Parental Leave is a Jewish Issue

I was on the phone with a friend last week after an especially long day watching Josephine and our new addition, Nora, all by myself. My friend asked, “So how was babysitting today?”

“I was not babysitting,” I said, keeping my voice as gentle as possible to correct them. “When you’re their father, it’s called parenting.”

Laurel recently went back to work full time, and while of course, many would refer to her as a working mom, to quote our senior rabbi, “When is the last time you heard someone use the term, ‘working dad?’”

In all respect to my friend and those that use the term “working mom” and not “working dad,” I think these cases highlight a classic misconception in today’s society; when women are watching the kids, it’s what they’re supposed to do, whereas when men watch their kids, it’s some sort of special event.

As many of you know, I just returned from two months of parental leave after the birth of our second daughter. I am immensely grateful to our entire congregation, and especially the lay leadership and my colleagues, for allowing me to have this special time with my family. Three a.m. feedings, hour long walks to get Nora to sleep, so many diapers, and of course lots of cuddles truly helped me bond with our new daughter, and this was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I will never forget. I recognize how blessed I am to be part of a community that values parental leave and know that not everyone has these same opportunities.

However, there are many men who do have the opportunity to take parental leave, but shy away from it.  A nationwide Department of Labor study found that more than 70% of new fathers took 10 days or less off work. Some reasons for this low rate of paternity leave include societal stigmas ingrained in traditional gender roles and the fear of income loss.

And these are real concerns. A University of Oregon study found that taking time off for family reasons reduced men’s earnings. When men reduced their hours for family reasons, they lost 15 percent in earnings over the course of their careers. Which, by the way, is still not as much as the 20 percent wage gap in general between men and women in this country.

However, the benefits of fathers taking parental leave far outway the these concerns. Liza Mundy of the New America Foundation, author of The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners is Transforming Our Culture, helped push the concept of paternity leave into the ongoing national conversation about “having it all” as working parents with her Atlantic article, “The Daddy Track.”

Mundy points out that fathers who take paternity leave and play an equal role in the difficult first few weeks with a newborn tend to stay more active in the child’s life as he or she grows up, creating a more even distribution of household and baby responsibilities, and avoiding the “second shift” paradox (when working mothers do most of the household work, even though they work full-time).

Mundy further concludes that the true beneficiaries of paternity leave are women and the businesses and nations that employ them, since paternity leave has been shown to “boost male participation in the household, enhance female participation in the labor force, and promote gender equity in both domains.” In other words, it’s a smart economic strategy for governments, because it shrinks the gender pay gap and helps ensure that women, who, in many countries, are often better educated than men, return to the workforce after having children.

Paternity leave is a feminist issue. It is about gender equality. Paternity leave is a unique opportunity for fathers to use their male privilege to help their wives and all women in the workforce.

And paternity leave is a Jewish issue as well. In this week’s Torah portion, we check back in with the famous Daughters of Zelophehad. In case you don’t remember from last week, Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, five women, were the only heirs to their father, Zelophehad’s property. The law at the time said that only men could inherit property, and thus their father’s household would fall to some other relative. However, they petitioned Moses, asking that the law be changed to allow them to receive their rightful inheritance.

Moses then uses his privilege, as a man and as a leader, to help these women. Just like fathers who take parental leave and risk income loss or perceived affronts to their masculinity, Moses takes a risk and goes before God. Even for Moses, we can imagine this moment was filled with fear and awe – you just don’t go up to God and ask for something willy-nilly.

Moses models for all of us, and especially those with privilege, what it means to be willing to give up some of his own security to lift up the voice of the oppressed.

Also, in this weeks double portion we find various regulations concerning the status of women’s vows. The portion describes the circumstances under which a woman’s vow may be annulled. We read that if her father or husband hears the vow on the day that she makes it, he can nullify that vow. Setting aside for a moment, the uncomfortable, blatant misogyny of our tradition, we can learn a lot from this passage.

Once again, we see men with privilege and the opportunity to use that privilege to lift up the voice of the oppressed. Imagine what it would have been like in those days for a man, a husband or father, to allow his wife to make a public vow and not comment on it. In this case, silence was actually a sign of acceptance. In his silence, a man had the ability to make a statement about gender equality. Imagine the message he could send to the entire community about a woman’s agency and her ability to think for herself and make her own decisions. And remember that this was all done in the public square.

That last piece is very important. Men can take all the paternity leave they want, but if it is done in secret, it does not have the added effect of helping others. Thankfully, there is a shift going on in today’s corporate world, with many tech companies in particular leading the way. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook took two months off and was incredibly vocal about it – setting an example for all of his male employees to follow.

Similarly, Twitter senior client partner Bob Belciano, who helps mentor new fathers and took 12 weeks off after his son was born, was recently quoted in a New York Times article about paternity leave saying, “If you don’t take [the leave], it’s borderline idiotic.” This seems to be the consistent message young dads get from senior managers and older fathers in this new age of gender equality in the workplace.

In responding to the Daughters of Zelophehad’s plea, Moses says that their request was just. Working for gender equality is not merely a nice thing to do, it is an issue of justice. So here are a few things you can do, fellow feminist dad (and everyone else who cares about justice):

  • If you have access to paid paternity leave, take it. ALL of it.  And be public about it.
  • If you work for an employer that offers “primary caregiver” leave, call it out for what it is: a discriminatory policy that perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.
  • If you work for an employer that offers different lengths of parental leave to mothers and fathers (beyond the 6–8 weeks medically necessary for women to recover from childbirth), call it out for what it is: a discriminatory policy that perpetuates damaging gender stereotypes.
  • If you don’t have access to paid leave, ask for it.
  • If your family can afford it, take unpaid leave (the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides for 12 weeks of job-protected unpaid leave for some categories of employees). If you use this benefit, thank the women who fought for it.
  • Do you have a male colleague, friend, or family member contemplating taking leave? Encourage them to take the full amount.
  • Contact your Senators and Representatives, at the federal and state level. There is currently legislation pending in U.S. Congress called the FAMILY Act, which would provide 12 weeks of paid family leave (to include parental leave, personal medical leave, elder care, etc). In the absence of federal action, many states and municipalities have also introduced legislation. Tell your local reps to take action!
  • If you live in New Jersey, congratulations (sorry, PA)! You have some form of paid family leave. When you use this benefit: thank the women who fought for it.

Together we can create a society of gender equality and justice. Ultimately, my hope is that one day people won’t refer to fathers as “babysitting” their own children, and instead refer to them as “working dads.”