How can paternity leave change your life?

How did a long-term paternity leave change my life? The real answer is that it changed everything – and for the better. But let’s look at the ways it impacted me the most, both at home and on the job.

Nathan hegedus paternity leave
Photo of author and his children by Elisabeth Hegedus
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Between 2008 and 2010, I took about 18 months of paid paternity leave in Sweden.  It was cut into two big chunks of six months with my daughter and then nine months with my son, with shorter stretches in between.  In total, I took maybe two years of paid leave while we lived in Sweden.

I also took my full 12 weeks of unpaid parental leave in the US, as my daughter was born there.

I did not honestly ever expect to take this kind of leave.  I wrote an article about my Swedish paternity leave in Slate in 2010 and described my general attitude: 

“If you had asked me in, say, 2001, if I would ever take a long paternity leave, I would have answered, “Yeah, sure,” because I was a liberal guy—but then ignored my own answer because I was also an ambitious, career-driven type.”

Yet I was lucky enough to be called on my bluff.  I was lucky enough to be married to a Swede and then to move to Sweden – with its famously generous parental leave – when our daughter was a year old.

The reality of the situation terrified me.  I was not at all scared of the leave itself.  But telling my bosses? That was another story.   Here’s more from my article:

“Still, the prospect of telling my boss I wanted to take paternity leave paralyzed me for weeks. Surely I would get fired for taking six months off. Or I would return to a job cleaning the bathrooms with pencil erasers. I think I chickened out completely and just sent an e-mail. But my supervisors took my leave as a matter of course. I have small children; hence, I was likely to take paternity leave of some sort.”

The benefits of paternity leave

The benefits of paternity leave

The benefits of paternity leave are well-established.  There are big picture reasons to take paternity leave.  And there are the more intimate reasons.  Both are important. 

Here are a couple big ones, based on studies from economists at Stanford University and the OECD:

  • Improved health for mothers
  • More involved fathers
  • Children with higher cognitive and emotional outcomes and physical health
  • Happier and healthier fathers

There is also evidence that it’s good for employers.  In a study of limited paternity leave in California, researchers found that paternity leave had a “positive effect” or “no noticeable effect" on productivity (89 percent), profitability/performance (91 percent), turnover (96 percent) and employee morale (99 percent).

What are the barriers to more paternity leave?

So if it’s so great, why aren’t more men doing it? 

A study from the US Department of Labor pointed to two main reasons that men don’t take more parental leave.  The first is economic – it can be hard to pay the bills without high-paid leave.  The second is probably the same reason I was so terrified to tell my bosses.  In much of the world, it’s just not perceived as a good way for a man to get ahead – or even keep his job.  It’s sometimes called a “flexibility stigma.”

In an article on the World Economic Forum blog, Jane Kato-Wallace, program director at Promundo, is quoted saying "It's an unspoken thing that if I take leave, then I am not demonstrating that I'm 100 percent dedicated to the mission of this organization and to my responsibility,"

She highlighted the need for the leaders of corporations and organizations to take parental leave themselves to set a good example. "The norms and the cultures in the workplace are definitely something that need to be shifted," she said.

This is an issue in Sweden too.  Check out this article in the Washington Post about a photo exhibition of men on leave but also a good discussion of the barriers still in place there.

How paternity leave still impacts my life

paternity leave still impacts my life

One of the best descriptions of parental leave I’ve ever read came in a blog post from our own Pernilla Jonsson, Head of Consumer and IndustryLab:

“By taking parental leave and practicing hands-on parenthood, you experience what it means to be responsible for another human being who is more important than yourself. A great chaos factor sets in which will always push your limits; physically for sleep, psychologically for accepting that you cannot control everything in life.

“As a bonus your empathic skills – understanding another person's situation will get a fantastic boost. All of these qualities are what we need as leaders of this new digital age – stepping away from big brother micromanagement and opening the door to big mother leadership – nurturing love- sometimes tough, with a soft touch!”

I am now ten years on from paternity leave.  It was a crossroads, one of those moments that lead you one way.  And it was a good way.  It should not be such a big thing to take time off with your child as a parent, but for an American man, it is.  It defines you.  It is a chance to say that this is the kind of parent and partner I want to be.

A decade later, I have a deeper relationship with my children still, that’s for sure.  I am more involved in the work of the family – the cleaning and cooking and care taking – and I know that I am more emotionally involved as well.  I hear more, I give more, we fight more, we laugh more.  It’s a gift that I wouldn’t trade for anything.

Why parental leave is important in the workplace

I did not take paternity leave to improve my career prospects or my performance on the job. 

But it did.  I like to think I would never have questioned any colleague – man or woman – when they were off with kids or had to go to pick them up or heard them in the background of a call.  

But now I have an active understanding and sympathy, and this has made me a better colleague and put everyone I work with in a better position to succeed. I am also more open and creative at work.  I have higher emotional intelligence. 

I am more deliberate about my work and life choices.  I weigh consequences and know that leaving one track does not mean giving up chances at success. In a world of automation, this kind of flexibility is essential.  It’s part of winning the innovation game.

There is also the big picture view.  If more men take paternity leave and then stay more involved in family life, that makes it easier for women to first return to work after having kids and then thrive in their roles.  And as Åsa Tamsons, our Head of Business Area Technologies & New Businesses, pointed out recently, gender diversity is simply good business.  

In the end, taking such a long paternity leave (even by Swedish standards at the time) was a chance to say what kind of person I wanted to be.  But this does not mean I rejected work.  Instead, it allowed to reject a code that was probably burning me out and limiting me.  It allowed me to embrace a more forward-thinking work philosophy –– one that recognizes that diversity and flexibility are good for innovation and productivity.


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