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Opinion: My ‘Family Leave’ Was a Well-Timed Government Shutdown

Yes, I worked at the White House. But before all that, I am a father

(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
(Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

This Father’s Day, I thought a lot about what it means to be a good father. You see, in my mind, I am a father first.

Yes, I worked at the White House. Yes, I now work for Will Ferrell’s Funny Or Die. Yes, I am a sad New York Mets fan. But before all of these things, I am a father. It’s the most important job I will ever have. Unfortunately, in today’s America, considering yourself a “father first” is not always expected by employers or society at large.

Last month, I received glowing nods of approval and literal pats on my back for bringing my two kids into their doctors’ appointments while my wife was traveling. I tried not to laugh at how ridiculous this is — that the bar of expectation for a father’s responsibility is so low. But here we are. I am praised for “babysitting” my own children. For the record, it’s not “babysitting” when it’s your own children. But thanks for the kudos!

We live in a country where men are expected to support our children financially, but not necessarily emotionally with our presence. This is no more apparent than at the outset of a child’s life — when a father is considering taking leave from work to care for his newly born or adopted child.

I was working in government — for the highest office in the land, in fact — when my daughter was born. Luckily, I was able to take a couple weeks off around the time of her birth, thanks in large part to the government shutdown brought on by Congress’ inability to act on a debt ceiling deal.

But I wouldn’t have been able to disconnect from work and fully focus on her otherwise, due to the United States’ lack of a national paid family leave policy and the stigma that surrounds paternity leave. My time with my newborn was crucial — and studies show that it not only leads to improved outcomes for her, but increased gender equity at home and in the workplace.

Not so great expectations

We are one of the only countries in the developed world that does not offer paid family leave to its citizens. Though some private employers and state governments have begun to step up, just 15 percent of U.S. workers have access to a defined paid family leave benefit. That’s unacceptable.

Without a strong and well-defined national policy, the expectations for what a father can and should do when his new child is born are unclear. And this lack of clarity helps to perpetuate the belief that men shouldn’t take time off to care for their kids — even though most want to.

As studies show, the vast majority of men rate their children as their top priority in life, with more than three out of four dads expressing a desire to spend more time with their children than they currently do.

Yet men are far less likely to take time away from work to care for their children, with 76 percent of fathers reporting that they went back to work after just one week away. Of those who do take leave, about half of fathers said they performed some work for their employers during their time off with their families.

It happens across all industries — even in politics, sports, music and Hollywood, where we’re supposed to find our male role models and heroes. Men are expected to put work ahead of their children.

Counting the days

I remember back in 2014 when Daniel Murphy, then the second baseman for my New York Mets, got lambasted by the fans and sports media for taking his three days of paternity leave allotted by the MLB to care for his newborn son. He pushed back and defended his decision as the right one for his family, but the fact that he even had to do that shows how far we have to go.

We’re not in the 1950s anymore. The working family landscape has changed, with more and more mothers working and countless reports indicating how children show improved language skills and social development when their fathers are involved in their lives.

The United States’ patchwork of paid corporate leave policies and lack of a national policy doesn’t cut it anymore. Congress needs to step up and increase access to paid leave with a clear bipartisan policy, supported by men and women from both sides of the political aisle.

I don’t want the next generation of fathers to have to question whether or not they can be good dads.

At the end of the day, you know what a good dad is? A good dad is someone who takes full advantage of the time he has with his family and fights for the health and well-being of his kids. And a national paid family leave policy can help them do that. Even Drake and Pusha T can agree to that.

Brad Jenkins is the managing director of Funny or Die, a father of two, and a member of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Paid Family Leave Advisory Council.

The Bipartisan Policy Center is a D.C.-based think tank that actively promotes bipartisanship. BPC works to address the key challenges facing the nation through policy solutions that are the product of informed deliberations by former elected and appointed officials, business and labor leaders, and academics and advocates from both ends of the political spectrum. BPC is currently focused on health, energy, national security, the economy, financial regulatory reform, housing, immigration, infrastructure, and governance. Follow BPC on Twitter or Facebook.

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