Why Parental Leave For A Father Is Important For Mental Health And Family Life

Updated September 30, 2022 by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Statistics indicate that the majority of people are in favor of parental leave for fathers, and research reveals that it comes with a host of benefits, both short and long-term. So, why isn't paternity leave as common as maternity leave? In honor of world breastfeeding week, this article discusses the importance of caring and advocating for parents, and this article specifically focuses on fathers. 

This article will discuss the need for parental leave benefits for fathers and what holds families back from obtaining much-needed time with one another when welcoming a new baby into their lives.

Need To Discuss Life As A New Parent - Or Something Else?

About Parental Leave For Fathers

First, what is parental leave? Parental leave refers to an "employee benefit that provides job-protected leave from employment to care for a child following its birth or adoption." In short, it's time off that organizations and companies offer to their workers when a new baby is born, or for a newly adopted child. Parental leave can be in the form of paid time off or unpaid leave.

Different companies and organizations have varying policies related to parental leave, and fathers in the United States are often awarded very little in family leave benefits, hence the growing movement in support of mitigating this discrepancy.

In fact, fathers seem to be discriminated against when it comes to paid family leave laws. According to labor statistics, in the US most fathers can only take about one week off of their jobs for paid paternity leave. By contrast, new mothers can expect on average to receive up to eight weeks of paid leave after the birth, adoption or foster of a new baby.

In addition, new mothers are also far more likely to receive up to the maximum 12 weeks of unpaid leave as mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).The average length of  FMLA leave for a new father, meanwhile, is less than one week. 

The main reason for this discrepancy, according to credible sources, is that they cannot afford to lose the income their job provides, even if their job is still legally guaranteed when they return. Therefore, they are often reluctant to use their paternity leave, even if they would like to spend time with their child.

The Relationship Between Mental Health And Parental Leave

Research shows that paternal leave for fathers is beneficial for mental health and family life in various ways, and these effects don't exist in the short term alone. Some of what we know suggests that paternal leave for fathers has a long-term positive impact on the lives of the child or children and the adults involved. 

Based on research, here are some of the potential benefits of parental leaves for fathers:

  • Can lead to an increase in parent-child closeness.

Research shows that two or more weeks of parental leave for new dads is linked to several different positive effects on their relationship with their child(ren). Specifically, two or more weeks of paternity leave is associated with improved children's perceptions of their father's involvement, increased feelings of closeness between the father and child, and better father-child communication.

  • Can lower the likelihood of divorce.

Paternity leave isn't just positive for child-father relationships; it's also positive for the adults in the family unit. Studies indicate that divorce is significantly less likely in families where fathers take parental leave after welcoming a new child. This could be due to the perception of household labor division and other factors, such as fathers having adequate time to bond with and learn to care for the child.

  • Can promotes gender equality.

In many ways, the lack of paternal leave for fathers that we see in the United States directly represents gender inequality. Parental leave for fathers promotes gender equality in the workplace, the household, and other parts of life. When fathers can stay home, they can engage more often and more meaningfully in caring for the child and help with household tasks more than they would be if this time were spent at work. 

Since those who take maternity leave can and often do see negative effects on their career as a result of taking this incredibly necessary time off, when people of all genders are awarded parental leave, some of these discrepancies in the workplace may be mitigated for mothers and fathers alike

One additional advantage? When fathers take parental leave after welcoming a new child into the family, it may support the other parent's well-being. This is true both mentally and physically, and with the needs of a child in mind, this makes sense.

Why Don't More Fathers Take Parental Leave?

With all of the benefits of doing so in mind, why don't more fathers take paternity leave? The answer, most often, appears to be the cost of doing so. Many fathers don't take paternity leave because, financially, they can't. 

The United States is an outlier among the industrialized countries of the world when it comes to providing for paid family leave. As previously mentioned, the Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of merely unpaid leave after the birth a new baby or to care for family. It also entitles workers to paid personal medical leave in the event of a serious health condtion. 

As a result, many people instead are forced to spend their vacation days (which are under four weeks at most,and are sometimes only granted if the employer agrees) in order to take time off after the birth of a baby or illness of a family.

Only nine states in the United States currently require employers to provide their workers with paid family leave. 

These include:

  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Washington
  • District of Columbia
  • Connecticutt

Of these, most provide 12 weeks of paid family leave, with the exception of California and the District of Columbia which provide for just 8 weeks, and Rhode Island, which provides five weeks. However, these states may allow you to combine your personal medical leave (usually meant for a serious health condition) with your family leave time.

Note: Federal employees can view the Federal Employee Paid Parental Leave Act, which provides for up to 12 weeks of paid family leave to care for a new child or an ailing family.

It is worth noting the relationship between these facts and income disparities. Many parents wish they could spend time with their new child. However, low-income families are less likely to have the resources they need to take parental leave after welcoming a new child if it is:

  • Unpaid
  • Pays significantly less than they would make otherwise
  • Or if it may put their work at risk (some employers may illegally discriminate against parents, particularly fathers, who utilize parental leave).

What can we do in the world to address this? Businesses and organizations can support employees' mental health, happiness, and family life by offering adequate paid parental leave for fathers. Happier workers, who feel that they're treated well, are statistically more productive, which benefits both the workplace and the family. 

Although it is a short chunk of time in the grand scheme of things, adequate leave for fathers is deeply valuable, and it is something worthy of employer support. 

What Mental Health Impacts Do New Parents Face?

Bringing a new child into the world is an incredible gift, but it comes with a high level of responsibility. 

Health concerns that can impact new parents include but are not limited to:

  • Stress. We all face stress, and of course, with any life change, whether positive or negative, the transitional period can come with challenges. If stress is severe or ongoing, there can be severe physical and mental health consequences. These include but are not limited to: an increased risk of depression and anxiety, trouble sleeping, an increased risk of diabetes, an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, an increased risk of high blood pressure, and more.
  • Lack of sleep. Like stress, a lack of sleep can lead to serious negative health outcomes. These include but are limited to an increased risk of getting into a car accident, an increased risk of high blood pressure and heart disease, an increased risk of diabetes, and an increased risk of depression and anxiety. It can also lead to irritability, trouble concentrating or focusing, lowered productivity in the workplace, and trouble in interpersonal relationships.
  • Postpartum depression. Postpartum depression is a very common mental health concern among parents, and it can affect fathers as well. Experts suggest that around 1 in 10 fathers face postpartum depression and anxiety. Postpartum depression can affect the child and the parents, and it is vital to reach out for help if you experience symptoms of postpartum depression.
  • Relationship strain. Conflict over the division of labor, the difficulty of sleeping, and changes in a couple's sex life can lead to relationship strain after welcoming a new child.

With all of this in mind, what can you do? Acknowledging these risks does not mean that they have to take over your life, and some means can help. Working to support one another emotionally, seeking outside support from medical professionals, mental health professionals, and other people in your life, making time for self-care, division of parental in household labor, and an emphasis on communication can make all of the difference in households with new parents.

Mental Health Support For New Parents

If you experience concerns related to parenting, a mental health condition such as depression, or experienced or are experiencing strain in your romantic relationship after the birth or adoption of a child, a therapist or counselor may be a valuable addition to your support system or care team. 

There are several different ways to find a therapist or counselor to work with. Suppose you are a new parent who wishes to see a therapist or counselor. In that case, you can ask a medical professional, such as a primary care physician, for a referral, contact your insurance company to inquire about who or what they cover, search the web, or sign up for an online therapy platform.

Remote therapy sessions, which may be conducted via video or phone, are often helpful for those with young children who cannot be left alone.  

Support groups, which can meet online or in-person, are often free and are another form of support available to new parents who need a place to talk about what's going on in their life. You may choose to attend a support group independent of or in addition to other forms of support, like therapy.

Need To Discuss Life As A New Parent - Or Something Else?

Online Therapy

Therapy is a safe space to discuss family life, parenting, stress, or anything else on your mind. Online therapy through BetterHelp is a convenient way to get the support you need. With BetterHelp, you can work with a licensed professional from your own home or anywhere else with a reliable internet connection, and you don't have to take the time to commute to a therapy office, which is incredibly beneficial for people with full schedules, such as new parents. Over 20,000 therapists offer therapy through the platform, and when you sign up, you'll answer a brief series of questions that'll help us match you with a provider who meets your needs.

Research shows that, for a broad range of concerns, online therapy is just as effective as in-person therapy - if not more effective in some cases. Even better, we make it simple to cancel services or change therapists at any point in time if you need to. Often, BetterHelp plans are more affordable than traditional in-person therapy in the absence of insurance, and those who need it may be able to receive financial aid.

Are you ready to try online therapy? Sign up for BetterHelp, or read our therapist reviews and FAQs to learn more about the platform.

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