Expert Perspectives: Erin Rehel on Fatherhood, Masculinity and Paternity Leave

Sociologist Erin Rehel conducted a fascinating research study on paternity leave and changing perceptions of masculinity. Here’s a Q&A with Dr. Rehel about her research and its implications for working dads.

Dr. Erin Rehel recently conducted a fascinating study about fatherhood, paternity leave and masculinity
Dr. Erin Rehel recently conducted a fascinating study about fatherhood, paternity leave and masculinity
  •  Tell us a bit about your study

My research examines the connection between fatherhood, work, social policy, and shifting ideals of masculinity in the United States and Canada. I conducted 85 interviews with fathers and their partners. I find that fathers today draw think differently about masculinity and fatherhood, but there are societal and workplace barriers that force many dads to fall back into less involved parenting roles.

In this particular study, “When Dad Stays Home Too: Paternity Leave, Gender, and Parenting,” (forthcoming in Gender & Society), I argue that when fathers experience the transition to parenthood in ways similar to mothers, through formal or informal paternity leave, they come to think about and do parenting in ways that are similar to mothers.

Paternity leave provides the space necessary for fathers to develop the parenting skills and sense of responsibility that allows them to be active co-parents rather than helpers to their female partners. This shift from a manager-helper dynamic to that of co-parenting creates opportunities for a more gender-equitable division of labor.

 ·        What are some of the commonalities of the men who take paternity leave?

The majority of the men who took leave lived in Quebec, where the government provides up to 5 weeks of paid paternity leave at a wage replacement level of 70% (up to a maximum, of course). Statistics show that about 80% of Quebec fathers now take advantage of this policy, suggesting that providing paid leave is very important.

In the US, the fathers who took leave–sometimes unpaid leave–were actually quite similar in many ways to their non-leave taking colleagues. In general, fathers who did not take leave had some type of family support in childcare, such as grandparents, often right from when the baby was born. Also, dads in dual-earner couples were more likely to take leave, perhaps because of more economic freedom to do so and more egalitarian attitudes.

  • How do dads who took leave say they’ve benefitted from doing so?

Fathers who took leave overwhelmingly said they enjoyed the experience. Many said it allowed them to really understand what it meant to take care of an infant, all the things that go into a daily routine. This presence allowed them to participate in all aspects of infant care, giving them confidence in their skills. Others spoke of how it brought them closer to their partners, as it gave them the time and space to do parenting together. This shared experience, while exhausting, was something that both fathers and mothers spoke of in their interviews.

I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time with Nick after he was born. I wish all dads had the same opportunity
I was very fortunate to spend a lot of time with Nick after he was born. I wish all dads had the same opportunity

 ·        How could we encourage more men to take leave?

Leave-taking in the US is still not very common, even if we hear of more and more employers providing paid paternity leave. In less-than-stable economic times, people are worried about doing anything that might jeopardize their jobs. This is completely understandable.

I think we can encourage men to take leave in a number of ways. I think employers who do offer leave need to be clear about that yes, this is a policy we support and yes, we encourage you to take it. Make employees aware of the policy and make it a straightforward process. Have more senior people be vocal about their support for the policy. These small organizational culture elements are really quite key in creating an environment where fathers feel able to take leave.

As far as encouraging individual men to take leave, I think it’s important for fathers who do take leave to talk about it. But not just about how wonderful it was, because I think those types of only positive narratives make people skeptical, but also about the challenges faced. I think getting mothers to encourage their partners to take leave can also go a long way to making men feel welcome and important in parenting.

Really, though, it is about changing how we understand masculinity. If we continue to value a form of masculinity that doesn’t leave much space for caring, that values paid work over care work, men aren’t going to see paternity leave as a desirable option. While 3 days isn’t much, I think Major League Baseball has done quite a bit of work in this area with their paternity leave list. It’s these types of cultural shifts that I think can make significant differences in how men understand their place in families and their families in relation to work.

  • How could we encourage more employers to offer paternity leave?

I think there is a compelling business case to be made for paternity leave. We have more and more evidence that compensation isn’t the only thing workers are looking for from employers. If employers want top talent, they need to offer the things that will attract that top talent. Workplace flexibility and family-supportive policies are ways to attract and retain top talent.

  • Any advice for dads who can’t/didn’t take leave as they still try hard to be involved fathers?

I think taking leave has real potential to help fathers develop the skills and confidence necessary to be co-parents along with their partners, but I don’t think it’s the only way. I think being an involved father requires intentionality, patience, and a supportive partner.

If a father’s partner has more hands-on experience with the child, they both have to be ok with it perhaps taking a bit longer to sooth a crying baby (hard to do, I know) or to feed a toddler who is use to the mother doing it.

Really, it’s about getting in there and making it happen: ask to do things and get involved. Or better yet, take over a task–a regularly-occurring, time-consuming, perhaps not always fun, task. Be the bath person. Or the get-everyone-ready-in-the-morning person. Of course don’t have that be the only thing you do, but taking over a significant task has the potential to snowball into doing lots of other, related tasks.

Thanks, Erin! What do you think about this interview? Your thoughts about fatherhood and paternity leave? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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Erin M. Rehel is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Youngstown State University. She completed her PhD in Sociology, with a certificate in Women’s and Gender Studies, from Vanderbilt University in 2013. Her research considers the intersection of gender, family, and work, with a particular focus on how fathers experience work -family conflict. You can follow her on twitter.

6 thoughts on “Expert Perspectives: Erin Rehel on Fatherhood, Masculinity and Paternity Leave

  1. You and Erin may be interested in this piece in the Globe & Mail (she may already have seen the study they talk about) – sadly, it seems in some companies a macho attitude prevails: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/careers/business-education/paternity-leave-dads-seen-as-not-man-enough/article13821961/

    I host a podcast on women and work called The Broad Experience and we touched on this in my latest show, which had a male and female guest: http://www.thebroadexperience.com/listen/2013/12/13/episode-32-home-as-career-killer.html

    • Thanks for the comment and the links. I am aware of “all-in” corporate culture and how it holds dads back from accommodating family at the workplace. Indeed, it has been a dominant theme here at this blog, and the subject of my academic research and professional work. Thanks!

  2. This was a really interesting discussion. As someone who really benefited from being able to take two weeks of paternity leave, I am delighted to hear of studies being carried out into how men feel about paternity leave and what they gain from it.

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