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Do Fathers Need Longer Paternity Leave?

Mass Communications Specialist 3rd Class Gerald Dudley Reynolds/Navy

It seems like Josh Levs and I would disagree.

Levs, a CNN journalist and an author, is an outspoken proponent of increasing the opportunities fathers have to be home with their children, particularly during a baby's first weeks of life. His book is called "All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads." He writes and speaks extensively about how important it is for both parents -- but fathers in particular -- to spend time with children.

I, on the other hand, write a column to help parents when one of them (predominantly the father) has a job that prevents him from being home.

Levs wrote his book after requesting, and being denied, extended paid parental leave following the birth of his son. His company allotted biological fathers just two weeks of paid leave, but granted biological mothers -- and people who became parents through adoption or surrogacy -- 10 weeks of paid leave. Levs noted the discrepancy, challenged it, and went all in on the research, a process that produced a great book.

(That's right. I said "great." Spoiler alert: Josh Levs and I agree much more than we disagree. There's even a whole chapter in his book devoted to military dads.)

Eventually, Levs' company (Time Warner) changed the policy. Now biological fathers working there can get six weeks of paid parental leave, which Levs sees as an improvement and a victory, though he believes there's still room for improvement.

I spoke with him recently to ask him how Must-Have and Must-Do parents reading this column can reconcile his views with a very different type of all-in lifestyle. We talked about that, but we also talked a lot about the role fathers can and should play in families.

"Ultimately, we all want the strongest families and strongest societies. Those are not in conflict with each other," Levs said. "Allowing families choices as to what works best for them, that's good for families, society, and workplaces. When we break out of the 'Mad Men' concept, we all win."

Mad men, indeed. Levs said he found that a 1950s mind-set, one that supports the idea that men are not needed for child rearing, not only harms families, but hurts the workplace too.

"Very few companies offer any paternity leave, and the amount of paternity leave offered has actually gone down in recent years," he explained. "Companies started getting the wrong message and cutting leave. As a result, more and more men are leaving their jobs now. American men are now more likely than women to change jobs, change careers, move to another state or even move to another country just to have better work-life balance. It can cost up to 200 percent of an employee's annual salary to replace that employee."

Okay, but ...

What does that mean for Must-Have and Must-Do parents? Some of us (myself included) agree with him that fathers need to be allowed as much access to their children as mothers. But what happens when that just isn't possible? There are some jobs that just don't allow for it. In some jobs, it just isn't practical. And many of those jobs are absolutely essential to the function of our society. I asked him about that.

"With most families, there isn't a need for one parent to be the Must-Have parent," Levs said. "But in some families, you really don't have that choice. Skype, reading books together on the phone or online -- these things are not small. They really do count. Those are moments of demonstrating that, even from far away, you're still a caregiver. That does a lot for everyone, even the parent who is gone. Every little thing like that counts."

These things matter, Levs said, not only because they help the bond form between the Must-Do parent and the children, but also because they build competence and confidence in the Must-Do parent -- things that are absolutely necessary if and when the family's circumstances change.

"Sometimes those situations change on a dime," Levs explained. "An exec gets fired, the spouse has to become the bread winner and the former exec has to be the lead parent. If that exec did not get leave when the baby was born, he didn't get the confidence to handle all those child-rearing requirements. But if he got at least that block of time when the baby was born, he's going to have a much easier time stepping in."

And -- bad news for many Must-Do dads -- Levs said that research shows that it really does need to be an uninterrupted block of time in the first weeks of a child's life, he said.

"To get the benefit, you need a substantial block of time -- more than three weeks -- taken all at once," he said.

Which is all well and good for progressive civilian companies, but this column is published on Military.com. A lot of Levs' best-practices just don't seem possible for many, if not most, military families. So what does he say about that?

Levs noted with pleasure Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's recent announcement that parental leave DoD-wide would be expanded, but he also said that DoD's policy doesn't go far enough. The policy still doesn't offer much for fathers, Levs said, and in order to qualify for leave at all, the father has to be married to the mother.

"That's a ridiculous, nonsensical rule," Levs said.

But DoD or civilian, employed by a progressive or an old-fashioned operation, Levs acknowledged that fathers often don't feel empowered to take leave, even when it is generously offered.

"The number one problem we have with this issue is that available paternity leave goes unused. That's because these stigmas exist all over the world," Levs said. "They're not just worries these men have -- these things really happen. They're legitimate fears. We have to stand up to those stigmas. Allowing families to have choices as to what works best for them -- that's good for families, good for society and good for workplaces," he said.

I couldn't agree more.

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Contributor

Rebekah Sanderlin is an Army wife, a mother of three and a professional writer. Her work has been published numerous places, including The Washington Post, The New York Times, National Public Radio, CNN, and in Self and Maxim magazines. She currently serves on the advisory boards of the Military Family Advisory Network and Blue Star Families.

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