Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Parenting Pointers: Parental Leave and Relationships with Fathers

Taking parental leave shortly after the birth of a new son or daughter may be the key to developing strong father-child bonds that last for years, says new research from Ball State University.

“We find that 9-year-olds report greater satisfaction with father involvement,” said Richard Petts, a Ball State sociology professor who conducted the research with faculty collaborators Chris Knoester at The Ohio State University and Jane Waldfogel at Columbia University. “They feel closer to their fathers and report better communication with their dads if their fathers took paternity leave, and especially if their fathers took two or more weeks of leave.”

“We also find that the positive relationship between paternity leave and father-child relationship quality may be due to accumulating advantages that may result from fathers’ leave-taking. These include fathers being more involved in children’s lives, more likely to identify as a good father, and better relationship quality with the mother.”

Fathers’ Paternity Leave-Taking and Children’s Perceptions of Father-Child Relationships in the United States,” published by the academic journal Sex Roles, uses data on 1,319 families, largely socioeconomically disadvantaged, from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to analyze the associations between paternity leave-taking and 9-year-olds’ perceptions.

“We found evidence that part of the reason two or more weeks of paternity leave may lead to 9-year-olds expressing greater satisfaction seems to be that longer periods of paternity leave-taking link to parental relationship satisfaction, as well as fathers’ engagement and fathers’ identities to a lesser extent,” Petts said. “These results further highlight the interdependence of family relationships because the linked lives of fathers, children, and mothers are bound to each other.”

“This suggests that paternity leave-taking patterns may provide advantages to children that accumulate over time. In addition to providing time for fathers and children to bond, leave-taking may also help to strengthen parental relationships and encourage fathers to be, and identify as, engaged and overall ‘good fathers.’”

The study is the latest in a series examining the effects of parental leave in the development of children and its impact on the family. It also is the first research known to assess the associations between paternity leave and children’s perceptions of father-child relationship quality in the United States, Petts said.

Petts said the findings of the study have implications for families and policymakers who aim to strengthen families and promote higher quality father-child relationships.

The current structure of paternity leave in the United States provides limited opportunities for fathers to take leave and, in fact, often discourages fathers from taking leave, he said.

“Access and ability to take leave is often limited to higher-income families,” Petts said. “A lack of a national paid family leave policy limits access to important benefits for American families. The current structure may be exacerbating inequalities. That is, the inequalities that exist in access to leave may accumulate over time such that fathers who are able to take longer paternity leaves may be better able to bond with infant children and have more satisfying parental relationships that then promote stronger father-child relationships compared to fathers with less access to paternity leave.”

Petts said that providing more equitable access to paternity leave, as well as encouraging fathers to take longer periods of paternity leave, may help to change these patterns and strengthen family relationships.

I had a chance to interview Dr. Petts to learn more.

Why was this study conducted?This study is one of many studies I have done looking at the consequences of paternity leave for families. My interest in paternity leave began when my wife was pregnant with our first child, and I realized the challenges fathers face in trying to take paternity leave. To my surprise, there had not been much research done on paternity leave in the U.S. (or even maternity leave for that matter). This set me off on a path to better understand (a) who takes paternity leave and why, and (b) how might paternity leave-taking matter for families. In this particular study, I was interested in the long-term implications of paternity leave-taking on children (as there has not been much research done on this topic). The U.S. is way behind the rest of the world in regard to parental leave policies, and the ultimate goal of my research is to inform and encourage policymakers to increase access to paid parental leave for all workers. Doing so will help to alleviate work-family conflict for parents and help our society to grow closer to achieving gender equality.

What implications does it have for families?
This research has important implications for families in two ways. First, it highlights the importance of early father-child bonding. Enabling fathers to bond with their child from birth (by providing them with time off work) can develop stronger father-child attachments that have long-lasting effects and strengthen father-child relationships. Second, it highlights one potential implication of the unequal access to leave in the U.S. Our study finds that fathers who take 2+ weeks off at birth are more involved in their child's life and have stronger relationships with mothers when children are 5, and then ultimately have higher quality relationships with their children when their children are 9 years old. This suggests that the advantages of paternity leave-taking accumulate over time. For fathers who lack access to parental leave, they may miss out on this key opportunity.

If it is difficult for fathers to take paternity leave, how can they still make sure to reap the benefits of close relationships with their kids?
Most fathers take some time off when their child is born, but take short leaves (less than a week). Fathers face numerous barriers to taking leave, and these barriers are particularly steep for disadvantaged fathers (low-income, minorities, etc.). Taking paternity leave is not determinant of being a good father, but it does help to facilitate father-child attachments. If fathers cannot take leave, they need to find other ways to be as engaged with their child as much as they can. This can include spending time with children after work, spending time on weekends/days off, and spending solo time with the child (just the father and child). This can help take the burden off of the mother, and also provide fathers with time to learn how to be a good caretaker and bond with the child in his own way. Fathers who prioritize being an involved, engaged parent will be good fathers regardless.

How can families advocate for better leave policies?
The first thing that families can do is ask about options for leave, and encourage their workplaces to offer leave (or improve their leave policy if one already exists). Workplaces compete with each other to attract/retain good workers; if they believe that offering leave is important to achieving this goal, then they will offer it. For people who are managers, business owners, supervisors, etc. - encourage your employees to take leave if/when it is available! One of the big barriers to taking leave is fear of being penalized at work and lack of workplace support. Finally, people can write their senators and representatives encouraging them to work collectively with other members of the legislature to enact a comprehensive paid family leave policy. Just about every other country in the world has one (and every high-income country has one). We need to put pressure on our leaders to enact good policies that will ultimately help families.

About Ball State
Founded in 1918 and located in Muncie, Ball State is one of Indiana’s signature universities and an economic driver for the state. Ball State’s nearly 22,000 students come from all over Indiana, the nation, and the world, and its 780-acre campus is large enough to accommodate premier facilit

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