Fifty years ago, family leave (or paternity leave) was a distant concept. The thought was that fathers didn't need to take time off after their children were born because new mothers stayed home. However, as time has passed, this thought has become outdated; now we are seeing laws passed that support our modern times. Here's what you need to know.
Family Leave Is Not All About New Moms
There are many people other than new moms who can benefit from family leave. New fathers 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 cannot 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, and family leave helps with those responsibilities.
Find out If You Are Eligible
Some new fathers in the U.S. have access to paid family leave but may be unaware or hesitant to use it because of the fear of setting back their careers. It's worth exploring whether your employer provides such a perk since not every employee will be up-to-date on their benefits package. Your first step should be reading your employee manual to make sure you understand the options available. You can contact your human resources department to help explain your family benefits package since parental leave may sometimes fall under short-term disability or medical leave.
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 law states that workers who contribute to the state disability fund may take up to six weeks of leave in a year, with 55% of their pay up to a threshold. In New Jersey, new fathers receive 66% of their income for six weeks. The Rhode Island Temporary Caregiver Insurance Program offers four 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 about whether your state is working on a paid/unpaid family leave law, you can check out State Family and Medical Leave Laws with the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).
Investigate Other Paid Leave Options
If paid family leave isn't an option, look at your accrued paid sick leave, vacation time, and personal days; you may be able to use this time off to care for your newborn. One important consideration is whether to take paternity leave and maternity leave at the same time, so the new family can enjoy those precious first weeks together. If not, you may decide to take as much maternity leave as possible and then take a paternity leave only after that has expired. The advantage of that arrangement is the savings on childcare expenses.
Just like when you plan maternity leave, you must crunch the numbers with paternity 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 can dip into your savings to take days off without pay to care for your child and spouse. Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), your employer must give you unpaid leave to care for a newborn or ill family member, but not all employers are covered by FMLA, so check the specifics before negotiating 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 the child's time with a parent. A key factor may be whether friends or family members are available to help in the immediate postpartum stage.
The Bottom Line
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.