Since my Dad passed on a few years ago I don't shop for Father's Day anymore. But every time I go to my local mall, I'm struck by the number of dads pushing strollers or holding their kids' hands as families troll for merchandise.
When I was a kid, that scene would have been unheard of. Dads worked for pay, moms tended children (even if they also had jobs),and the two worlds rarely intersected except at the dinner table. To paraphrase the Virginia Slims marketing slogan of the '60s, we've come a long way with babies.
Still, our cultural norms are stuck in the past. We remain loyal to the assumption of maternal ownership of children. Stroller-pushing dads notwithstanding, men still get short shrift from the workplace and society in general when it comes to sharing the joys and burdens of raising kids.
All this is not to say new mothers have it made. While new parents in every other industrialized country on the planet get a paid break, usually mandated by law, the vast majority of employers in the good ol' U S of A offer zero paid leave for moms or dads. We have no national policy or law mandating paid leave for new parents. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, a measly 12% of employees in the United States have access to paid leave for any care of family members, including newborns and adopted children.
Precious few employers offer time off with pay to new moms, and of the 17% that do grant dads the same benefit it's almost always for less time. Companies offering fully paid maternity and paternity leave on Working Mother Magazine's 100 Best list give an average of 9 weeks to moms -- but only 3 weeks to dads.
We know it takes women a couple of weeks to recover physically from childbirth, so when paid leave is offered, some difference is expected. But companies need to give men a better break. Moms can use the help, and dads need time with the new kid too.
Attempts to get men to take more responsibility for children have always been at the core of the struggle for equal rights for women, in and out of the home. But even as individual families grow more egalitarian, the effort most often ends at the workplace door. We cannot urge men to spend more time with their children without recognizing that both our corporate system and our culture virtually guarantee the opposite outcome for too many families.