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Derrick Z. Jackson

A gift that pays off for new dads

By Derrick Z. Jackson
Globe Columnist / June 19, 2010

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THE BEST Father’s Day gift would be more days to be fathers. A decade into the 21st century, the United States remains one of the most primitive nations on the planet in parent leave.

According to family leave experts Allison Earle of Northeastern University and Jody Heymann of McGill University, 177 of 185 countries they could study have some form of paid maternity leave. The United States is among the eight countries that do not, sharing the lowly status with countries like Sierra Leone, Swaziland and Liberia.

If American mothers rate a zero for maternity leave, you can forget about fathers. Yet, according to Earle, 32 nations, in the quest for gender equality, now offer 14 weeks or more of paid leave specifically for new fathers.

It is beautiful to see the difference. In an April trip to Stockholm and Copenhagen, my wife and I were stunned to see how many fathers pushed infants in strollers, rode bicycles hauling baby trailers and breathlessly chased toddlers around parks. Sweden reserves two months of paid paternity leave for the father. In Denmark, fathers have two weeks of paternity leave dedicated to them and can further share in 32 other weeks of parental leave.

In the United States, where few fathers can afford unpaid leave, you see them pushing strollers, but more likely with Mom alongside. In Stockholm and Copenhagen, the fathers were alone with their kids. By definition they were far more engaged.

Heymann, co-author with Earle of a new book on family policies for workers titled, “Raising the Global Floor,’’ said she was struck during a visit to a Norway factory how fathers felt free to be the one to pick sick kids up from school and stay home with them until they recovered.

“That starts with parental leave policies,’’ Heymann said. Norway gives fathers six paid weeks, and then they can share in up to 39 weeks of further paid leave. “This factory was like one you would find in the industrial Midwest. What we found out, from the CEO down to the lowest-paid handlers, was that paid parental leave made for low turnover and a more highly skilled workforce because they had to cross-train to fill in for fathers on leave. They cared about the firm because the firm cared about them.’’

In Sweden, 85 percent of fathers take advantage of their two months of leave. In a feature this week on that nation’s paternity leave policies, The New York Times had, by American standards, a hilarious photograph of a hunter with his dog, carrying his baby. His wife told the Times that she finds him the most attractive, “When he is in the forest with his rifle over his shoulder and the baby on his back.’’

Better still, despite the American business lobby whining that paid leave will damage the economy, the evidence is that countries and businesses that support generously-paid leave for fathers also boost women in their workplaces. A Swedish Ministry of Employment study this year found that for each month a father goes on paternal leave, the mother’s earnings go up by 6.7 percent. “This is a large effect, larger than the effect of the mother’s own parental leave,’’ the study said. “This indicates that paternal (lack of) involvement in parental leave and child care may in fact be one important explanation for the male-to-female earnings gap.’’ The study said that the father’s shortening of mother’s leave helps her send to her own workplace a “positive signal of work commitment.’’

That is on top of all the other benefits. Divorce rates are down in Sweden. Globally, involved fathers are associated with all kinds of better outcomes of well-being for both the children and the mothers. Earle and Heymann note that 12 of the world’s 15 most economically competitive countries have paid leave for new dads. “Those societies are not losing talent and productivity,’’ Earle said.

We should not lose one more Father’s Day to a society that has no paid days to be a father.

Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at jackson@globe.com.

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