Maureen Samms-Vaughan | Paternity leave: let’s look at the evidence
Though scientists had for many years been developing theories based on evidence obtained through research, acceptance of the term ‘evidence-based decision-making’ became commonplace in the scientific community in the 1990s.
The political community subsequently adopted evidence-based policymaking, reducing the prevalence of ideologically based decisions. Evidence-based policymaking uses information to guide policy decisions and programmatic interventions, thereby increasing the likelihood of success, political effectivenes, and efficiency. Policy decisions, including those about paternal leave, should be evidenced-based. Leave for fathers is obtained in one of two ways: leave may be allocated specifically for fathers (paternal leave), or there may be family leave, which can be shared by mothers and fathers in the way that suits them best.
Much has been said about Jamaican fathers, most being negative and being used as arguments against paternity leave. However, the research shows that the majority of fathers are engaged with their children in the early years.
The JA KIDS Study, a birth cohort study that enrolled babies born in Jamaica, and their families, between July and September 2011, was conducted by researchers from the University of the West Indies’ Department of Child and Adolescent Health (Samms-Vaughan, Coore-Desai, Reece, Pellington). The research was funded by the Inter-American Development Bank.
Mothers were enrolled in the antenatal period and again at delivery; fathers were enrolled when they visited babies in hospital. Some 9,600 mothers and 3,400 fathers participated at the birth of their children, representing 86 per cent of mothers and 31 per cent of fathers for the over 11,000 births that occurred during this period.
Randomised and representative subsets of families were seen when children were nine-12 months, 18-24 months, and four-five years. We obtained detailed information from mothers and fathers about their engagement with each other and their children.
Only a small amount of the information collected is presented in this article, and only reports made by mothers about father involvement are reported to remove potential for bias. Reports by fathers were only slightly higher than those of mothers.
Mothers reported that more than 80 per cent of fathers provided financial support during pregnancy, and more than 70 per cent provided emotional support and checked regularly on the well-being of mothers and babies.
At the birth of the babies, 91 per cent of mothers reported that they were in a relationship with the father; the majority of these fathers were still in a relationship with the mother when the baby was 18 months old, and a proportion of those who were not in a relationship were still the father figures.
So up to the age of 18 months, approximately nine out of every 10 fathers were engaged with their children. Financial support of babies remained high (approximately 80 per cent) up to the age of 18 months. Mothers further reported that approximately 80 per cent of fathers were involved in decision-making about their babies at this time.
When children were four years old, there was a fall-off in the relationship with mothers; just below two-thirds of mothers (63 per cent) reported being in a relationship with the father. However, an additional 10 per cent were their children’s father figures, despite not having relationships with the mothers. The financial support and decision-making was at a similar level as the parental relationship, with 60 per cent of fathers engaged in these activities. It is important to note that though there was a decline in father engagement by the time children were four years old, the majority of fathers were still in their children’s lives.
Research on the impact of paternal leave
Research on paternal leave has shown that paternity leave is good for the entire family. Fathers who have access to leave are more supportive of mothers in childcare and engage more in childcare activities, such as feeding and bathing, and maternal depression is lower when fathers have access to paternal leave.
Fathers are also more engaged with their children as they grow; one study has found evidence to support this up to when children were nine years old. Greater paternal involvement has long-term benefits of increased academic and positive behavioural outcomes for children, and reduced child mental health challenges.
Paternity leave was also associated with lower divorce rates for as long as six years after the birth of a child. 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.
Another important finding has been reduced father fertility; men who receive paternal leave have fewer children subsequently. Fathers who engage more with their children report greater life satisfaction and better physical and mental health than those who do not. Organisations that provide parental leave report either a positive effect or no noticeable effect on workplace productivity, profitability, turnover, and employee morale.
Paternal leave across the world
In the 20-year period between 1995 and 2015, the proportion of countries providing paternal leave rose from 21 per cent to 52 per cent. Some 100 countries out of 192 provide paternal leave; of the 100, some 57 provide leave under three weeks and 43 provide leave of greater than three weeks. A few countries provide leave for about a year. The regions of the world that our culture and family structure are most similar to are South America and Africa.
Almost all of South America provides paid paternal leave; the exceptions being Guyana and Suriname (Caribbean countries) and French Guiana. In 2015, more than half of African countries (55 per cent) provided paid paternity leave.
THE DEBATE IN JAMAICA
The paternal leave debate at this time in Jamaica is welcome. Based on the evidence, we should acknowledge the role that the majority of fathers are currently playing in the lives of their young children, provide continued support for those who are engaged, and encourage others to become engaged. Paternity leave is one such mechanism of support, with benefits for the entire country.
- Maureen Samms-Vaughan is a professor of child health, child development and behaviour at the University of the West Indies and principal investigator of JA KIDS. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.