The Real Value for Women in Gender-Blind Leave for New Parents

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article highlighting the increasing number of U.S. companies that have introduced expanded paternity leave benefits. This includes, in some cases, fully gender-blind leave where fathers as well as mothers can take a fully paid parental leave, typically 12 to 16 weeks, to care for a newborn infant. The article celebrates the benefits to families this brings — stronger bonding for dads with their new infants, and a more equal sharing of the work that comes with caring for a newborn child.

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Women should be jumping for joy over the news that companies are embracing gender-neutral leave, but not only for the reasons given. One very nice-sounding dad proudly told of how he took his full 16 weeks parental leave, and during that time he shared equally with his wife in the housework. That sounds nice, but let’s not forget that we’re looking at over 900 weeks in the life of that newborn before she reaches 18 and is ready to leave home. And, as the WSJ article points out, one of the biggest obstacles to success for working mothers is the disproportionate burden of household work that women bear even when both parents are working equal hours outside the home. So while some extra help for 16 weeks is certainly something I’d take, it’s a drop in the bucket in the life of a working mom.

Of course, maybe the experience of those 16 weeks will give that well-meaning dad a greater appreciation for the work needed to care for a home and a child. And maybe that will lead to him shouldering a bit more at home even once he’s back in the office. Surveys show that the average man in a working couple spends half as much time on household chores as his wife. So there’s plenty of room for improvement and paternity leave should in theory help lay the groundwork for that improvement. But to me, that’s gravy, and is not the primary reason working women should be excited about the movement toward gender-blind parental leave.

Here are the big reasons why broader paternity leave has the potential to meaningfully improve the lives of working moms:

  1. Men can help remove the stigma from taking time away from work.

We need more men to experience, and normalize, the practice of taking time away from work to care for a newborn. Right now taking 12 weeks away from your job is a really hard thing to do and for the most part, only women do it. Many women are having children during the same years that they are building their careers and proving themselves. It is really stressful in the middle of fighting for opportunities at work to take a leave, no matter how excited you are about the arrival of your baby and the opportunity to spend time with her.

When you take leave, you relinquish control over your work. You turn over projects to other people while you are out, feeling uncertain that you will get them all back when you return. You turn over a client account, worrying “what if the client likes my stand-in more than me?” You turn over a deal 2 weeks away from completion worrying, “Will that guy get all the credit for that deal when I did all the hard work?”

As you prepare to be out on leave, you endure annoying questions and speculation about whether you will come back. When you return, you encounter more unwanted judgments about how committed to the job you really are. So you leave uncertain and maybe even a little paranoid about what or who might move in while you’re out, to fill the space you occupied in your company. In my case, while I was out on my first maternity leave, a guy literally moved into my space — he took my office, which had a nicer window than his, and moved my stuff into his old office, which was smaller and darker.

You return from maternity leave with a new worry: “They figured out how to get the work done without me for 12 weeks — maybe they will decide that they don’t need me after all.” At a time when you are feeling ever so essential at home and so certain that your baby needs you, it is very difficult to return to a work environment feeling like maybe you’re not as essential as you used to be. For some, that crisis of confidence and imbalance between feeling so wanted at home while feeling so unwanted at work leads them to make the very rational decision to leave the workplace to focus their time where they feel wanted.

For others, we powered through, faked confidence until the real thing came through, and fought to get our place in the company back. Over the long span of a career those difficult days begin to fade. But wouldn’t it be better if we never had to deal with all of that bs in the first place?

Just imagine, if men (who, let’s face it, for the foreseeable future hold the majority of leadership positions in American corporations) all experienced this too. Maybe they would be more likely to treat taking 12 weeks out to care for your newborn as no big deal, instead of the possible career setback that it feels like now. Maybe people would stop thinking of parental leave as the first step toward an exit from the workplace, and instead as a normal part of life that everyone does once or more over the course of a career.

2. New Moms Need Support

New mothers need time and help to recover from the physical and emotional impact of childbirth. You need your spouse at home with you more than ever during those first critical months postpartum. Your body needs to recover from pregnancy and childbirth, and now you’re navigating the physical and emotional challenges that come after the baby is born. Oh, and you’re hardly sleeping because the baby needs you all the time. On many of those days you won’t even shower.

On my first maternity leave, my husband, who was working for American Express at the time, got 2 weeks of paternity leave. I still remember the first day after he went back. I was alone. It was winter. I felt so uncertain with my brand new little baby that I couldn’t bring myself to leave the house with her. I tried to take a shower but she started crying, so I gave up. By mid-afternoon I was just watching the clock counting how many minutes were left until he came home. I needed someone to be there with me, supporting me and helping me figure out what to do with this new little bundle of joy. It was also important to my health to be able to occasionally leave that little bundle and go outside for some fresh air and a walk without her. For the remaining 10 weeks of my maternity leave, I felt inadequate and out of control, and was far less prepared to return to work with a healthy mindset than I would have been if I’d had my husband home with me all of that time.

While I love the implications of gender-blind parental leave, let’s not forget that the reasons each parent needs and can benefit from the leave are not gender-neutral at all. Women need a lot more during those essential first months and companies that understand that are taking a great step forward by establishing benefits that make it easier for their spouses to be there to support them.

CEO of PresenceLearning and Author of The Good Boss: 9 Ways Every Manager Can Support Women at Work. Mom of 2 girls. @eberlewalker