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NEW YORK, Mar 26 2009 (IPS) - More men are taking advantage of paternity leave or even quitting their jobs entirely to raise small children while their wives go to work, but the social stigma attached to fathers who take on roles traditionally viewed as female has been far slower to diminish.
Paternity leave and the ability to work shorter hours and have more flexibility when children are young have been available to fathers in Scandinavia for several decades. In the rest of the world, and especially in the U.S., many men still rely on the goodwill of their employer to get the time off they want.
There were an estimated 159,000 stay-at-home dads in 2006, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. These married fathers with children younger than 15 have remained out of the labour force for more than one year, primarily so they can care for their family, while their wives earn a paycheque outside the home.
However, the total number of stay-at-home parents in the U.S. is 5.8 million – indicating that the vast majority are mothers.
"Even in firms where 12 weeks of paid leave and 12 weeks of unpaid leave are provided, keep in mind that these are offered on paper. The real issue is whether men feel they can take that much time off and whether they actually do in any significant numbers," said Phoebe Taubman, a staff attorney at A Better Balance, a New York-based legal advocacy group that focuses on issues of work and family.
The 2008 survey showed that 62 percent of new fathers availed themselves of paternity leave when it was offered, while this year the number ballooned to 83 percent.
Only about 13 percent of companies in the U.S. offer paid paternity leaves, according to one estimate.
Meanwhile, the number of stay-at-home dads is likely to keep growing as more women become the sole breadwinner.
"This financial crisis is affecting men more than women by the nature of the jobs that are being cut, so a lot of guys – whether they like it or not – get to spend more quality time with the kids," Roland Warren, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative, an advocacy group, told IPS.
According to one survey by CareerBuilder.com, 37 percent of working dads say they'd leave their jobs if their spouse or partner made enough money to support the family. If given the choice, another 38 percent would take a pay cut to spend more time with their kids.
"Men are realising that they don’t want to do the kinds of things their dads and grandfathers and great grandfathers did. So much of men’s identity is tied up in our jobs, how much money we are making and what we do for a living, and a lot of people look back and say this isn’t particularly fulfilling, this isn’t helpful," Brott told IPS.
"More and more guys are saying I am not happy with the choices that I had to make, I am not happy looking back and seeing what my dad did and how he suffered because he couldn’t spend time with his kids," he said.
The survey found that nearly one in four (24 percent) working dads feel work is negatively impacting their relationship with their children. In terms of the time they spend with their children, one in four (25 percent) working dads spend less than one hour with their kids each day. Forty-two percent spend less than two hours each day.
While more companies are offering options to promote work/life balance, more than a third of working dads say their employer does not offer flexible arrangements such as telecommuting, job sharing and more.
And even if their boss is understanding, friends and others in the community may not be. "A lot of guys staying at home bump up against the idea that 'Oh I hope you find a job soon!' or 'Are you babysitting your kids today?' or 'Where is the mum?'," Brott said.
A survey done last year by A Better Balance with Generation Y (born after 1979) New York University law students showed that young men are just as worried about balancing work and family as their female classmates.
"They are already worried about it without having a family, which makes it all the more striking and shows that they are much more aware," Taubman said.
One of the male law students taking part in the survey was quoted as saying: "I think for paternity leave, I could just think ‘major stigma, huge stigma'."
"There is stigma and stereotyping around care giving work which has been undervalued in our society and tied up with gender rules and values," Taubman agreed.
Men can feel tension about their decision out of fear their career will suffer, that they will be passed over for promotion, and sometimes they are right.
"Fathers get treated as heroes if they ask for time off for their kids, but if they ask a lot, then it changes," said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute.
Ultimately, companies need to understand that by supporting father-friendly workplace policies, they end up with employees who are happier, stay at the company longer, and are more productive, Brott said.
"So companies do it not because it is a nice thing to do but because you can make money with it," he said.
He added that women, as much as they want more help around the house, can also be part of the problem, consciously or unconsciously resisting sharing the responsibility with their husbands – especially when it comes to children.
"They tell them what to do, like having to dress the kid this way, or the kid has to eat this food, or you have to sing this song for them when they are going to bed. And in a way this is a nice thing to do, but really it is not. The way to figure out what works and doesn’t work is to make lots of mistakes," Brott said.
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