Family

I Think I Know Why Men Don’t Talk About Parental Leave

It feels much safer to be a silent ally.

A man holding a sleeping infant in a cross-chest carrier.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Halfpoint/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

The past months of activists’ work to get paid leave for parents into President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, and then to defend its presence there, have produced a litany of searing essays from mothers about the postpartum experience. This is writing from the front lines, blood-on-the-page testimonials. So, where are the fathers’ voices? Of course, there are the classic misogynists who don’t see newborn care as their labor (or, frankly, labor at all). But there’s also been silence from fathers who participate fully in the postpartum experience, who understand its beauty and difficulty, yet who still can’t, or won’t, find the language to tell that story. There’s no tradition in place for this; attempting it, especially when you’re in a hetero marriage like my own, feels like demanding a trophy for work that should be normal. Safer to be the silent ally—in awe of, in solidarity with, mothers. But as the Build Back Better bill languishes, with paid family leave one of the first policy items on the chopping block, silent, self-effacing allyship is useless. All parents are being failed by our government and need relief, and should find the words to say so. Here’s one attempt.

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My daughter didn’t take to breastfeeding. For the first month, it was emotionally and physically excruciating for my wife. Neither of us knew how common this is; the classes offered by our doula and our hospital emphasized the natural wonder of breastfeeding, focused on combating decades of medicine decentralizing its value. Our doula was great, these classes were really helpful, and yet the inborn magic, the promised bonding, just didn’t happen. In the hospital, my wife ended up squeezing every precious drop of colostrum out of blistered nipples while I fed our daughter with a 1-milliliter syringe, holding my pinkie in her mouth to trigger a sucking reflex. None of us slept. When our insurance-allotted stay ended, we were in a daze.

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At home, nights went in shifts—my wife waking to pump, then waking me so I could immediately use that supply in the bottle I’d feed our daughter, then me waking my wife for more pumping. Over and over, our burdens separate, but shared and communicated in brief moments of passing—a hand on a shoulder, a nod. Even in writing that sentence, I’m uncomfortable with the idea of burden being applied to my role, the way it so obviously should be to my wife’s. It’s the same way I hesitate to think of my mental space in those weeks as postpartum depression, occurring alongside hers, or often moving in waves where one of us would feel the call to be the positive voice for a week or so, afraid, I think, at just how low the other seemed. At various points, we both broke down from sleeplessness and fear, said things about regretting our daughter that we still carry shame over. I cannot imagine the weight of that shame if one of us wasn’t physically there.

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I don’t say this to emphasize the unique hardship of our experience—by medical standards, everything went smoothly, and my wife and I were fortunate to have (some) paid leave we could take at the same time. She stretched hers past three months with a Rhode Island state program that counts birth as a “temporary disability” and covers 60 percent of salary. I took unpaid leave for a semester at my university, but cobbled together six years’ worth of banked sick time to cover my teaching days, while theoretically staying on the clock for my publishing responsibilities, which I ignored. In this way, I was able to stay home for a few extra months when my wife returned to work, which felt like a wild indulgence, though it’s the bare minimum in every other developed nation on Earth.

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These were the most important, transformative months of my life. Also, I’ve never been more physically and emotionally exhausted. My daughter struggled when she wasn’t in motion, and her preference was to walk strapped to me in the carrier, which would sometimes work to keep her sleeping, as long as she didn’t feel me stop. As I tried to transition her to napping in her crib, she’d howl until I thought she was choking. I’d give up, rock her frantically, leave again. One night, I went for a run to decompress, and my sciatic nerve blew out. My wife had to take two days off work right after her return because I couldn’t lift anything. I was ashamed; we worried her boss would take it as some subconscious indication that she couldn’t really stay away from the kid. For both of us, there were the literal challenges—keeping our daughter alive, keeping my wife’s job, hoping my back wasn’t irreparable—but also the harder-to-quantify pressure of societal expectations built into a country where a basic right is treated as a luxury, and that “luxury” is almost always associated with mothers. Was I somehow programmed to fail at primary caregiving? Was my wife somehow destined to see her career slip away?

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Outwardly, my coping move was to emphasize the particular pathetic dadness of the whole situation—gettin’ old, life comes at you fast. In retrospect, holding a helpless, angry baby all day can literally break anyone when they rush back to anything resembling their normal life. My situation wasn’t the same as my wife pumping herself to exhaustion at work, then battling arthritic wrist pain while cluster-breastfeeding at night, but it was an experience that wasn’t a joke, further proof that the weight of caregiving, even as two parents shoulder it, can make life periodically impossible. In the weeks after I injured myself, I’d set the baby down and try to stretch my back as fast as I could outside her room. After a few seconds of silence, she’d explode into tears, a sound so familiar that I began to imagine it when it wasn’t happening.

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In public, surrounded by people, my daughter was a dream. I sought out those moments for her sake, but also for my own ego. This brings me back to the weirdness of trying to express the isolation and pain of infant care, when a dad caring for an infant in public gets cartoonish overpraise. Before fatherhood, I don’t think I’d ever had a stranger bless me on the street, but out with the baby, this happened at least three times in as many months. I felt doted upon in the pediatrician’s waiting room, even as I was panicking. Later, as I held my cold, writhing daughter on the table in the examination room, the doctor said, “You’ve got such a perfect ‘helpless dad’ look right now,” with the expression one gives a dog who deserves a treat.

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I love our pediatrician, and this was just a throwaway observation, but built in was that familiar, destructive double-bind of the tone extended to a caregiver father: On one hand, you’re given too much credit; on the other, you’re treated like (and then feel compelled to perform as though) your experience is only adorable, and therefore somehow unreal. Infant caregiving is a thing that your father wouldn’t have thought to do, that many jobs do not offer space to support a man doing, and therefore a temporary kindness, as opposed to a matter of your kid’s survival and your life-defining responsibility. Mostly, I felt terrified. And alone. And angry at my own failure, always wondering what was wrong with me. When a fever wouldn’t break—why did tenderness give way to frustration so fast? In that period of sudden bottle refusal, when she looked up at me, mouth open in a wail around the rubber nipple—why couldn’t I get the simplest thing right? At 3 a.m., as my wife and I whispered viciously about whether to soothe her or let her suffer—how could I feel such resentment? Wasn’t the experience, or at least the emotion, supposed to get easier? These were thoughts I never spoke, questions I never asked.

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I can in no way empathize with the physical toll of birth or early motherhood, nor with the judgment thrown at mothers around whether they return to work or not (or how long they take “time off”). But I feel irrevocably changed by the first six months of my daughter’s life, and not in a grand, wedding-speech way. I still think of all the joy I failed to appreciate, still hold onto a nebulous sense that my daughter deserved better. Returning to work, after that stretch, was so much harder than I expected, like walking into your childhood home and realizing that everything is the same except you, and therefore nothing makes sense. I couldn’t write, couldn’t focus on anything outside the moments I was directly speaking to students. We were still sleeping terribly, I still felt like an exposed nerve, I wasn’t taking care of myself physically. My daughter refused to nap at day care, so every day I’d call to check in and hear her overtired screams from across the room. Picking her up was an even mix of wanting to hold her as soon as possible and wanting nothing more than an extra minute without her. Again, more luxury: dropping a child off later than opening time, picking her up before closing. When I dropped her off, babies smaller than her would already be down for a nap, having arrived when the sun was still rising. All of this is common, of course; that doesn’t make it any less untenable, nor do any parent’s relative privileges abdicate their responsibility to scream that fact again and again.

I’ve read this essay over a lot, still with lingering questions of whether it’s a worthy or productive story to tell, still enacting the exact issue that I’m trying to write against. But ultimately, I think it’s simple. The burdens of postpartum life shouldn’t belong only to mothers; neither, then, should the act of giving voice to the experience.

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