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Transatlantic Blog

Force fathers to stay at home? A warning from Europe

It was a curious sight to see a Wall Street Journal op-ed call for social engineering to change the way families choose to raise newborn babies. It was more curious yet to see right-leaning Catholics endorse the notion “in the name of conservative family values.” This is especially true, as Europe shows the manifest failures and harmful effects of their chosen policy.

Joanne Lipman opened the debate with her op-ed titled, “Want Equality? Make New Dads Stay Home.” She highlighted the case of Humanyze, which obliges all fathers to take 12 weeks paternity leave. While she featured this private corporate policy (as Ramesh Ponnuru noted in his critique at NRO’s The Corner), Lipman also insisted the “core issue” is that “the U.S. is the only industrialized country in the world that doesn’t require paid family leave” – and that “the ‘mandatory’ piece for men is key.”

Taking extended maternity leave reduces lifetime earnings and makes women less likely to receive promotions, Lipman notes. She advocates that men be forced to take long periods of compensated leave, achieving “equality” by equally hampering men’s careers.

The policy’s proponents admit interfering in parenting decisions is, in the New York Timesphrase, “perhaps the most striking example of social engineering.” Yet some see it as a boon for the family unit. Patrick Deneen, professor of political science at Notre Dame, wrote, “I endorse this proposal 100% in the name of conservative family values.”

Aside from unwarranted meddling in decisions about how to parent, there are warnings from Europe that this policy fails to meet its goals, costs parents money and autonomy, and leads families from the nursery to the divorce court.

Mandatory leave increases divorce

Paternity leave activists idolize Sweden. Prior to 1995, parents could choose to divide their (generous) allotment of parental leave however they wished. In practice, women took the vast majority of leave – as in every other OECD nation in which they are offered a choice. Then, the Swedish government carved out one month of paternity leave exclusively for fathers, in the name of gender equality and to increase the father-child bond. The government responded to disappointing results by extending a second month in 2002 and a third in 2016. Swedish politicians now propose a fifth “daddy month” to accomplish the outcomes promised successively by the first three.

The most significant problem with mandatory paternity leave is that it increases the odds of destroying the family it putatively aims to preserve. A study published in the October 2018 issue of the American Economic Journal found that the introduction of the 1995 “reform increased the take-up of fathers’ leave but also increased their probability of separation compared to unaffected couples.” (Emphasis added.) Children of divorce are between two- and three-times as likely to end up in poverty.

Researchers also discovered the policy “decreased earnings for both fathers and mothers.” Since the government redistributed part of their paid leave to men, “women compensated for the decreased paid parental leave with additional unpaid leave, leading to a lower total income for the household.” As the New York Times reported, “Women who thought they wanted their men to help raise baby now find themselves coveting more time at home.”

Since the law compensates parents at 80 percent of their normal salary, and fathers earn more money on average than mothers, the family takes a greater economic hit when it loses one-fifth of his income. The researchers believe lower incomes drove up divorce rates.

The experiment also failed on another account. “Fathers’ share of care for sick children essentially remains unchanged,” according to a 2005 study.

There is a deeper difference in the way parents order their work-life balance.

The Fatherhood bonus

Lipman rightly notes that “a 30-year longitudinal study of 12,686 people [revealed] that women’s earnings decrease 4% after the birth of each child—a ‘motherhood penalty’—while new dads receive more than a 6% bump, known as a ‘fatherhood bonus.’” Fatherhood boosts men’s wages (and a host of other measures of well-being), and according to the Trades Union Congress, their earnings increase even more with a second child.

But to simply ascribe this to “employer biases,” as Lipman does, overlooks the facts on the ground. The Pew Research Center found in 2013 that fathers with children under the age of 18 work seven hours a week more than men with no children at home. “Yet mothers spend less time in paid work than working-age women without children at home” – on average, three hours a week (and 13 hours a week less than fathers).

Scholars argue over the reason. Faithful fathers may even be motivated by the apostolic exhortation, “If any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel” (I Timothy 5:8). But fatherhood and a willingness to work harder go hand-in-hand.

New mothers also work harder – but their burdens are distributed between work and home. Women have told numerous surveys they would prefer flexibility and time-off to higher pay. Even after the Great Recession, 40 percent of women said they would take a pay cut in exchange for more job flexibility to better order their competing obligations.

Social engineering hurts women, men, and children

Some women may value corporate advancement more than spending time at home with their children. Acts of misogyny on the job, like all forms of employment discrimination, should be stamped out. But women should not be penalized if they hold traditional values and prioritize time with their children and family above pursuing the corner office. This is a family’s decision to make. Since no two families are identical, the government (or an employer) cannot impose a one-size-fits-all solution without disadvantaging families, disregarding their parenting choices, and making their lives more difficult. Families in Sweden, which imposed a much less restrictive policy than Lipman and Deneen advocate, find the leave has not kept its promises and harmed the family unit.

Integralists tempted to follow Lipman should heed G.K. Chesterton, who said, “The family is the test of freedom; because the family is the only thing that the free man makes for himself and by himself.”

True family values means valuing the family enough to guard it from social engineering and outside interference into their most private – and cherished – parenting decisions.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)


Rev. Ben Johnson is a senior editor at the Acton Institute. His work focuses on the principles necessary to create a free and virtuous society in the transatlantic sphere (the U.S., Canada, and Europe). He earned his Bachelor of Arts in History summa cum laude from Ohio University and was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa.