Fri | Dec 6, 2019

Michael Abrahams | In support of paternity leave

Published:Monday | November 11, 2019 | 12:25 AM

As the Jamaican Government facilitates discussions on the introduction of a Paternity Leave Act, some of the comments and opinions being posited in the public space are cause for concern.

There are many, usually men, who rubbish and dismiss the very concept of a man taking leave to spend time with his newborn child. I have seen persons suggest that the idea of paternity leave is one crafted by feminists and is designed to emasculate men. Indeed, some men feel it is unnecessary and unmanly, and that only a ‘maama man’ (an effeminate man who takes on traditional female domestic duties) would take time off from work to stay with his child.

In my opinion, these comments reflect a lack of emotional intelligence and scant appreciation of the importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Many argue that a man does not need to take paternity leave in order to bond with his offspring, and they are right. Indeed, many of the fathers I deeply admire, respect and wish to emulate did not take paternity leave when their children exited the womb, but did fantastic jobs raising them.

However, just because a system may work, it does not mean that it could not be even better.

When I was being trained in medical school and taught to deliver babies, as soon as the baby was expelled from the vagina, the umbilical cord was clamped and cut. It seemed to work well. Most of the babies were in excellent health and went home with their mothers. However, subsequent research has shown that if cord clamping is delayed by 30–60 seconds after birth, babies are even healthier.

So, regardless of what we might think about paternity leave, what does the evidence show? Over the last two years, Richard Petts, a sociology professor at Ball State University, and Chris Knoester, a sociology professor at Ohio State University, have published several papers on paternity leave. Their research findings demonstrate that paternity leave provides not just short-term benefits, but lasting ones as well, and that these positive effects not only apply to the relationships between fathers and their children, but also to mothers and to relationships between both parents.

In one of their most recent papers, published in May of this year, Petts and Knoester found that, even nine years later, children whose fathers took at least two weeks of paternity leave after they were born reported feeling closer to their fathers than children with fathers who did not take leave.

In more recent research, the sociologists discovered that even relatively short periods of paternity leave caused couples’ divorce risk to drop and to remain significantly lower for as many as six years.

CULTURAL SHIFT NEEDED

In Quebec, Canada, a study observed that men who took paternity leave, taking advantage of their ‘daddy quota’, continued to spend more time on household work even one to three years after completing their leave. The research also found that, by fathers being more helpful in the home, the children’s mothers were more able to pursue their own professional ambitions, as one to three years after childbirth they were working an hour longer per day, on average, and were seven per cent more likely to be employed full-time.

Mothers were also observed to be more likely to return to their employers when leave policies are equitable, as they tend to go back to work more quickly when the fathers of their children take time off from work.

In Europe, where paternity leave is more common, research has found similar benefits. For example, in Germany, it has been observed that fathers who take paternity leave are more likely to be involved in parenting and to equitably divide household chores. A Swedish study showed that mothers whose partners were offered flexible paid leave in the year after a child’s birth were less likely to need anti-anxiety medication and antibiotics.

Another study from that country showed that each additional month of parental leave taken by the father increases the mother’s earnings by approximately seven per cent.

Some men fear being stigmatized if they take time off from work to spend quality time with their babies. A cultural shift is needed to diminish these fears, and more conversations on the topic are necessary for us to achieve this. And it can happen.

We have seen it in America, where in 2014, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy was harshly criticised for taking three days off for the birth of his son, and just four years later, basketball player Dwayne Wade was praised when he missed six games following his daughter’s birth in 2018.

If we wish to progress, and act in the best interest of our children, and our families, the nation only stands to benefit from men being given the option of taking paternity leave.

- Michael Abrahams is a gynaecologist and obstetrician, comedian and poet. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and michabe_1999@hotmail.com or tweet @mikeyabrahams