Fifty years ago, family leave (or paternity leave) was a foreign concept. Why would a father need to take time off after his baby was born when new mothers stayed home? And don't even think about two fathers raising a child as a couple, back in the 1950's. Now we are seeing laws passed that support our modern times. Here's what you need to know.
Family Leave Isn't All About New Moms Now
There are many different people, other than new moms, that can benefit from family leave.
New father's in at least three states have access to partially paid family leave and some progressive employers offer two weeks or more of fully paid family leave. The growing number of same-sex couples raising families and single individuals adopting means you can not assume that every child has both a mother and a father so these family leave policies will cover them, too. Also, some people have elderly parents they need to care for of and family leave is desperately needed to handle that responsibility.
Find Out If You're Eligible for Paid Family Leave
In the U.S., some new fathers will have access to paid family leave by may be unaware of it or afraid to take it . It's worth exploring whether your employer provides such a perk since not every employee will be up-to-date on their package of benefits. Moreover, some of your new father colleagues who are eligible for paid family leave may decline to take it, whether for fear of setting back their careers or of the challenge of caring for an infant 24/7.
So your first stop should be your employee manual. Read it cover to cover and make sure you understand the options available. You might also ask your human resources contact to help explain their package of family benefits since sometimes parental leave falls under short-term disability or medical leave.
Look at what other new fathers have done, although don't feel you have to follow their lead.
If you're a resident of California, New Jersey or Rhode Island, you're in luck when it comes to family leave. In California, you have a paid family leave law and an unpaid one. The paid family leave workers who contribute to the state disability fund may take up to six weeks of leave in a year, with 55 percent of their pay up to a threshold, in order to care for a new baby, among other reasons. In New Jersey, new fathers can replace 66 percent of their income for six weeks, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty. The Rhode Island Temporary Caregiver Insurance Program offers 4 weeks of paid leave for the birth, adoption or fostering of a new child or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.
If you're curious if your state is working on a paid/unpaid family leave law you can check out NCSL's State Family and Medical Leave Laws.
Investigate Other Paid Leave Options
If you're like the majority of expectant fathers in the U.S., there's no paid family leave available to you. But don't despair. The next step is to look at your accrued paid sick leave, vacation time and personal days.
You may be able to use this time off to bond with a new baby. (That's if you do have paid time off, in the first place.)
One important consideration is whether to take family leave and maternity leave at the same time, so the new family can enjoy those precious first weeks together. Or perhaps you'd prefer to take as much maternity leave as possible, and only after that has expired, to take family leave. The plus of that arrangement is the savings on child care expenses.
Just as when you plan maternity leave, you must crunch the numbers with family leave to decide whether the amount of pay will work for your family. It's important to be realistic about how much time off you can afford to take without digging your family into a financial hole.
Your Options for Taking Unpaid Family Leave
If you're one of the millions of workers in America without any paid leave, whether for illness or vacation, there may be no choice but to take unpaid leave.
Perhaps you've been saving up for the birth of your child, and you can dip into your savings to take a few days, or even a few weeks, without pay in order to care for your child and spouse.
Under the Family and Medical Leave Act, your employer must give you unpaid leave to care for a newborn or ill family member. Not all employers are covered by FMLA, so check the specifics before barging into the HR office demanding your time off.
Again, you'll want to consider whether to take unpaid family leave right after childbirth when the new mom is most in need of support and care. Or whether you'll stack maternity and family leave right after each other, to maximize baby's time with a parent. A key factor may be whether friends or family members are available to help in the immediate postpartum stage.
No matter what your decision, enjoy your new family! The role of a father may feel new, but it's one that only you can play. Pretty soon, you'll forget what life was like before the baby arrived.
Updated by Elizabeth McGrory