When my partner and I found out that we were expecting a baby, we sat down for a discussion about how long we would take off work. We’re both professionals working demanding jobs, so neither of us had the option of taking as long a leave as we would have liked. In the end, we decided that my partner would take the first ten months, and I would take the following two months – still not as long as either of us wanted (and still not an equal division of labour) but long enough that my partner could get back to her job and I could get some quality one-on-one time with the baby before they started daycare.
Unfortunately for many men in the legal profession, taking any more than a couple weeks of parental leave is considered unusual. According to Statistics Canada, only 46% of dads took any paternity leave (compared to 88% of moms), and dads took significantly less time off than moms. I’m not aware of legal-specific data, but I’m sure our profession isn’t bucking any trends here.
And that’s unfortunate, because those two months I spent with my child were an incredible experience. It meant I was able to be present for first words. It meant I was able to see my baby grow and was able to get to know them on a much deeper level than I otherwise would have. It meant that my partner was able to return to work without worrying about the baby starting daycare early. It meant that instead of being peripherally involved in childcare – taking over at the end of the day for baths and bedtime – I was often the primary caregiver. And just for the record, being the primary caregiver while taking care of everything involved in running a house was just as much work as my regular job.
While there were many great things about taking a longer parental leave, it also meant that I missed out on over two months of work. I had to turn down assignments because they overlapped with my leave and some of my files were transferred to other associates. Those were problems that I expected, and at the end of the day those problems were worth it.
My paternity leave gave me a brief glimpse into what women experience when it comes to parental leave. Women, of course, face a similar but much more severe set of problems when it comes to parental leave, and these problems start well before the baby arrives. We’ve all heard horror stories of women being told (explicitly or implicitly) that they aren’t worth investing in because they’re just going to have babies in a few years and disappear. We all know women who return from maternity leave and struggle to hit billable targets because their files have been given to an associate (in all likelihood a male associate) who wasn’t on leave. And we all know of women who make less than their male peers because they are shouldering the burden of both childcare responsibilities and work. And let’s face it, most women are stuck with a disproportionate amount of the housework and childcare even while they are working full time.
These problems are structural, and won’t be solved by a few men taking more time off to look after their kids or doing the dishes more often. However, if all parents take a longer leave, it reduces the gendered nature of parental leave. As more men take longer leaves, the adverse effects felt by women who take leaves will – hopefully – lessen as the profession comes to realize that taking time to care for a baby is and ought to be the responsibility of both parents equally.
So to the male lawyers reading this who are planning on having kids: embrace equity and be more than a babysitter. Taking a long parental leave will give you memories that can’t be bought no matter how many hours you bill, and you’ll be supporting women in this profession by normalizing taking significant time off work to care for your family. Trust me, it will be worth it.