Father’s Day is done, and your Facebook feed is still running on the fumes of throwback snapshots of your friends’ dads, or of new dads you know doing new dad things. In the United States, most new dads are doing the same thing they were doing before their kids were born: Working. If you’re not a dad yet, and expect to be, you should take this as the warning it is. One day you’re going to really want some paternity leave. And you’re not going to have it unless you get to it.
The time to start pushing for paternal leave isn’t the day after your wife’s maternity leave runs out and you’re scrambling for daycare. It’s not the day your kid is born. It’s not when your wife announces to you that she’s pregnant. Ideally it’s around the time you and your wife meet each other in 10th grade. Maybe 2004 or so. Or, barring that, right frickin’ now. Because we’re way behind on this.
This year I left a company that had recently announced four months of paid parental leave for new parents — not maternity-only, as some companies offer; legally American companies must offer at least 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave but aren’t required to consider fathering worth so much as a sick day. Four paid months is an enormous commitment by the standards of an American company, and one that made the dads there wistful. None of them, far as I knew, had gotten such a chance for their current kids: to spend a third of their son or daughter’s first year hanging out at home, bonding, talking, learning, napping together, taking walks, doing all that dad stuff. I know a new dad who’s on paternity leave now; it amounts to a chance to bond with the baby, to take pressure off his wife, to save money on child care, and to catch up on chilling the hell out, watching old movies during down time. It sounds like real fathering.
This is the way is ought to be, and most of the rest of the world knows it. This month Time released a map of how different countries handle parental leave. The United States and Papua New Guinea are the only countries that have no provision for paternity leave, by the count of the International Labor Organization. The only reasons to explain this: Complacent American dads have totally abdicated their responsibility to change policy on behalf of their families. Our dads didn’t get it done, and if you get it done for your sons, it’ll be too late for you. Only this pre-dad you can get this accomplished for you.
Now happens to be a perfect time to put a shoulder down and push. Hillary Clinton has chosen paid leave as one of her major planks for her run for president; the fact that she announced it on Mother’s Day should be considered a quirk of timing more than a gendered signal. Northern European countries — leading us all toward a time when we can do more in this life than to work ourselves to death — are figuring out that the best parental leave policies share the time off between mothers and fathers. Moms who take some time off (but not all the time) return to their careers without so great a loss of wages, and they’re happier sharing the workload of being a parent. Not for nothing is the forward to the first State of the World’s Fathers report, released this month by the global fatherhood campaign MenCare, written by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcukam, the director of UN Women. She may be working toward gender equality, but it stands to lift us all: “Many men and many fathers have realized that the quality of their relationships with the women in their lives in large part determines the quality of their own lives.”
Plenty of fathers are in positions to effect this change. But most of them are going to see non-fathers, or fathers-to-be, as a separate constituency. For you, there’s no need to suffer along. The time to start this argument, or to support candidates who are agitating for it, is long before you think you need it. Future generations — the one you produce, especially — will thank you for it.