The XX Factor

Three Days Off Isn’t “Paternity Leave”

Daniel Murphy returns from his leave.

Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Last week, New York Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy took three days off the baseball diamond to be with his wife, Victoria, as she delivered their newborn son, Noah. Murphy’s absence prompted some macho posturing from sports radio hosts Boomer Esiason and Mike Francesa, who asked why baseball wives can’t just schedule their cesarean sections in the off-season to keep their birthing from interfering with the game. But that criticism was quickly quashed by the vocal support from the likes of Mets manager Terry Collins and NFL linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo. Esiason swiftly apologized for his remarks, and we were all reminded that the MLB has allowed players to take three-day leaves since 2011. As my colleague Jessica Grose wrote, the media tempest proved that paternity leave is no longer a controversial issue in America, even for men working in a (literally) masculine field.

That’s all great, but … three days? We’re fighting for three days? It’s sad that we’re patting ourselves on the back for finally beginning to allow men to leave work for the time it takes to get over a stomach bug. On Thursday, Deadspin’s Drew Magary upped the ante by encouraging new fathers to take paternity leave for a full five days. “You should take one full week off from work for paternity leave, and NEVER more than that,” he wrote in his post, entitled “Why Paternity Leave Is Important, Even Though You’ll Hate It.” He continues: “By that last day, you’ll be dying to get out of the house, and your wife will have finally regained enough physical strength post-delivery to beat the piss out of you and chase you out the door.”

This truncated version of paternity leave gives dads two jobs: Assert your nominal role as the child’s father (remember to take some photos for posterity), and make sure the baby doesn’t die if his mother can’t physically get out of bed. Paternity leave is an “important time for bonding between you and your wife and your little bundle of joy,” Magary allowed. But after he’s made the appearance, dad is basically useless. “Every new dad strains to be really useful during paternity leave,” he wrote. “When a child is born, the father instantly becomes the unwelcome intern begging for meaningful duties. Giving that intern shit to do is more work than not having him around at all, and the average new father feels that in his bones. Sometimes you even grow to resent it.”

Encouraging dads to make this symbolic parenting gesture constitutes progress, I suppose. In the 1950s, it was rare for fathers to even head to the hospital to attend the births of their children, but according to University of Leeds research fellow Dr. Laura King, the numbers had totally flipped by the late 1970s. But the modern fight to secure paternity leave—whether through legislation or company policy—is about much more than allowing dads to help out their hobbled wives for a few days. Paternity leave allows parents to better handle the costs of child care after their babies are born; it gives mothers the opportunity to return to work (an easy fix to Magary’s concern that men on paternity leave end up “smothering” their wives); and perhaps most importantly, it establishes a precedent for the father’s serious participation in childrearing for the rest of the kid’s life.

After the New York Times began offering six weeks paid leave for all new parents, Times social media editor Michael Roston elected to take his leave four months after his daughter’s birth in order to pick up for his wife, who was returning to work. When Roston asked Times readers for advice on how to manage his leave, one mother recounted what she told her own husband: “Early on, I announced I was not his supervisor, he knew as much about taking care of a baby as I did, and I wasn’t going to second-guess him … Simply answering my husband’s questions with ‘I don’t know,’ when I didn’t, freed him to experiment, problem-solve and be a parent, not a baby sitter, but in order to do that I had to give up that innate belief I had about how mothers should be the experts on their babies—not easy.” (This week, Roston called in to Slate’s Mom and Dad Are Fighting podcast to check in on how the experiment is going.) This more serious approach to paternity leave ensures that men won’t lose their jobs for taking care of their kids, that women will be less likely to be placed on the “mommy track” for the remainder of their careers, and that kids will have the opportunity to actually benefit from all of the dedicated adults in their lives beyond the obligatory daddy photo shoots. Magary claims that a week of leave is enough for men, because they will totally “hate” it anyway. That’s another hidden benefit of paternity leave—it helps men get a better idea of what procreation really requires of women.