When one former diocesan employee from the mid-Atlantic region welcomed his first two children into his family, there was no paid paternity leave policy in place. Because he valued taking time to be with his wife and new babies, he managed to piece together some sick and vacation time to take two weeks off. “I was liked, so I was given a lot of leeway, but the fact that there was no policy felt inconsistent with the vision of a pro-life Church,” he said.
By the time his third child was born, he had started working for a religious order that provided eight weeks of paid leave for both mothers and fathers. This policy was not only helpful for bonding with the newest addition to the family and assisting with middle-of-the-night diaper changes, but also allowed him to be available to take care of the two older kids while his wife focused on feeding the newborn.
In FemCatholic’s report on maternity leave policies in the U.S. Catholic Church, we outlined what we learned about diocesan paid parental leave policies after reaching out to all 176 dioceses in the United States. Since then, a few dioceses have added new policies. As our data currently stands, just 34 dioceses offer paid parental leave policies to their employees, with one more going into effect on July 1 (Pensacola-Tallahassee). Thirty of them offer the same amount of paid leave to both men and women. Four of them offer fewer weeks of paid leave to men, and just one – the Diocese of Lincoln – only extends their paid leave to mothers (however, some of the schools in the diocese opt to implement their own paternity leave policies for their male teachers).
Though the majority of the 35 dioceses that have created their own paid parental leave policies opted to extend them to fathers as well as mothers, 28 dioceses rely upon short-term disability policies to provide some percentage of pay to mothers during the 6 to 8 weeks during which they are recovering from giving birth. These policies by definition only apply to the mother, and fall short of the 12 weeks recommended for maternity leave by the president of American Academy of Pediatrics. Relying entirely on short-term disability neglects the full needs of the baby to be with mom for the duration of the “fourth trimester,” and to have time with dad.
While fathers do not have the same physical need for recovery after giving birth, there is overwhelming evidence that paternity leave leads to better outcomes for the entire family. Yet, 70% of fathers in the United States take ten days of leave or less when their child is born. This leaves mothers alone to face the challenges of caring for a young newborn baby, and fathers dissatisfied with the amount of time they are able to spend with their children.
In honor of Father’s Day, here are 5 reasons why Catholic organizations should provide paid paternity leave.
1. Paternity leave strengthens marriages.
According to a 2019 study from Ball State University, couples in the United States were 25% less likely to end their relationship in the first six years following the birth of a child when fathers took at least a week of paid leave. Similarly, in a study done by McKinsey & Company that involved interviewing 130 new fathers, 90% of fathers reported an improvement in their relationship with their partner after taking leave.
And yet, family leave laws in the United States can dis-incentivize both spouses taking leave. Spouses who work for the same employer have to split their 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave. Seven dioceses that provide paid leave to their employees also require them to split that time. Since two spouses who work for the same employer are stuck splitting the leave that they would each have earned if they were not married, one diocesan representative described this policy as being “penalized for being married.”
2. Paternity leave strengthens the relationship between father and child.
Children whose fathers take at least two weeks of paternity leave have stronger perceptions of their father’s involvement, closeness, and communication well beyond the time of the leave itself (this study measured these associations in children when they were 9 years old). The more time that fathers have to spend with their children when they are first born, the more comfortable fathers become in caring for that child.
This increase in feelings of closeness between fathers and children is more than simply skill-training on behalf of the fathers. There are biological changes that happen to men when they become fathers to assist in bonding with their children, such as a lowering of testosterone and an increase in the release of reward and bonding hormones such as oxytocin and dopamine. These changes are more pronounced the more time that men spend with their babies.
Katie Alexander, a teacher in St. Louis who was interviewed for our initial report, noted that while she received maternity leave from her school, she regretted that her husband (who does not work for a Catholic organization) did not receive any paternity leave. She recounted how he has said to her, “[I] really didn't feel like they needed me or that I could really help out until they were older, like three or four months old, or even older than that, when they can start moving around – 9, 10, 11 months old – and they start talking.”
“And, you know, that's quite a long time to have this human in your house and not feel like you really know what to do with it,” Alexander said. “He was a very capable father, but still, it would have been nice for him to have that time that I did with other children to really bond with them."
3. Paternity leave promotes equity at home.
Even though the majority of two-parent households with children are now two-earner households, women still do the majority of childcare and domestic work. This “second shift” of care that largely falls upon women has made them feel exhausted, which was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when other forms of childcare support fell through, and women left the workforce at startling rates to compensate.
Research indicates that paternity leave helps to level the playing field. Longer paternity leave is associated with more frequent engagement in developmental tasks and caregiving in the first few years of a child’s life. One study from Canada, which offers five weeks of paid leave to fathers, found that men who took the leave continued to spend more time on household work one to three years after completing their paternity leave.
“It felt like by the end of that time you had gotten into a rhythm and the adjustment was easier for all of us,” said the former employee from the mid-Atlantic region. “It does reflect the vision of parenting that is a shared vocation that we get to do together.”
This former diocesan employee acknowledged that there has been a culture shift, and noted that the lack of paternity leave access is likely driven by out-dated gender roles.
“The idea of paternity leave is certainly newer, maybe that would have roots in the old-fashioned vision of bringing up kids – dad is out working and mom is home with the kids, dad could take a few days [of leave],” he said. “The way we approach parenting is more collaborative. My wife works outside of the home – she just finished a master’s degree while working and taking care of the kids.”
4. Paternity leave improves the mental health of mothers.
A lack of paternal involvement in the care for the baby has been shown to be a significant contributor to the intensity of postpartum depression. One study that measured the mental health of mothers in Sweden before and after a policy reform that made it more likely for men to take paternity leave found that women who became mothers after this reform were 14% less likely to seek care for postpartum medical complications, and 26% less likely to get a prescription for anti-anxiety medication.
As one former diocesan employee put it, “Paternity leave is partially for me, but also for my wife, so she wouldn’t have to go through the physical trauma of giving birth and then also the emotional trauma of being isolated.”
5. Paternity leave promotes equity in the workplace.
In the current United States culture, parental leave can be a liability when it comes to career advancement. Women and men who take leave are more readily passed over for promotions because of their time away. This contributes to how few men choose to take more than 10 days of leave, even if it is available. But because leave after giving birth is more medically necessary for women, they do not have as much of an option to forgo it in pursuit of promotions.
This dynamic is a factor that leads to women advancing more slowly into leadership positions, and contributes to the persistence of the gender pay gap. Yet, if men took paid parental leave at the same rate and duration as women, it would help to level the playing field and mitigate pregnancy discrimination in the workplace.
Several popes have spoken about the need for women in the workplace. Pope John Paul II specifically called for “equal pay for equal work, protection for working mothers, fairness in career advancements, equality of spouses with regard to family rights.” Pope Francis has called for “special attention to women’s employment.” While maternity leave is the thing most people think of when seeking to support women, paternity leave is also crucial to women’s advancement.
As Catholics, we are taught that the family is a “domestic church” – a model of the love of God, the place where faith is passed down, and an important building block for society. We look to the Holy Family as a guide for how to live this out.
When the former diocesan employee from the mid-Atlantic region prayed about the birth of Jesus during the Spiritual Exercises – a retreat designed by St. Ignatius of Loyola – he found that he connected with St. Joseph in a new way. St. Ignatius’s message for that portion of the exercises is “make yourself useful,” as Joseph did when he accompanied Mary during pregnancy and at the birth of Christ.
“I think that is a model that is presented early on – the two of them in that partnership despite the risks, being there together in that way,” he said. “I found that inspiring in a way I never had before.”
Paternity leave allows fathers to be present to their own “domestic church” during a transformative and challenging time. It encourages them to follow the example of the Holy Family, journeying together through the early weeks of parenting side-by-side, ready for whatever comes their way, from NICU stays to explosive diapers. Catholic organizations ought to adopt the policies that would help parents live this “shared vocation” together.
Additional reporting by Reneé Roden and Isabella Volmert.