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What is Paternity Leave? A Guide to Paid Family Leave

September 10, 2018

You just found out you’re going to be a dad! It’s a moment filled with joy and excitement… and then the gears start turning. You begin thinking of budgets and timelines and, of course, work. Who will take time off? How much time can you and your spouse get? Will it be paid?

There are a lot of questions surrounding paternity leave, and just as many societal pressures telling you what to do. First, you need to learn the basics: What is paternity leave? And then figure out what options are right for you and your family.

What is Paternity Leave?

Paternity leave, also called family or parental leave, is when a father or domestic partner takes time away from work after the birth or adoption of their child. Sometimes the leave is paid, but more often than not it is unpaid.

The United States offers some protections for new parents regarding maternity and paternity leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). This act guarantees an individual’s job is protected for up to 12 weeks after a child’s birth or adoption. Although the act does not guarantee pay, it does promise no penalty to pay or position after a new child enters your home should you choose not to work.

What Are the Requirements?

As with any government policy, there are several requirements a company and employee must meet in order to qualify.

In order to receive protection, your company needs to have more than 50 employees within 75 miles of your workplace. You also need to have worked there a minimum of 1,250 hours during the 12-month period immediately preceding your family leave.

If you and your spouse work at the same company, you may only be eligible for a combined 12 weeks unpaid leave after the birth or adoption of a child. You can find the official regulations at the United States Department of Labor website.

Legally, paternity leave policies at a company must match maternity leave for the period of time after a child is born. However, maternity leave may have unique policies regarding time off during pregnancy and at the time of childbirth. Post-childbirth or adoption and when childcare is involved, paternity and maternity leave policies must be equal.

Your State’s FMLA Protections

Paternity leave in the U.S. can be tricky because states have their own laws in conjunction with the federal government. Twenty-five states have supplemental FMLA protections that may require paid leave or other protections. It’s important to learn what laws your state allots for paternity leave.

Talking to Your Employer

According to the FMLA, you must request paternity leave with at least 30 days notice and you must also use your time off within one year of the birth or adoption of your child.

When learning about paternity leave at your company, try to find individuals who have used it before and learn about their experience. Other fathers may have insights about how your company’s policies work and about paternity leave in general.

You can, and should, also speak with your human resources representative to learn about your company’s policies and begin the formal request process should your company require one.

Military Paternity Leave

In 2016, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter announced that all military personnel will be allotted 12 weeks paid leave for maternity leave, as reported by The Washington Post. This was an increase for army maternity leave, which was only six weeks at the time, but came as a blow to some sectors like the navy who approved 18 months paid leave not long before the Department of Defense made their announcement.

Under this policy, paternity leave also increased from 10 days to 14 days of paid leave. Although a fraction of paid maternity leave, the military is still competitive with most private corporations in the United States regarding family leave policies.

The Pentagon also announced the expansion of subsidized child care to equal up to 12 hours a day for military children.

Paternity Leave in Society

The United States has long lagged behind other industrialized countries regarding maternity and paternity leave laws. According to data compiled by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the U.S. is the only country among 41 nations that does not mandate any paid leave for new parents. Even New Zealand, which has the smallest amount of paid leave, still requires employers to provide about two months of paid leave.

The same research found that in 19 of the 41 countries the majority of all paid leave is allocated for maternity leave, and six countries allocate all available paid leave to mothers only. On the flip side, countries such as Korea, Portugal, Norway, Luxembourg and Iceland mandate about two months or more of paid leave for new dads.

In the United States, with federal regulations being so weak, some private companies have chosen to provide their own policies. The Society for Human Resource Management found that 16 percent of private employers fund paid paternity leave programs.

But taking leave from work as a new parent can often be about more than just corporate policies, especially for fathers. There can be a stigma around fathers taking time away from the office to perform childcare. These societal attitudes around paternal leave can result in fathers taking less time away from work and consequently spending less time supporting their partner and bonding with their child.

Should I Take Paternity Leave?

According to a study by the Boston College Center for Work and Family, about 85 percent of new fathers take some time off after the birth of a child, but of those, most only take a week or two. Although unpaid paternity leave is granted to most employees, few fathers take advantage of the time allotted them.

Sixty percent of fathers in dual-earner couples reported feeling conflict between work and family responsibilities in 2008, compared with 35 percent who felt that way in 1977, according to the Families and Work Institute. Although the social consciousness has broadened the discussion about maternity leave, fathers still have a long way to go before their leave is treated equally.

However, the benefits of fathers taking time off are often overlooked when couples are making decisions around family leave. Researchers at Columbia University found that fathers who take longer leaves are more involved in child care months after returning to work. And a paper by a Cornell University graduate student found that more equitable paternal leave policies lead to a greater chance that mothers will return to work after maternity leave.

It’s important to understand the benefits for your partner and child when considering if taking paternity leave is right for your family. If your job permits it, consider taking advantage of the FMLA time off. And if your company offers paid paternity leave, taking advantage of those benefits could set a positive precedent for other team members and for other companies about the benefits of taking paid paternity leave.

How to Ask for Paternity Leave Pay

Since few fathers take full advantage of parental leave, it can be difficult to know how to approach your company when the time comes. However, using the same professionalism you would when asking for a raise or promotion can be used to discuss paternity leave with your manager.

  1. Find Out What Your Company’s Policies Are

Do a little research before approaching your manager. Find family leave policies in your company handbook and review FMLA standards. If you know of other fathers who have taken paternity leave at your company, ask them about their experience and what advice they have.

  1. Present a Plan When You Talk to Your Manager

Instead of walking into your manager’s office and asking, “Can I take some time off after my baby arrives?” walk in with a plan about how much time you want off, when, and how your responsibilities will be managed at work while you’re gone.

  1. Set Clear Expectations About Working From Home

Although you aren’t in the office, it can be hard to completely step away from work. If you have to work from home during paternity leave, set clear expectations about which hours you’ll be available and when you be logged off. If you have projects that need attending to while you’re at home, designate a liaison to stand in for you and make sure they understand what their responsibilities are in that position.

  1. Stand Behind Your Decision

It can be easy to end up returning to work sooner than you planned out of fear of penalties at work. However, remember that rarely will the company fold because you take a few weeks away. Rely on co-workers to keep you in the loop and take on the slack while you’re away, and promise to do the same for them when they need it.

Finally, remember why you’re taking paternity leave. Remember the support you are providing to your partner and child at a very important time in all of your lives. You’ll never regret getting those precious moments with your family.


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Avatar for Channing Merrell

Channing Merrell

Hi! I'm Channing and I'm a proud member of the Owlet team!

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