Father's Day is upon us, that time when we pause to celebrate dads and the contributions they make to their families. But for too many men in this country, those contributions are limited -- at least early on -- by the dismal state of parental leave in the United States. There is, after all, no requirement for paid leave, and many companies are exempt from offering leave altogether. Dads tend to be offered less time by their companies (only 15 percent offered some form of paid paternity leave in 2013, the Wall Street Journal reports). They are also less likely to take what is available to them, meaning that overall, the majority take roughly one day of leave time to spend with their new baby for every month the typical mom takes, a 2014 Boston College Center for Work & Family survey found.
But those who are offered leave, and who take it, say the time is invaluable for cementing a bond with their baby and enabling them to support their partners during the intense postpartum period.
Here, four dads and two moms talk about why leave for fathers matters so much:
Dave, 35: I took four weeks using vacation time I had accrued, and got another two weeks because my wife went into labor right before winter vacation (I'm a teacher). I imagined I would turn into "superdad" and be the most helpful person ever (spoken like a true first-time dad), but because my wife was breastfeeding, there was a lot I couldn't do. So I took care of her. I made sure my wife was fueled-up and hydrated. I tried to get her situated so she could rest. Our daughter was fussy and would hardly sleep if not on my wife, so I'd build them a fort in the bed. I changed a lot of diapers.
If I hadn't been there, I wouldn't have known how tough that time is. It's that constant cycle of soothing the baby, changing the baby, feeding the baby... it's like Groundhog Day. I don't want to say I wouldn't have believed my wife if I hadn't been home with her, but it's hard to understand what's really happening unless you're there to see it.
Eric, 36: The company I work for does not have a set [paternity leave] policy, but my supervisor gave me a paid week, and after that I took a month of vacation time. Then, after my wife's maternity leave ended, I took another six weeks of disability that's available in California.
I wouldn't trade that time for anything in the world. It was very precious to be with our daughter with nobody else around. No wife, just me and her. I loved the mornings, when she first woke up I would always see a big smile. Now that I'm back to work, we're always rushing to take her to the babysitter and she's fussy, but back then she was always in this happy, good mood.
I did hear some comments, from the older generation at work, like, "Why does a man need that much time? It's kind of ridiculous for a man to take that much time." But my supervisor was very supportive of it. He made me aware that the time was available to me, and encouraged me to take it. And honestly, I wouldn't have cared either way. I have a co-worker who is a little bit younger than me and is about to have a child and someone suggested he come and talk to me about leave. I encouraged him to take that time, because it's invaluable. That's a time that goes so fast, you don't want to miss a thing.
Amanda, 27: When we had our daughter, who is two, my husband worked in a grocery store and had limited paid time off. He needed to save his vacation days and sick days to come up with a week off once the baby was born. It was a struggle, because I was in triage frequently before the baby was born and we worried about finances. My six-week maternity leave was entirely unpaid; his one week was paid.
He was disappointed to return to work so soon, however, it's the norm around us, so he expected it. Fortunately, I do not think it affected his relationship with our daughter, because when he worked retail he was able to get Thursdays off and had her for an entire day by himself. He feels that really helped them bond. In my mind, the ideal leave situation would be 12 weeks -- at least -- for both parents. I'm a firm believer in the fourth trimester, and I feel this affects both parents.
Marshall, 28: I took four weeks of partially-paid leave initially, which was instrumental in terms of getting us going. My wife, though she's a wonderful mother and loves our daughter to bits, needed a lot of support: She had problems breastfeeding and went through postpartum depression. I was able to be there for her emotionally, but I was also helping take care of things around the house. Because we had switched to formula, I was doing a lot of the feedings, I was doing a lot of the diaper changes, so at least my wife could get a good block of sleep.
Even then, I didn't have any kind of instantaneous connection with our daughter; that came later. I took two weeks when she was four months old. She was more responsive then, and really showing pieces of her personality. It was great to have that time, just the two of us, to really develop our bond.
Ryan, 35: When my son was born, my wife and I were living in Norway where fathers get 12 weeks paid, no matter what kind of job you have. The paperwork was so simple, and I could space it out throughout the first year. When our second child was born, our daughter, we had moved back to the United States and I didn't take any time. I wouldn't say that I notice a huge difference in our relationship, because my job is flexible enough that I make sure to spend time bonding with her before and after work, but it was a lot easier to make that time [when I had paid leave].
I noticed that the gender expectations are so different between the two cultures. Making sure there is paternity leave makes it easier for both parents to work [outside the home], which almost all mothers and fathers do. My wife is a nurse, and when she started working again, I was able to spend time with our son. We cooked breakfast together every single day. It's kind of a silly thing, and it might not sound special, but it was a ritual we had that I will always remember.
Brittney, 27: My husband of nine years never took off after I gave birth to any of our three kids, and here's our very real situation right now: Our youngest is 7-months-old and was born with a heart defect. He had open heart surgery when he was three days old. My husband was able to be there while our son was being born, but then he had to work. The day our son had open heart surgery, he had to work. The procedure started at noon and he was in recovery at 5pm; my husband had to work from 5 to 11. I was glad we were able to be there fore each other when our son went into surgery, but I felt alone when he came out. Nothing could have prepared [me] to see our baby boy immediately post-op -- he was pale and attached to different machines and monitors. I felt like it was all on me, because my husband was working to take care of our family.
We still get to spend plenty of time with the kids, which is great, but when it comes to the important moments, it's difficult for my husband to be there. I can count the number of times he has been able to take our kids to the doctor on one hand. I don't blame him; I blame his employer and the systems in place that make it extremely difficult for fathers to be there for their kids and families.
These accounts have been edited and condensed.