'I Took a Year of Paternity Leave': How One Dad Fought to Care for His Kid

Paternity leave is a joke: Ask most dads how long they took off after the birth of their child, and most might say a day or two, a week tops. Yet the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is calling for change, mandating that fathers get the same length of parental leave as mothers. Woo hoo! Only the question remains: Would guys even take it? Granted, the pressure they face to return to work is intense. That's why we were stunned to talk to Brian Stewart, 36, in Columbus, Ohio, who fought to take a full year of paternity leave to care for his son, Andrew. Here's the story of how he did it, the gender-biased backlash he experienced, and why he says it was still the best decision of his life.

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How did you manage to take a year of paternity leave from your job? Even most moms can't swing that!
It didn't start out that way! I was a social studies teacher. When I asked about leave options before the birth of our son Andrew in 2011, I was told that I could take two weeks paid time off. This did not seem fair to me, since female coworkers would often leave for months after the birth of a child. I wanted to be with my kid, and I wasn't going to take no for an answer. So I consulted with an attorney and found that I could take 12 weeks under the Family and Medical Leave Act. Also, since I was working in a union-protected environment, I found out that buried in my contract was a provision that even a year of unpaid leave would not have inhibited my career standing. I could have gone right back to my position. Even so, I was never presented with any of this information; I had to advocate for myself all the way.

So how did your boss react to your request for a long paternity leave?
I definitely received flack for it. At first, I inquired about doing 12 weeks of unpaid leave. I was told it would be very disruptive to their schedule. I never heard any female teachers encountering the same treatment. After that, I decided that I might as well take full advantage of my contract and decided to request what no other male teacher in the district had done -- a full year of paternity leave. My employer was surprised at first, but once I was able to present the relevant parts of the contract, they were fine with my doing it.

How did men, particularly your male coworkers, react to the news that you were taking a year of paternity leave?
Some colleagues told me they thought it was great that I was taking time off to be with my son, although not many  have seriously thought about taking a long leave themselves. What astonished me is how much praise I have heard from the women in my life. It's unfortunate that many people seem to think you deserve to be called "father of the year" simply for wanting to take some time to be with your child. Society strongly suggests that women need to be the ones to put their careers on hold in order to be home with their kids. Why shouldn't men do so? 

How long a maternity leave did your wife take, and how did you guys make ends meet financially during that year?
She stayed home for about three months after Andrew's birth. She's an occupational therapist. After that, she worked part-time, which helped supplement our income. I also had a tutoring business, which brought in money, so we were able to avoid digging into our savings.

More from The Stir: The 8 Stages New Moms Go Through When Paternity Leave Ends

So what was your year of paternity leave like?
I was the only dad at Andrew's gymnastics lessons. It never failed to amaze me how when I took him to a class or activity where I was the only guy, which was almost always the case; the moms would often talk as though I wasn't even there! I was a bystander to endless in-depth conversations about birth experiences and feeding protocols, but only once in a blue moon would a mom strike up a conversation with me. When my wife is out with Andrew, other moms are quick to chat with her. If you are going to take paternity leave and spend a ton of time with your child, know that it will be a lonely road. Despite this, it is absolutely worth it. 

During your time off, did you feel any pressure to return to work?
I did feel some pressure to return to work. However, I ultimately decided to go into business for myself by founding the test prep company BWS Education Consulting and running a test prep website, FreeTestPrep.com. That way I could have the freedom to spend as much time with my family as possible while being able to provide a good living. When my son was about 8 months old, I took him into work when I resigned my teaching position. Having my son in there made it far easier to explain why I wanted a more flexible schedule, and my employer was very understanding. Also, my wife was at work at the time so it was either take him in with me or hire a sitter.

Would you take a year of paternity leave again?
My wife, Caitlin, is currently 39 weeks pregnant. I am not planning on taking a year off when my daughter is born because my schedule allows me to work in the evenings and weekends, so I get to hang out with my wife and son when they need me most. So I can have the best of both worlds. I'll just have to still be okay being the only dad at gymnastics class.

What advice do you have for other dads who'd like to lengthen their paternity leave?
I know that taking a long paternity leave is not an option for most dads. Certainly if you can't take it because it will be detrimental to your family's situation, you can't take it -- no need to beat yourself up over it. But if you can do it, I would highly recommend giving it a try based on my personal experience. I think that dads who really want to be a part of their kids' lives should consider going into business for themselves so that they don't encounter the inevitable hostility that comes with breaking stereotypes. I cannot imagine what fathers in far less secure job positions face when it comes to leave. It must be a nightmare! 

What do you think of the new EEOC ruling giving men and women equal parental leave? Do you think that will help?
I am glad to hear about the EEOC ruling, but I don't think many men will take it because of the pressure to not take the full allotted time off. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, though. If we can at least take our allotted vacation time to be with our kids and explore flex-time possibilities with our employers, it's a step in the right direction. Kids are understanding, and will recognize that you're doing the best you can in a given situation to be there for them. 

Do you think more men secretly would love to take a longer paternity leave? What needs to change for that to happen?
Employers need to come out and unequivocally state that they encourage men to take time of to be with their kids. And it shouldn't all be about the employers -- men should make hanging out with their children a priority. So often we tell ourselves, "Oh, my son won't remember anything until he is 3 or so. Who cares what I do when he's little?" I can tell you from personal experience that you can have more of an impact on a child's personality and development in those first couple of years than you can possibly imagine. While your child may not consciously remember everything that happened, his subconscious sense of self-worth will be positively impacted for years to come. Think about the message it can hopefully send to your kid that you were willing to fight stereotypes so that you could hang around with him or her. 

 

Would your husband like to take a longer paternity leave? Why or why not?


Image via Sarah Gee Photography

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