I took three weeks of paid paternity leave to be home with my wife and my second son when he was born 17 months ago. The law firm I work for offered me more paid time off, but I did not take it because I thought doing so would make my attempt to balance family and career look too much like a prioritization of family over career.
Nobody in my firm discouraged me from taking more time off. I am not aware of any negative repercussions to my career as a result of my decision to take paternity leave. The colleagues who helped cover for me made abundantly clear that they did not begrudge me the time away. Unless something truly time sensitive arose, they seldom took me up on my repeated offers to call or email. In fact, most of the emails I got while I was out were of the “how’s the baby doing – send pictures!” variety.
But still, I only took the three weeks.
I regret not taking more time. Why not spend even another week or two at home with my newborn baby and exhausted wife? Looking back more than a year later, it’s hard to say it would have made any difference to my career if I had stayed home just a little longer. And yet, if I had it to do over again (as of this writing, I do not), I don’t know if I would take the extra time.
Why? Well, as I’ve stated, I’m afraid the effort to balance family and career would look too much like a prioritization of family over career.
Ironically, I work at a firm that represents scores of women whose careers have been unfairly, and unlawfully, impacted by their efforts to balance motherhood with professional careers. See, for example, this case and this case. The problem is well known, if not readily acknowledged. It stems from the false and insidious notion that men are naturally and universally better suited to have professional careers and women to be caregivers, and therefore the only women who could possibly be committed to long term career success are those who have elected to eschew their natural inclination towards caregiving.
As illustrated by my own reluctance to take a longer paternity leave, even in a work environment that encouraged it, stereotypes that so often force women to choose between family and career also serve to stigmatize men who would seek to be more involved parents. As Claire Caine Miller noted recently in this New York Times report, even in workplaces with paternity leave polices on the books, “unwritten workplace norms can discourage men from taking leave,” and most men only take about a week even if they are eligible to take more.
So long as stigma dissuades men from playing more active roles at home, women’s careers will continue to suffer. As Ms. Caine Miller’s article quite correctly points out, “one of the clearest ways to bolster women’s participation in the labor force, economists say, is to involve men more at home, for the simple reason that women are more able to work outside the home when they are not doing all the child care.”