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Paternity Leave: It's Your Turn Now

by Dale Kiefer |
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As your infant's arrival looms, the often-thorny issue of paternity leave looms with it.

Will your employer allow you to take time off for bonding with your newborn or newly adopted infant? In the past such a question was hardly ever asked. It was assumed that fathers might drive their spouses to the hospital (where it was also assumed they would not participate in the birthing process) but society generally expected Dad's' involvement to end there - at least until it was time for little league. But times have changed.

We're fortunate to live at a time when the significance of a father's role in the life of his family is gaining increasing recognition and support. Since 1993, with the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act, it's been possible for at least some fathers to take up to twelve weeks of unpaid leave after the arrival of their newborn.

The Act also protects mothers from losing their jobs due to maternity leave absences, but the significance to dads can't be underestimated. For the first time in the history of this nation, the desire - indeed the need - to take time off from work in order to bond with one's child has been recognized, legitimized and formalized.

A recent, unscientific poll revealed that 72% of women and 63% of men think it's important for men to take more than two weeks of leave after the birth of a child. The same poll found, however, that 68% of respondents didn't know any male colleagues who had done so.

The fine print.

Unfortunately, the provisions of the Act do not apply to all men, and there is certainly no provision under the law for paid leave. Some employers do offer paid leave as a progressive benefit, or they allow employees to take combinations of vacation, sick and or unpaid leave. But the law stipulates only that up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave be granted, provided the employee has worked at least 25 hours per week for 50 weeks. But the law only applies to businesses with at least 50 employees, and those employees must work within 75 miles of the new dad's work site. Consequently, many employees of small businesses may be out of luck.

The good news is, qualifying dads may take the leave in the first 12 months following a birth or adoption, and weeks of leave my be taken intermittently. This would allow many families to extend the time parents spend at home with a newborn, particularly in cases where the mother must eventually return to work. Some men opt to begin their leave where their wives' leaves off.

Your decision.

In any event, the decision is up to you as a new dad. Can you afford to take unpaid leave (if that's the only option available at your workplace)? Do you really want to? While only you can answer the first question -- given your career and financial concerns -- the second is a bit easier. Most men, especially first-time fathers, experience at least some degree of nervousness regarding the prospect of caring for a newborn. Few men arrive at this crossroads with any great degree of preparation, either practical or psychological. But the benefits of spending intensive quality time with one's baby can't be overemphasized.

Research has shown that men who spend time bonding with their newborns tend to remain more involved in the lives of their children, and that their children benefit in turn from increased involvement on the part of their fathers. That's to say nothing of the pure joy and wonder of accepting responsibility for the care and feeding of your offspring.

Some benefits can't be adequately described, nor can they be quantified in ordinary terms. Suffice it to say that the chance to act as primary caregiver to your helpless infant is a rare and valuable opportunity that should not be missed if at all possible -- and it can never be retrieved if lost.Dale Kiefer is a free-lance writer living in northern New Jersey with his wife and two young sons. Born in New Jersey some 40 years ago, Dale was raised in Kentucky, where he spent most of his life, graduating from the University of Kentucky with a degree in Biological Sciences. You can see more of Dale's articles at his Suite 101 page devoted to expectant fathers


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