Here's baby. Dad stays home. Dad gets antsy. Dad returns to work

Colin Harrison

September 22, 1993|By Colin Harrison

NOW that millions of working men and women are guaranteed 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth of a child under the Family and Medical Leave Act, which took effect Aug. 5, will America begin to see new fathers staying at home?

Is Dad more likely to be around the house in the first few months, taking the newborn out in the baby carriage while Mom gets a chance to nap or read?

It sounds nice. The image conforms to our collective notion that men are more sensitive to the needs of women and more interested in children than they used to be.

But the answer, mostly, is no -- at least not any time soon.

One reason, of course, is that new fathers need their paychecks. But I'm betting that even men who can afford to take off two or three months generally won't do it, because extended paternity leave is not yet inwardly acceptable to most of them.

In large part this has to do with the culture of the workplace. Even though parental leave is now law, I doubt that the nation's bosses have changed their opinions much since a 1986 survey of chief executives and human resources directors at 1,500 of the nation's largest companies.

Asked what a reasonable length of time would be for paternity leave, 63 percent of those executives and bosses who responded said "none."

Why? Part of the reason is that fathers-to-be are perceived differently from their pregnant wives.

In the workplace, pregnant women go through a visible progression: the first-trimester morning sickness, the growing belly, the swollen ankles.

Pregnant women are affectionately touched by co-workers and given heaps of advice.

It's different for expectant fathers. Our co-workers ask about our wives, mostly, and the talk between men tends to run -- with much solemnity -- to insurance coverage and what to do if one's wife, laboring in great pain, doesn't want the epidural anesthetic.

Although I work in a reasonably progressive office, four years ago, as the birth of our first child neared, no one in authority came to me and said, "We hope you'll feel comfortable taking a few weeks off."

I asked about a paternal leave policy; there was none. So I arranged to take two weeks of vacation. It was a good thing I did, because our daughter ended up back in the hospital twice in the first 10 days of her life.

When we had our second child I was in a better position to argue for a formal, unpaid leave, and had I asked I would probably have been granted it. But I didn't ask.

In fact, two days after our son was born, I slipped back into the office to "look at the mail" and soon resumed full-time work.

The fact is, men's roles have changed less than we think. If anything, there is greater pressure now on men.

The culture rightly asks that we be supportive husbands and devoted fathers. But we are also working in an economy in which it is increasingly difficult for a father alone to support a family, even temporarily.

Also, few men are secure in their careers when they become fathers; even if we can afford a long leave, we sense we'd better get back to the job. And we may have seen our wives agonize about what will become of their careers by taking a leave.

Men may not like this state of affairs, but it's so built into our understanding of things that we don't protest. Although I'm now a father twice over, I'm afraid I would secretly look upon a male co-worker who took a long paternal leave as someone who was less serious about his work.

I'm not proud of this feeling, but there it is. On the other hand, I'd cheer his independence and hope more men would someday follow him.

Finally, there is another reason new fathers go back to work soon after the birth, a selfish motive we might as well acknowledge.

After having dutifully puffed and panted through natural childbirth classes and then sweated out the actual delivery, suddenly being cooped up at home with a squalling, mysterious infant and a tired, distracted wife isn't necessarily the transcendent joy it's advertised to be.

And maybe her mother, or ours, is around, helping out, advising, fussing, looking for the sugar in the wrong kitchen cabinet.

The prospect of immersion in this environment is, for some men, a panicky proposition. The office, even with its pressures, suddenly seems sweetly attractive, affording a regular pattern, a known role.

Returning to work, we should admit, can be a guilty but genuine relief.

Colin Harrison, a senior editor at Harper's magazine, is author of "Bodies Electric," a novel.

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