Just one Father’s Day policy can improve lifelong health, life expectancy, and gender equity

Rocco and Justin v2

Right after my son Rocco was born, I reached my hands to him.  He instantly wrapped each hand around one of my fingers and melted my heart.

My wife, Vanessa, and I will do everything we can to ensure our son is and will be healthy, happy, and able to reach his potential. On my first Father’s Day as a father, I am thinking of the millions of other working parents across this nation with similar bold, yet simple aspirations for their children.

Vanessa and I are lucky—in this nation where so many people have no paid leave—to have paid time off to give our son a strong start during this critical period of rapid brain, body, and emotional development.  Yet our leave pales in comparison with that of parents in many other countries.  Longer paid leave policies (several countries give parents a combined total of one year or more of paid leave) help children and families; they are associated with increased breastfeeding rates and increased life expectancy for children.

In the United States, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) protects qualified workers for up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave. However, FMLA only covers 56% of private sector workers.  It doesn’t cover employees at small businesses, those who have worked less than a year, and those working less than full-time hours.  And again, it is unpaid.  As is now famously noted, the United States, Papua New Guinea, and Oman are the only countries in the world without any government-required paid family leave (in the United States, three states are exceptions: New Jersey, Rhode Island, and California offer paid family leave).  Is this the company our country wants to be in?

Vanessa is fortunate enough to be among the 11% of US workers receiving a portion of her paid family leave through either their employers or state programs.  Others, like me, may piece together vacation time and sick leave to receive pay for some of our time.  However, far too many American families, even among the 56% eligible for FMLA, are forced to choose between earning essential family income or spending time bonding with and caring for their new family member.  This difficult choice comes just as a new family member brings a significant increase in family expenses—including, in the case of newborns, the new budget item of diapers: a too often unaffordable necessity.

And even the right to unpaid leave is a luxury for too many.  Perhaps that is why, when Children’s HealthWatch examined reasons mothers had lost their jobs or reduced their work hours, the birth of a child was a leading cause. The lose-lose choice those mothers had between dedicating precious time to their newborns and bringing precious earnings home has real repercussions; our research found reduced hours and job loss were associated with fair or poor maternal health, maternal depressive symptoms, food insecurity, housing insecurity, and energy insecurity.

Millions of American children in families struggling with hunger, unstable housing, and other economic hardships already face increased odds of poor health, developmental delays, and entering school academically behind their wealthier peers.  These children also are less likely to live in families with access to paid family leave. These children need every advantage our society can provide—and paid family leave is something our society can provide.

Massachusetts, where my family lives, passed a new law this year that guarantees all working dads 8 weeks of leave.  This equitable extension of leave to people not covered by FMLA is important, but because Massachusetts leave is unpaid, far too many don’t have the resources to benefit from it.  It’s time to make equitable paid leave policies universal.  Equitable leave policies recognize today’s variety of family structures—and give all families an opportunity to give their children the attention and time they need.  For two parent families, particularly, in the early weeks of parenting, more hands on deck are better—to give each parent time to meet his own basic needs: sleeping, showering, and eating.  Equitable leave for the birth or adoption of a child doesn’t just benefit dads; it improves women’s earnings, workforce participation, and career prospects.

Sometimes the best policy for low-income working families is a policy all families need. Sometimes, the best way to help moms is to help dads too.  This is one of those times.

So this Father’s Day, millions of newborns like Rocco and newly adopted children are reaching their hands out to grab policymakers fingers.  They are asking for one gift for their parents; pay attention to the research and give the United States equitable, generous family leave policies covering all parents for long enough to ensure the best outcomes for all children.