Paternity Leave: A Good First Step on the Ally’s Journey

I’d like to think that companies want to make full use of their talent and improve retention without reinventing the wheel or creating a new playbook. With so many people spending more time at work than with their families, it’s my belief that principles supporting families should be considered for the workplace. New parents often struggle with juggling the demands of home and both parents as wage earners. It’s not as simple as solving the workplace riddle with paternity leave, or even family leave.

According to research, more than 17 million millennial women have given birth. There are innumerable configurations of what makes a family. Those who don’t become parents have a high likelihood of having to take care of their parents who are living longer. The value of family is something that has shaped who I am.

Growing up in an Italian American family in San Francisco, my maternal grandparents immigrated from Italy by way of Ellis Island. There were many family reunions with extended cousins, and family values were entrenched in all that we did. Looking back, the gender dynamics were different from my household now. The men went to work, the women managed the house and raised the kids. That was that.

My father was a lawyer on his way to becoming a judge. He married my mother, a southern Italian woman. They were both a perfect and imperfect match. My brother, sister, and I did our part in carrying on the “Italian family ways” until it stopped working for us.

History repeats itself

So when it came time for me to get married and have a family, you can guess what I attempted to do... I created an arrangement where I had a full-time job and my first wife ran the house and took care of the kids while I was at work. I left early in the morning and came home at the end of the day. I had expectations that things would be “a certain way” just like I witnessed growing up. This was not the way the mother of my three children saw things. She was an only child, and she wasn’t Italian. So like a slow simmering bolognese sauce left cooking too long, unbeknownst to me, the sauce was starting to burn.

By outward appearances, my marriage looked like it was working. In fact, it was an old model that was running out of steam. It wasn’t relevant. As each child was born, I routinely went to work, didn't take any time off to bond with the babies, and unconsciously repeated behaviors I saw modeled growing up, including stuff that was inherently sexist.

Wake Up Call

It took about seven years for things to come to a head: my wife didn't want to be married anymore, my model of what it meant to be a father and husband was broken and ineffective. I had no playbook to reference. A divorce ensued and before I knew it, I had to step into being a dad. There I was in a house with three kids, and nobody but me to cook, clean, nurture, read stories, dress them, drive them to school, pick them up when they got sick, stay home if they weren’t feeling well.

The process was empathy boot camp.

It woke me up to what women face, and what I was missing as a father. Looking back on those times, it was the best thing that could ever have happened to me as a man. My relationships with my kids now are amazing because of this wake-up call.

From 50% father 100% of the time to 100% father 50% of the time

My former wife and mother of my children used to always say to me, when you are here in the house with us, it’s like you aren’t here. She routinely insisted that I get present with the family. My excuse was work. Little did I know that I was a 50% father 100% of the time as in there but not really. The reality of the divorce removed 50% of my time with the kids and I had no say.

A lot of men won’t change their behavior without the motivation of pain. For me, I had to face the very real pain that as a result of becoming a divorced father, I would have to live with not seeing my three beautiful children every day. It was painful.

From this painful place, I learned first hand that I had a conscious choice about the type of dad I wanted to be. With a 50/50 child custody arrangement, I could be a 100% present father, 50% of the time or repeat the old way, which would mean squandering my now limited time with my kids to even less.

Paternity leave wasn’t a thing. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (or FMLA), signed into law during President Bill Clinton's first term, mandates a minimum of 12 weeks unpaid leave to mothers for the purpose of attending to a newborn or newly adopted child. This happened one year after my first child was born. Now select companies are seeking to make the same available to fathers.

One big happy family is a vision I forever hold and seek to do my best as a father, son, brother, husband to do my part to live into it and be the best man I can be. It requires heart, the ability to empathize for everyone so that I may do my part to create an environment that everyone feels included. I recognize that family environments have their fair share of challenges, just like workplace culture. It requires patience and understanding. In the last several years I’ve seen the opportunity for bringing the context of a family into the workplace.

In our house, we say, “ family is who is around the table and everyone has a voice. “ By its very nature, this saying is inclusive and can, with some intention translate successfully in the workplace. Inclusive leaders will need to do their part in “setting the table”, by being empathic, and supportive of both men and women.

Paternity Leave is an integral step on the ally’s journey.

Paternity leave can have an amazing humanizing effect on men. It gives us the chance to connect with our children and our partners. It can develop empathy that we can carry back into the workplace. It begins to teach us how to listen to our hearts. Our organizations benefit because everyone is looking out for each other.

Imagine the idea of men facing the double bind that women have been facing for decades and coming to a deeper empathic understanding so they could support women being successful both at home and work. Imagine men being supported to do the same…by both men and women..Then imagine the possibilities of those people bringing their full selves to work!

Colton Edwards