Institutionalising “daddy months”

I thought this was a well-written article by former justice law clerk (in the US Supreme Court) Ryan Park, on being a stay-at-home-dad.  Intentionally or otherwise, it also functions well as a subtle advocacy piece for increased “daddy months”, if not full-fledged stay-at-home-dad-hood, as a more widely practiced option.

It reminded me of thoughts about how women should Lean In, so that other women have a choice on whether to lean in or out, and about the perennial debate of “having it all“.

Some noteworthy passages:

Nearly half of fathers report dissatisfaction with the amount of time that they are able to spend with their children—twice the rate of mothers who say the same. The gender-equality debate too often ignores this half of the equation. When home is mentioned at all, the emphasis is usually on equalizing burdens—not equalizing the opportunity for men, as well as women, to be there.

As a man, when I speak of my struggle to manage my competing commitments to family and career, I’m often met with good-natured skepticism. There’s an underlying assumption that women and men have different visions of what matters in life—or, to be blunt about it, that men don’t find child-rearing all that rewarding, whereas women regard it as integral to the human experience. I do not think this assumption is true, generally speaking. I am certain it is not true for me.

Amid the sleep-deprived excitement, frustrations, and frenetic activity of those first months as a father, my new reality sank in: For the foreseeable future, balancing my family with my career would be the defining challenge of my life.

Between the beginning of adolescence and the night Caitlyn was born, I can recall crying twice. I am no longer so stoic. After my wife ended her extended leave from medical school, I took on the task of getting Caitlyn ready for the day and dropping her off at daycare. When I tried to put her down, she would clutch at me fiercely, sobbing in desperation. As I left, she would run after me, banging on the glass door as it closed behind me. More often than not, I rushed out of the building a tearful, embarrassed, guilt-ridden mess.

I was discovering that this was real work. I’d already known this as an abstract matter. My wife’s weary face when I came home from the Court wasn’t all that different from the look she now has after finishing an overnight shift at the hospital. But to experience it directly is another thing altogether. I had prided myself on being an involved, helpful partner when I was working. But my prior contributions now felt like glorified babysitting.

The D.C. market rate for this kind of work middles out at $15 an hour. During moments of doubt and fatigue, it gave me some comfort to know that my replacement cost would easily come out to more than my salary at the Supreme Court.

Taken together, these opinions showed—as the Boss likes to say—“how gender lines in the law are bad for everyone: bad for women, bad for men, and bad for children.” Or, as she told the justices in 1979 during oral argument in another case, “discrimination against males operates against females as well.” Indeed, part of what made Ginsburg’s legal strategy so effective was that she exposed the irrationality of sex discrimination by challenging laws that—at least on their faces—conferred special advantages on women. [As in the case of maternity leave being weighted mostly towards women.]

It may well be that, whether for reasons of social conditioning or inborn inclination, men and women frequently choose to strike different balances between their families and careers. The goal shouldn’t be absolute parity between the genders in all things. But as the Wiesenfeld and VMI cases demonstrate, no one should be constrained by the assumption that men and women necessarily have different priorities and values.

Today, under Swedish law, T. and his wife would have been allotted an astounding 480 total days of paid parental leave. A couple can apportion the leave in any way they want (and use it any time until the child is 8 years old). But a minimum of 60 days is reserved for each individual, man or woman. Women still take more than 75 percent of total leave time in Sweden, but that may change, as proposals are currently being pushed to encourage more so-called “daddy months.”

Sweden’s cultural expectations mirror its laws. T.’s wife knows a Swedish cardiologist who returned to work after his requisite 60 days at home. Despite his joy at becoming a father, the drudgery of life with a newborn didn’t sit well with him. His wife, a doctor at the same institution, agreed to stay home for the rest of the couple’s allotted time. But on his return to work, the hospital’s leaders pulled him aside and delivered a stern lecture on the poor example he was setting. He was soon back to changing diapers and warming bottles, and the couple redistributed their leave more evenly.

On the other hand, when men don’t have the opportunity to take parental leave, women’s incomes suffer. As economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn have found, the cost and disruption associated with generous maternity leave “may lead employers to engage in statistical discrimination against women for jobs leading to higher-level positions.” In other words, why invest in a woman’s career if you fear, reasonably, that she might leave for a year at 80 percent pay when a similarly qualified man doesn’t have that option? There is also some indication that unequal leave harms the family unit as a whole. Divorce and separation rates, which were rising in most parts of the world, fell in Sweden after the initial institution of a “daddy month” in 1995 (it was extended to the two months in 2002).

[I do think this closing para resonates with every working parent.] In the meantime, returning to work has renewed my determination to make every moment count. After a day away from Caitlyn, I come home engaged and enthusiastic, eager to pack a day’s worth of play, learning, and bonding into a few scarce hours. At the office, the encouraging reactions of the younger partners make me hopeful that a commitment to family won’t necessarily mean a future of depreciated income and stunted professional advancement. But if it does, I can live with that tradeoff. I’d far prefer it to a future of maximized career potential and personal regret.


To the critics who make trivalising remarks at how Ryan only stayed home for 6 months, I’d say it’s better than no months at all. If there could be a new normal where at least 50% of dads took 6 months out of their careers to care for young children, I’d say the world would be a better place for all.  For women, for children, for men.

We may never attain Sweden-hood here in Singapore, but just changing mindsets, just making it more acceptable to employers and fathers to take significant time off when a new child is added to their family, to prioritise spending time with their children thereafter, would be a huge step forward.

It need not be a requisite 60 days (which was so minimal in their culture that the Swedish cardiologist dad was berated by his bosses), but just taking at least one “daddy-month” off, spread out over the first 4 months of a child’s birth, would be a good baby step for dads here. (Replacing ICT stints for 2 years is another long held dream of mine.) Would employers frown on it, and hesitate to employ young fathers? Would daddy-careers be irreparably damaged?  Would our economy suffer a huge setback if all dads did this?  Well, there would be some cost perhaps, but none so large as going extinct as a nation, which is the other extreme if our birth rate continues to trend southwards.  It’s probably time to consider whether we can afford that cost.

Recently, I saw an image (which I can no longer find) on social media that said “a good dad, and an involved father, is one of the most undervalued, under-appreciated, assets in the world today”.  I couldn’t agree more. A huge hug and pat on the back for every father who is trying his best to spend as much time as possible with his children, so that they do not simply become what he says they ought to be, but who they see him being.




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