — and that makes for a really hard adulthood. You’ve got to buck that cultural trend. It is certainly within your right as a worker to ask about what kinds of leave you have access to, what are the official rules, but also to get allies, to form a network and to figure out what other people have done before you.”