The three reasons why I am taking parental leave

Posted by Steve Whittington on Sep 21, 2017 2:03:24 PM

Steve Whittington with his children on parental leaveAs of September 5th I have been on parental leave. The responses I have received to this decision have been encouraging to the point in which I felt I needed to share. I have received hundreds of supportive messages from co-workers, vendors, friends and family regarding this decision. Mostly from males, and many stating they wished they had taken some time with their kids or they are proud of me for doing this. As text, IM, or email poured in with the continuing theme, I came to understand the response is a derivative of something deeper. Why were so many men wishing they had taken time, and why was I being congratulated for deciding to support my wife, become a better dad and live up to my ideals of equality in our society?

So I decided to do a little research and I was surprised and alarmed by what I discovered: In Canada (excluding Quebec) in 2011, 11% of men claimed parental leave benefits, as of 2014 that number had fallen to 9.4%. This, despite the fact that 10 weeks parental leave (which either parent can use) has been available since 1990 and in 2000 this was extended to 35 weeks, thus increasing the combined maternity leave and parental leave from 6 months to 12 months. The base benefits of 55% of prior earnings up to an annually adjusted base maximum ($51,300, January 1st, 2017) has remained the same since the beginning.

Why are only 9.4% of Canadian men (outside of Quebec) taking any time off work to raise their child?

Economics has often been sited as the reason for the lack of men taking parental leave. Men remain the primary provider for most families and the minimum 45% pay cut is simply too much. While this is a very valid reason for a family to make this choice, I also believe Canadian culture runs deep in a counter direction that influences the choice of men to not take parental leave. I originally belonged to that cohort of men not taking parental leave myself, so my experience may shed some light on the issue.

I remember vividly the conversation when my wife first inquired if I would consider taking parental leave. My default reaction was “that would be career suicide!” My wife asked why. I don’t recall what I said because I had no real good answer. I only could mumble stuff about “in my industry that doesn’t happen.” My wife knows me well enough and left it alone and let it sit with me for awhile. We continued to have snippets of conversations on the topic over the course of several weeks (mostly me just asking probing questions about what it would be like and what we thought the impact for me would be career-wise if I took the leave). Through this process I soon became convinced I needed to grab this opportunity and take parental leave. It is interesting now to reflect upon the first few statements in this process.

First my wife merely asked if I would CONSIDER taking paternal leave….think of the deeply embedded default thinking in just that statement. Considering that only 9.4% of men are taking paternal leave, it is 100% fair that my wife would ask if I had ever even thought of doing this, and to be fair, I hadn’t. Considering my reaction, one can understand why I hadn’t considered it. As a partner in a marriage, I never even considered supporting my wife’s career when it came to raising our kids, I just assumed it was on her. Wow! But why did I think this way when I believe I am a supporter of equality: why would parental leave never even enter my mind?

My best armchair psychologist guess to the driver of my reaction is the perception “it would be career suicide!” So why is taking parental leave career suicide? Time away? As my wife and I discussed the topic, this reason (time away) was quickly dismissed because I have been known to take close to three months off from time to time for mountaineering adventures. So the looming question is: if I was able to prep the teams I am responsible for and financially prepare for time away from my profession to go climb a mountain, why could I not do the same for parental leave?  (I fully acknowledge that three months off for certain positions seems like an impossible reality, I would argue that it is not and just a society norm to think that, but that is another blog). The fact of our situation was that if I could make arrangements for business units and financial considerations to be away for up to three months to chase a passion, why could I not do this for my family?

That left only “in my industry that doesn’t happen.” So that was it, no one else is doing it, certainly no one else I knew at a senior level. VPs don’t take parental leave. So because no one else was doing it (or hadn’t taken leave) I wouldn’t. Once I realized that was holding me back I could let go of the old thinking “no one else is taking parental leave” and I could then begin to see all the good reasons for taking parental leave.

For me taking parental leave became about three reasons, three really good reasons which I stated in the opening paragraph.

FirstI want to support my wife in her career.

My wife had an amazing opportunity to return to work before our son turned one. This meant we would have to find a nanny until we could get him into daycare or I would stay home. Given the choices and my intentions, the decision to stay home and spend time with my son and almost three-year-old daughter was not a hard one. One of the main reasons as sited above for not taking parental leave is economics, and that is real. The gender wage gap in Canada is double the global average, which means women earn 73.5 cents to every dollar a man earns. This occurs even though more woman have higher education than men in Canada (64.8% of women vs. 63.4% of men have higher education -Canadian press 2013). There are many factors stated for this gap. One of the biggest is maternity leave.

In an article titled Canada's Gender Pay Gap, Sarah Kaplan, a professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto states: "If [women] do take the time off, they are typically giving up a salary and wage growth right at that crucial moment of their career." Kaplan explains, "this pushes that baseline salary from where future promotions will grow.”

In my case, my wife was presented with an amazing career opportunity and she wondered if I would consider taking parental leave for three months so she could go for it. And once I understood that this wasn’t career suicide for me, why wouldn’t I support her career? From a long term economic perspective it only make sense for me to support my wife’s career opportunity; our combined earnings will be higher. Yes, in the short term there will be some austerity measures, which we prepared for with savings the year prior, so the financial challenges are mitigated.

Second: I want to become a better father.

There is a growing list of research studies which trumpet the benefits to the father and the relationship the father has with the child if he stays home. Moreover, the long-term consequences to the family unit is one of “redefinition and redistribution of work in the homes,” and a development of competence in the fathers having been alone on parental leave with the main responsibility of child care.  (Linda Hass & Philip Hawang article on the impact of taking parental leave….:Lessons from Sweden.)

I know that the first few weeks of unsupported parenting are going to be rough. I did not take parental leave for our first child and my wife has been overwhelmingly the primary care giver with our second. Plus, this past year I have been travelling a lot for work. Quite honestly, I have missed more than I would like. Taking this leave gives me a chance to step up and become a better dad and get some quality time in with my two children. This time only comes once, I don’t want to miss it.

Third: I want to support equality in our society and other fathers who want to take parental leave.

Again, according to the Linda Hass and Philp Hawang article: “Results from a survey of fathers working in private sector suggested that men’s use of parental leave is significantly affected by organizational culture, including the amount of top management support for active fathering. A further study found that 59% of personnel offices believe that men who take leave for several months are less career-oriented.” Thus it can be concluded that “workplace culture appears to be a formidable barrier to fathers’ use of leave benefits….only a few companies (three percent) could be classified as actively supportive.”

None of these findings surprise me. My conviction was reinforced earlier this year when a junior report sent an email regarding his intention to take parental leave. After outlining what he was going to do, he concluded his email as follows: “I hope this does not put too much of a kink into things! I am willing to do any kind of work from home during my leave if there would be anything that is needed (website work, used ads, etc). If there is any kind of option along these lines then I would be open to discussing them but if not I completely understand as well.”

Reading the email, and knowing the individual, his anxiety about how the organization was going to react was palpable. It also was not public knowledge that a senior leader (me) was taking parental leave. It further reinforced my desired to act. These young dads need to know that it is OK to take parental leave. I immediately called the individual and assured him not to worry and when he found out that I was taking leave, he was relieved.

If we want equality in our society we need more senior leaders to lead on this issue. The best way to lead is through action. More male leaders should take parental leave if only to set an example. Considering how the research correlates, if we want a better society we need to support mothers and fathers equally. Incomes for families will rise and quality of parenting will increase, which determines our future.

When an Advisory Council for Equality between Men and Women was established in Sweden this was its stated charge:

“The demand for equality….involves changes not only in the conditions of women but also in the conditions of men. One purpose of such changes is to give women an increased opportunity for gainful employment and to give men an increased responsibility for the care of child.” – Olof Palme Prime Minister of Sweden 1972.

In Canada, by the numbers, we still have a long way to go.

Full Disclosure:

As stated above, in the first two weeks I expect to be overwhelmed but I will survive. As well, I did not take parental leave for our first child and have taken a backseat with our second. My wife’s position at the time of our first provided top up benefits for a full year. Economically, it made sense for her to take the leave and for me to stay working, and we felt there was no negative career impact for her. So honestly, until faced with the current situation in this recent year with our second child, we had allowed economics to trump the other benefits. In hindsight I wish we had not, and had had more insight for our first.

Additionally, this time around from an economic stand point there is no real difference which parent works. There will not be a minimum 45% hit to our household income dependent on which of us works. The earning potentials for me and my wife are similar, with my wife actually contributing more at this time. So we are not faced with having to pick between having the parent that will provide the most income versus what could be optimal for child and parent development. I can honestly say I hope if we were in a different economic situation we would come to the same choice. The evidence regarding decisions with our first child suggests otherwise, although our education (or enlightenment) on the topic was far less.

We did financially prepare for this parental leave, but whether my wife or I stayed home either way our family income has been reduced this year. Austerity measures have occurred, no family vacations for two years other than camping and visiting grandparents, retirement savings contributions reduced, home renovations put on hold. Granted, all these things are not the necessaries of life but are nice to have or do in life.  The point is, we have altered our family budget to a mitigate the financial impact of taking leave and we are committed to take an economic hit to do what is best. Arguably, hiring a nanny makes the most economic sense allowing us both to work but that action is a disservice to our family, in our opinions. The real test of our resolve will be if we have a third child, how then will we split the leave?  The time only comes once, we should both be part of it.

References:

Linda Hass & Philip Hawang article on the impact of taking parental leave….:Lessons from Sweden

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2016/03/08/canada-gender-pay-gap_n_9393924.html

http://www.statcan.gc.ca/pub/75-001-x/00303/6490-eng.html

http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/inside-the-daddy-wars/

http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2015/05/25/paternity-leave_n_7421960.html

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