My employer doesn’t seem to have heard about paternity leave — he tells me I can have one day off without pay and that’s it. What’s the law, and where can I find it?
Dr. Greene’s Answer:
What an exciting time you have ahead of you! Getting to meet your baby and bonding to your child is a thrilling and satisfying experience. The joy of this time can only be surpassed by the wonder of watching your child grow, day by day, month by month, and year by year.
In the United States, the issues you are interested in are covered by the Family and Medical Leave Act, which establishes guidelines for maternity and paternity leave. Extensive information about the Family and Medical Leave Act can be found online through the U.S. Department of Labor at www.dol.gov/dol/topic/benefits-leave/fmla.htm. In short the FMLA stipulates that companies which have over 50 employees must offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for the birth or adoption of a child; acquiring a foster child; the serious illness of a child, spouse, or parent; and the serious illness of the employee. If the employee is in the top 10% of salaried employees, the leave may be denied on the basis that it would cause undue hardship on the company. The leave can be taken anytime in the first twelve months following the event and may be taken intermittently. This law is enforceable through civil actions. Initial complaints should first be filed with the Department of Labor’s Employment Standards Administration. Inquiries should be directed to local offices of the Wage and Hour Division. The Family and Medical Leave Act does not make any provision for paid leave of absence, nor does it make any provision for workers in small companies.
I intensely look forward to the day when paternity leave will be considered a normal benefit of employment. One day, perhaps, society will be organized in a way that recognizes the tremendous, far-reaching value of knitting fathers, mothers, and babies together. However, if you look at it from your employer’s immediate perspective, he or she is losing a valuable employee and getting nothing in return. You may say, “Hey, wait a minute! One day off is not much of a loss to a business!” But the time you take off surrounding the birth of your child is just the beginning of the loss your employer will incur. Following your child’s birth you will most likely be very preoccupied with family matters. Your career, which was probably once very important to you, may seem far less significant. You may be unwilling or unable to take on additional projects or work overtime. If that isn’t bad enough, for the six months or so after your child is born, you will be sleep deprived and have drastically lower energy levels at work than you normally have. All of these things affect fathers as well as mothers, and all of them cost your employer. On the other hand, your employer doesn’t have the joy of watching a precious new being come into the world. Your employer doesn’t have the opportunity to hear those magical words, “Da Da.” Your employer won’t look at your child and be reminded of the woman he loves so much. All-in-all, paternity leave is wonderful for you and expensive for your employer.
Please don’t misunderstand me! I very much believe in paternity leave. When my child was born, I took as much time off work, without pay, as my practice would allow. During that time I spent as much time with my family, and especially my new son, as I could. It was wonderful, but the short time I was able to take off work was only the beginning of the parenting process!
If you are interested in taking additional unpaid time off for the birth of your child, and you work for a large company, you most likely have the legal grounds to do so. If you are not in a position to sacrifice the income (many families are already losing one income with the birth of a new baby) you may want to look at creative ways to have the additional time you desire with your family.
- Talk to your employer about taking accrued vacation in conjunction with the birth of the baby. For some companies it isn’t a problem for employees to have flexible vacation times. Other companies need to pre-schedule coverage while employees are on vacation. If you are fortunate, your employer will be able to make this work for you.
- Consider working overtime before the baby comes and exchange it for time off when the baby arrives. Again, comp time doesn’t fit every company, but if you can work it out, it can be a win-win situation.
- Even if you can only take one day off at the time of your baby’s birth, make the most of it! If the hospital where the baby is being delivered allows fathers to spend the night, take advantage of it (even if it means paying extra for a private room). You will probably have one of the most uncomfortable beds you have ever slept in, but it is worth it.
- If the hospital allows the baby to room in, consider using it as a way for you to get time with your new baby. Undoubtedly, he or she will be up in the middle of the night. Mom will need to sleep after labor, but you can use that time to get to know your child. Those were precious moments for me.
- In the days immediately following the birth of your child, friends and family members will want to lend a helping hand. Arrange for the help to come when you are at work and decline help when you are available to spend time with mom and baby. Use this time for the three (or more if there are siblings) of you to get to know each other.
- If mom is nursing she will be up many times during the night for the first few months. On nights that you don’t have to go to work the next day, have her wake you as soon as the baby is finished nursing. You can use those precious late-night and early-morning hours of rocking your baby back to sleep to begin a tradition of involvement with the little things in your child’s life.
- If mom is not nursing, on nights when you do not have to go to work the next day, take turns getting up for feeding. This will help mom immensely, as well as provide you with the one-on-one time you are hungry for.
- During the first year of your child’s life there will be so many “firsts”. The first pediatrician’s visit, the first bath, the first trip to Grandmom and Grandad’s house, the first solid food, baby’s first birthday, and on and on. As a family, schedule firsts (whenever they are schedule-able events) around your time off from work.
- Children form many of their memories of events based on the pictures they see of the event, rather than the event itself. Be sure and get lots of pictures of you with the baby. When the baby is about six months old, put together a photo album that mom can use as a tool to build you to baby, even when you are at work.
- Look closely at all your activities. Do they add to your family life or take away from it? For the first year of your new baby’s life, say no to outside events whenever possible. The first year will fly by and there will never be another one like it!
- Develop special things that are “Dad Things.” They may be games that only you play with the baby, or songs that only you sing, or perhaps a favorite activity like a Saturday morning walk (while Mom sleeps in). It doesn’t matter what the “Dad Thing” is, but it needs to be something that your child will associate with you.
- In the same way, develop “Special Family Things” for the whole family to share. Daily, weekly, and annual rituals build you together as a family unit. These rituals give children positive memories of their past as well as exciting things to look forward to in their future.
Many of these suggestions are very costly. You will have to give up comfort, sleep, relaxation, recreation, and economic gain, but believe me, it’s worth it! You are getting ready to launch out on the adventure of your life. Paternity leave is a wonderful thing, but it is just the beginning of being a parent.
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