I have three children. With our first two children, I was waiting tables while finishing my college degree. I took what time off we could afford (usually no more than a few days). I worked for a large restaurant chain where I was paid $2.15 an hour to wait tables (the federal minimum wage for tipped workers at the time). There was no vacation, no sick pay, and certainly no paternity leave.
At the time, I hated this fact. With our first two children, I felt like I missed out on those important first few moments of bonding, and the opportunity to be there for my wife when she really needed me. I often told myself that once I was done with college, I’d take as much time as I could if we ever added to our family.
But once Mel was pregnant with our third, and I was in my big kid, after college job, I ran into the fatherhood penalty. For those of you unfamiliar with this term, it’s the idea that men are expected to put work first and family second, regardless of any family leave benefits offered.
My wife was 8 months pregnant with our third, and my boss and I were discussing my paternity leave. “I wouldn’t take too much time off,” he said. “Your students could really suffer.” I was at my desk, and he was sitting across from me. When he said “suffer,” I felt a heavy weight on my chest. He crossed his legs and looked me in the eyes, and suddenly I felt selfish.
At the time, I worked as an academic counselor in a program that served underrepresented students. I had about 80 students I met with every two weeks, and that term alone I could’ve named a half-dozen students who would’ve had to leave college for one reason or another if I hadn’t intervened. My wife, Mel, was due right before the end of the term, which is usually when students need the most attention.
But at that same time, Mel and our new baby were going to need attention too. We’d lived in Oregon a little over one year, a 14-hour drive from our home state of Utah, and Mel and I often talked about the fact that we were really all each other had. My mother-in-law was planning to come help, and we had a few supportive friends, but that was about it. Mel needed me, and I wanted to be there for her and our baby.
I was between a rock and a hard place.
Turns out, I’m not alone in these feelings. According to a recent survey commissioned by Talking Talent, the parent company of Life Meets Work, only 32 percent of men took their available paternity leave. And 62% of parents surveyed said they would have taken more leave if their coworkers had.
Let that sink in for a bit. As a father who has been down this road, I’m well aware that taking time off to be with family can feel like being in a tug of war, where you feel like you need to be home because you love your family and want to support them, but you also feel as though you will face backlash at work for choosing your spouse and children over your carrier.
Back to the story about my third child, I had enough paid leave to enable me to take seven weeks off. According to university policy, I could take up to three months, but I wouldn’t have been paid for all of it. Although I often thought that taking paid time off if available would be an easy decision, the reality was, so much of working parenthood comes down to trying to decide when work or family should be the priority. I struggled with how much time to take, and in the end, I let my job take precedence over my family.
I took a total of two weeks off.
Looking back now, I hate myself for this.
I missed out on the opportunity to connect with our new baby — to hold and care for her during those first few remarkable weeks of life. And I missed the opportunity to care for my wife when she needed me most.
Mel and I are done having kids now, but if you are an expectant father and reading this, I get it. I get the pressure. But I also know the regret, and I can say, without any reservation, that if you have the option to take paternity leave, take it. Take every last moment of it. Suck it dry. It’ll all be fine, and your family will be stronger for it. You won’t regret it. And in the long run, the more we band together, the more we push for parental leave equality in both pay and expectations, the less stigma will be around men taking time off to be with their families.