Between all the late nights, diaper changes, and getting used to caring for a tiny human 24 hours a day, new parents face a lot of challenges. Because of this, it may mean that their relationship is put on the back burner for a while. And though every couple is different, new research has found something that appears to increase the chances of staying together: a father taking paternity leave.
The study, published in November 2019 in the Journal of Social Policy, found that fathers taking parental leave to spend time with their newborn child are 25 percent less likely to see their marriage or relationships end within a few years. Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Richard Petts, a Ball State University sociology professor and the lead author of the study, as well as other experts in the field to find out more about the impact of paternity leave on relationships.
What These Findings Mean
We should start out by clarifying that the research was conducted on heterosexual couples only, so it doesn’t necessarily provide any insight specific to those in same-sex relationships. But having said that, the data came from a nationally representative sample and included approximately 6,000 couples, so a lot of families were involved.
“Results suggest that increasing access to parental leave for fathers – and encouraging fathers to take this leave – may help to increase family stability,” Petts said in a statement emailed to Scary Mommy. “Overall, our study suggests that fathers’ leave-taking may help to promote more stable parental relationships in the U.S., identifying an additional benefit of fathers’ leave-taking for families.”
And while it’d be nice for fathers to have several months of leave, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be great for their relationship. The study found that couples were 29 percent less likely to end their relationship when fathers took one week of leave, and 25 percent less likely to end things if he took two weeks off from work. But that’s where this correlation ends: taking three weeks or more of leave was unrelated to relationship stability. Petts says that this likely has to do with cultural norms about leave-taking in the U.S.
“The average amount of time American fathers take for parental leave is about one week. It is not expected for fathers to take extended periods of leave, and actually evidence suggests that fathers who do take extended periods of leave are penalized — with lower wages, lower performance evaluations, less likely to receive promotions, etc.,” Petts tells Scary Mommy. “So I think taking two weeks or less falls in that sweet spot where fathers get a bit of time at home to bond with their child and learn how to be an actively engaged parent, while also minimizing the likelihood of experiencing any workplace penalties.”
In fact, similar results have been found in Nordic countries where fathers take much longer periods of leave, Petts explains. “These studies find that relationship stability is highest when fathers follow the cultural norms of leave-taking — and taking significantly more time does not have the same benefit for increasing relationship stability,” he adds.
It’s also important to note that there are connections between a family’s socioeconomic status and the father’s access to parental leave. Some of Petts’ previous work showed that more advantaged fathers (higher income, higher education, white, being in a professional occupation) are more likely to take paid leave and longer periods of paid leave than less advantaged fathers. We also know that larger, more profitable companies are more likely to offer leave to fathers.
“But, we control for all of most of these factors in our study (income, education, race/ethnicity, occupation type, etc.),” Petts explains. “While we cannot completely eliminate the possibility of selection (i.e., the fathers who take leave likely have more stable relationships already), we minimize this possibility as much as we can and our results are not explained away by the factors we can take into account.”
Why This Study — And Paternity Leave — Matters
It’s no secret that paternity leave has a lasting positive impact on children, but these effects go beyond the parent-child bond. According to Kahlil King, a professor and doctoral candidate in psychology at Hofstra University whose research focuses on relationships and work-life balance, a father’s presence during the early stages of his child’s life can have positive outcomes for the mother as well.
“The father can provide a much needed support system — mental, emotional, and physical — making caring for a newborn less of a burden on the mother alone,” she tells Scary Mommy. “And while companies are slow to adopt paternity leave policies, and coworkers still judge fathers who take off to be present for their child and their child’s mother, not taking this paid time off can lead to even more negative outcomes such as work to family conflict, family to work conflict, and, perhaps even worse, tension and resentment between the partners — which is not healthy for the child.”
Of course, in an ideal society, parents would be able to take as much time off as they needed after welcome a new addition to their family — but not everyone is that lucky. Brooke Markevicius, founder and CEO of MOMentum Market, was one of the lucky ones: her husband was given one month of paid time off for their first child, and three months for their second — something she says had a positive impact on their relationship. “Adding a new child is hard on a marriage, but the space of three months allowed us to make this shift as a couple together, supporting one another and I truly believe it was essential to keep our marriage strong,” she tells Scary Mommy.
According to Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist, author of The Self-Aware Parent, regular expert child psychologist on The Doctors (CBS), and co-star on WE tv, one of the most critical and common times when a crack in the foundation of the marital relationship occurs is the birth of the first new baby. “The entry of the newborn, as well as each of the next babies, changes the focus of the couple from each other moving outward toward the new baby,” she tells Scary Mommy. “In fact, the new mother’s energy and adoring gaze focuses on her new baby and Dad feels displaced and left out.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
So aside from calling for increased access to paternal leave for fathers, what else does Petts want us to take away from his research? First, he emphasizes the importance of prioritizing family life and spending time engaged in childcare, housework, and other domestic tasks. “Relationship stability is strongest in more egalitarian relationships, particularly when mothers perceive the division of household labor to be equitable,” he explains.
Secondly, fathers who cannot take leave can still take advantage of their time at home to demonstrate a commitment to be an engaged parent and co-parent and show that the mother will not solely be responsible for all that work. According to Petts, this can take many forms. “For example, fathers can volunteer to be responsible for the child certain days/times of the week. Or, fathers could find a few tasks that they can take primary responsibility for. Just finding ways to share in tasks as equally as possible would help parental relationships,” he says.
Along the same lines, Walfish stresses the importance of fathers not just spending time and energy on their new child, but also paying attention to his partner’s needs as well. “Fathers’ involvement in the adjustment process of their family growth is a legitimate reason for temporary leave of modifications, such as working decreased hours from home,” she says. “Never fail to show up. The marital couple is the foundation of the family. Nourish and nurture each other so that there’s a stronger, more secure base the children can depend upon.”
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