Nine months ago I was not yet a bleary-eyed dad juggling work and two baby boys, but I did know a second baby was imminent. What should’ve been a happy milestone was quickly blunted by a boomeranging lament – that there would be no taking any paid parental leave for me, a gig worker.
When my first was born, just before the pandemic, I was a freelance writer in the throes of an MFA program. My wife decided it was more cost-effective to stay home with our son than return to work; soon after Covid forced everyone inside, local daycare options vanished.
And even though our son was thriving in preschool and my work wasn’t drastically affected by stay-at-home precautions, a second child – blessing and all – was still a nervous endeavor that was going to demand so much more of me. Still, for all of my agita about the challenge ahead, I was still well equipped. I write from anywhere (the kid’s room, the car), keep odd hours and that flexibility meshes well with diaper changes, school runs and bedtime stories. I can stay on the grind and contribute at home. I’m fortunate, sure, but I’m still killing myself to live. And it’s not just me.
Working American parents are stretched thinner than ever. In the past half-century the share of working moms has jumped from 51% to 72%, according to Pew Research; almost half of two-parent families include two full-time working parents. And yet despite this trend toward balanced parenting the US remains the glaring exception among 41 resourceful countries that offer a national paid parental leave mandate. A 2019 congressional survey estimated 16% of private-sector workers qualified for family leave, and even then a recent Ball State University study found that only 5% of new dads take two or more weeks of leave. The figures are even more discouraging when you zero in on race. And yet there’s no question that part-time workers – 11% of whom have access to family leave, according to the Department of Labor – have it hardest. In a country that is increasingly pivoting toward a gig economy, this patchy social safety net should be an acute concern.
Only nine states and Washington DC mandate paternity leave – and even then it isn’t paid. The Family and Medical Leave Act gives parents unpaid leave for public agency workers and employees who have worked at least one year at private companies with at least 50 employees. That’s even as the benefits of paid leave have been well established for decades – most obviously in kids who grow up to be happy and self-assured. But paid family leave is good for the economy too, as workers with access are much more likely to return to their jobs and strengthen the overall labor force.
You’d think a president whose origin story derives from his being there for his kids after his wife and infant daughter were tragically killed in a car accident would have an easier time making a case for paid family leave. But it had been a sticking point in Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, with the terms going from 12 weeks to four weeks to out entirely (for Dino Senator Joe Manchin) to back in the fold when the bill narrowly survived a House vote last Friday. The haggling persisted even as Ball State researchers also found that 86% Americans supported some form of paid family leave, with participants on average pushing for 13 months off. When the Atlanta Braves utility player Ehire Adrianza took paternity leave before game six of the World Series, Braves fans mostly cheered – probably because it didn’t cost them the championship.
Of course some will find demands for paid family leave laughable, especially coming from a parent who didn’t push. Last month Joe Lonsdale, a smirking tech venture capitalist and father of three, gaslit the Twitterverse after pronouncing any prominent man who takes six months off with his newborn was “a loser”. It was a not-so-subtle jab at the US transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, who continues to draw harsh criticism for exploiting the 12 weeks of paid parental leave he receives from the federal government after he and his partner, Chasten, welcomed twins in September. “This idea that both parents should get maternity and paternity leave at the same time is a little weird,” quipped Joe Rogan, also a father of three, on a recent podcast episode.
But then again that figures. Rogan just scored a $100m deal from Spotify – which, incidentally, offers its employees six months of paid parental leave regardless of gender. (“And we strongly urge you to take it,” the company tells prospective workers.) Lonsdale and Rogan’s considerable fortunes don’t just buy home help on demand. (Tellingly, Ball State researchers found high-income-earning fathers were most likely to take leave.) It assumes not just that moms must bear the majority of infant caregiving, but also that they don’t need or aren’t deserving of undivided physical or emotional postpartum support. It assumes that same-sex parents can’t be overwhelmed, too. And it assumes childbirth to be a fairly straightforward affair.
It dismisses the mounting challenges for women who choose to start their families after 35 (the start line for “geriatric” pregnancies), and altogether overlooks the childbirthing risks for black women – who are four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Beyoncé, Serena Williams and Allyson Felix have been candid about their struggles. Meghan Markle, who has been just as open about her own pregnancy trials, made personal appeals to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Given the broad, bipartisan public support for paid family leave, it’s especially galling that pro-choice championing, family values-espousing conservatives and progressive Democrats were so obstinate about this. Even four paid weeks off makes a massive difference for workers like me.
My wife and I committed to a home delivery. As we inched closer to the due date I promised to begin winding down my workload, but as a creative contractor running a small business, that’s easier said than done – and then not done at all when work got really nuts. The further we sailed past our due date, the more the frustration built. Ten days later I was finally forced to hit the pause button when the baby arrived and was immediately rushed to the hospital. While he lay in a NICU bed, there was still a toddler back home who’d be waking up any minute expecting a wardrobe change and a hot breakfast. If it weren’t for family rushing in from out of state and the profound generosity of so many friends and neighbors, I don’t know how we’d have made it through. Finally, just before Halloween, we brought the baby home to a hero’s welcome; his brother, dressed as Iron Man with hands outstretched, shouting “Gimme!”
A baby in the hospital, Tony Stark back home, pets to feed, dishes to wash – this is a heaping plate in the best of times, let alone with the extra pressure of urgent work deadlines. But for the moment gig workers and small business owners who survive by eating what they kill have no choice but to press ahead with their jobs and react to the new additions to the family as they come. Now comes the hard part: reconfiguring routines, redrawing responsibilities, reckoning with the increased diaper flow, setting up the rest of the nursery – when all I’d rather do is take a nap. In a world where paid family leave is the norm it’s past the time the US did better by its working parents.