by Amber Stamper
With President Obama taking executive action to encourage equal pay for women in the workplace earlier this month and radio hosts Boomer Esiason, Craig Carton, and Mike Francesa’s foot-in-mouth critiques of Mets 2nd baseman Daniel Murphy for missing two games to take paternity leave, the issue of gender roles in the American family and workplace have been at the fore of media attention. The president’s claim that American women make only $0.77 for each dollar made by their male counterparts performing the same job, Esiason’s suggestion that Murphy should have had his wife schedule a C-section before opening day, Francesa’s that the new dad should just “get a nurse” and skip the paternity leave entirely, and the visceral and heated reactions from both conservatives and liberals in response reveal that America is still very much in the process of negotiating our public and legislative positions on both male and female places, worth, and roles in professional and domestic lives.
In the church, we navigate a similar conversation surrounding gender roles in the context of the complementarianism versus egalitarian debate, dividing ourselves—as in politics—along conservative/liberal lines with evangelicals trending, as we might expect, towards the conservative view of distinct and divinely-instilled gender roles. When it comes to the issue of paternity leave in particular, however, though the advocacy and encouragement for men to take time off work to take part in the birth and early care-taking of their children complicates any strict conceptualization of male and female work and domestic spheres and, being considered a “progressive” social policy, has largely been a project forwarded by liberal advocates. I would argue that evangelicals would do well to get on board with the movement. In fact, we might even come to consider paternity leave as a way of empowering fathers towards a biblical role in the home, a method of fundamentally strengthening the family: a project any Christian could get on board with. There are several reasons why:
Paternity leave dignifies fatherhood and promotes better long-term father-child relationships
Any mother will tell you that the first hours, days, and weeks home with a newborn are something like boot camp: you have to learn lots of new things all at once, and you have to learn them pretty fast through lots of trial and error and on very little sleep. There are the feedings: How to breastfeed? How to pump? Which formula? When to feed? How long to feed? Wake them up to feed? Is that thrush/a clogged duct/mastitis? There are the messes: How to change a diaper? Which size diaper? Is that diaper rash? A yeast infection? There is the sleeping and waking: Is that snorting noise normal? Does he like the rocker or bassinet or crib or swing? Is she warm enough? Too warm? How do you play with a newborn anyway? Why do their eyes keep crossing?
The learning curve is steep, and every baby is different, so not only do new parents need to develop basic care skills, but they must learn to communicate and establish a relationship of trust with the smallest, most dependent, most honest and expressive of sweet little creatures. Imagine what happens when a father isn’t offered the opportunity to be available for this time of bonding and learning the fundamental nurturing skills and particular quirks, preferences, and language of their child.
Alexis Madrigal has written for The Atlantic that fathers who are not present for these moments find themselves living in “fear” of not being able to navigate care for their child when they do find themselves in charge. Fathers can become intimidated by the close relationship a mother develops with the child and their own inability to provide the physical nutrition that often seems to be the answer to every cry. Ultimately, Madrigal says, men determine that they are useless during the newborn months, finding themselves unable to bond with their child for months or even years, all because they were not a part of the initial bonding process. Research also confirms that fathers who take paternity leave are more likely to be actively involved throughout the child’s young years with fundamental tasks like changing diapers, bathing, and waking at night to care for the child. In cases where the father has taken paternity leave, the early father-child relationship tends towards one of confidence and closeness. Taking paternity leave also has been correlated with greater involvement in a child’s life over the long term. Fathers who establish early bonds tend to later spend more time with their child on workdays and take more time off for family vacations. And in light of the father’s biblical responsibility to “train up a child up in the way he should go,” the developmental benefits of a father establishing an early, close, involved, and attentive relationship with their children are well established: the children perform better on cognitive ability tests, have improved quantitative and verbal skills, are better at classifying objects and organizing them logically, and achieve academically. In addition, these children are reported to ultimately be happier, have greater life satisfaction and less psychological distress, show a more highly-developed ability to empathize, be more self-directed, and grow up to be better fathers themselves.
Paternity leave dignifies motherhood and promotes thriving marriages
What was perhaps even more inflammatory than Boomer Esiason’s critique of Murphy’s desire to be with his wife and son at the birth was his suggestion that Murphy should have requested his wife undergo major surgery just to accommodate a game schedule. Such a statement not only shows little regard for the health of the mother and baby, but it also reveals a lack of understanding of how paternity leave can really be an opportunity to uphold and prize the value of mothers, showing care for their mental, physical, and emotional health and showing gratitude for their important role in the family and society. Even the most conservative of complementarians could certainly agree that a biblical husband and father’s role as provider extends beyond the monetary. In the immediate days after childbirth, new mothers are not only healing physically but can benefit greatly from the emotional support a present husband can provide, not to mention the help with tasks not directly related to baby care. The pressure many women will naturally put on themselves to take care of the house in addition to the newborn could easily be relieved by a father willing to do dishes or laundry. And new mothers who are themselves on maternity leave from careers might feel additional stress over how they will ever be able to handle all of the childcare responsibilities and go back to work as well; however, the wives of men who take paternity leave and show their early and continued involvement in providing within the home find themselves ultimately having less stressful experiences returning to work and are less likely to suffer wage inequality in the workplace. Studies have even shown that women whose husbands help with domestic tasks during these early days show more overall marital satisfaction, being less likely to feel depressed or as if they are being treated unfairly in the marriage. A father being present to serve his wife at this time is truly positioned to exemplify sacrificial love and to show how much he values her role in the family.
Paternity leave promotes a culture of life
The presence or absence of a stable, available father figure has long and conclusively been established as a determining factor in women’s decisions to keep an unexpected pregnancy. One out of every two women reports having chosen abortion because they did not want to be a single parent or were having problems with an unstable marriage or partnership: 85% of abortions are performed on unmarried women, and—though women living with a partner they are not married to account for only 10% of the general population—the cohabiting population accounts for 25% of abortions .
If we are to be serious about eradicating abortion and changing our culture to value the lives of the unborn, we must get serious about eliminating the circumstances that lead women to consider termination. According to CNN, legislation that supports the family structure via paid paternal leave for both mothers and fathers is linked to lowered abortion rates (Germany being one example, where, among other protections, the government offers a child allowance to parents for up to 25 years). By contrast, countries where restrictions on paternal leave are strictest tend to have higher abortion rates. As one commentator has written, the sad reality is that, in America, despite our greatest hopes of being pro-family and pro-child, we live in a decidedly “anti-life” culture. The valuing of fatherhood and the acknowledgement of fathers’ equally important and necessary role in the lives of children can be upheld by the increased availability of paternity leave. The continued absence of such accommodations sends the message that paternity is not a priority, that, in fact, it is an inconvenience, a message that ultimately suggests a reduced value of both fathers and children.
Ideally, both maternity and paternity leave—either by legislation or company policies—would be paid and of sufficient duration for families to reap the full relational benefits of the early bonding and renegotiated relationships that take place at the welcoming of a new child. Indeed, in the vast majority of the Western world, this is the case. In Sweden, for example, men are granted two months paid paternity leave; in Norway, it is ten weeks, and in Spain, it is four. The scenario for working mothers and fathers in America, however, is hardly as accommodating: we are one of only a handful of industrialized countries across the globe with no paid parental leave (in the company of Papua New Guinea, Lesotho, and Swaziland). The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 grants American workers up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave in which their jobs are protected, but only three states—California, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have independently established paid parental leave policies. FMLA has been critiqued as well because it only covers employees working for companies with over fifty employees, and of the limited covered employees, only those who have worked 1,250 hours or more in the previous year qualify. Effectively, the number of American workers who actually benefit from the Act is severely limited, covering around half of American workers, and, unfortunately, even among those who are covered, it is the women and men with incomes below the poverty level (those statistically most likely to have abortions, accounting for 40% of the post-abortive population) who are least likely to be able to afford to take time off of work.
The resistance to establishing more liberal parental leave policies comes on two fronts. While the sports commentators’ critiques of paternity leave center on its inconvenience to fans, the first and most apparent resistance to paternity leave legislation stems from the conservative economic position that it is an undue and unfair burden on companies to be required to provide pay to employees who are “not working.” This in spite of the fact that the most promising pieces of paternal leave legislation and those which have already proved successful position the funds as insurance, paid for in the form of payroll taxes by the employees, and pose no excessive burden to employers. The second major resistance to paternity leave, however, is cultural and thus more subtle, entrenched, and challenging to address.
While more men than ever feel conflicted about the relationship between their work and home lives and understand the importance of playing a central role in both spheres (60% of men in 2008 versus 35% in 1977 struggle with negotiating this balance), they do not yet feel confident taking leave. Even in the rare cases where paid leave is offered (in only 11.5% of American companies), men tend not to take it, citing fear over the potential impact on their career, concerns that they will be considered too feminine, and a desire to avoid being bullied in the workplace. Amazingly, these fears are not unfounded. A study done by the University of Oregon reported that time taken off work to care for family does in fact lead to a decrease in overall long-term earnings, and other reports have found that men who take time off to care for family are “more likely to be demoted or downsized because they appeared more feminine than other men” and that “devoted fathers who spend a lot of time caregiving feel ridiculed by co-workers for not being man enough.” In European countries, a similar stigma attached to paternity leave is so bad that financial incentives actually have to be offered to convince men to take the leave! It is a travesty that men have come to feel they must choose between family and work or that masculinity cannot encompass fatherhood, and such a perspective is certainly unbiblical. Whereas the biblical ideal upholds men as leaders and spiritual instructors in their family, our culture is telling them to stay away, to circumscribe their gifts to what is exclusively of monetary value.
When in Genesis 1 God established the family as the foundation of society, he set reproduction as a priority, and throughout the Bible, we see the family as the primary vehicle by which values and faith are propagated and shared over time. Paternity leave could well be a part of forwarding this central role family plays in the Christian worldview—of creating stronger and more resilient families and of helping culture restructure around family as a building block of stability in our society. And if advocating for such leave involves stepping across the political or theological aisle, we would do well to do it. Studies suggest that many of us–72% of all voters, 62% of Republicans, and 74% of evangelical Christians–are already on board, believing that businesses should be “required to provide paid family and medical leave for every worker who needs it,” and yet we have hardly been active in advocating for or prioritizing this issue. In fact, states with the highest populations of evangelical Christians also have been associated with the least generous parental leave policies.
If we are truly to be champions of the family, if we are to encourage and recommitment to the value of family both in the church and in America, we should take more seriously the need to push for improved access to paid leave for fathers. We should also encourage our own companies to offer this benefit independently, and, perhaps most importantly, we should praise and support the new fathers and fathers-to-be in our own circles who make the brave and often hard choice to take this time off with their families. Reintegrating the father into and restoring his publicly-acknowledged value to our families is a process that will surely benefit from legislative and, more importantly, cultural changes. The church should have–should desire to have–a hand shaping and leading the way in this change.
Amber Stamper holds a Ph.D. in English (Rhetoric and Composition) and is an Assistant Professor of Language, Literature, and Communication at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina. Her research and publications center on religious rhetoric and communication, especially issues of Christian evangelism and the digital church.