The Relationship and Parenting Benefits of Paternity Leave
A new study highlights the benefits of parental leave.
Posted May 10, 2020
In an article published in the March issue of Social Forces, researchers Petts and Knoester examine the effects of fathers taking time off after the birth of a child (i.e. paternity leave) on the quality of the parental relationship and co-parenting in the following five years.
The researchers used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCW), a longitudinal study that follows nearly 5,000 children and their parents. The data came from interviews conducted soon after a child’s birth and one, three, and five years later. The final sample size comprised 1,494 individuals.
Time off was assessed by asking fathers (when the child was one year old), “Did you take any time off from work for the birth of the focal child?” If yes, then, “In total, how many weeks of leave, paid or unpaid, did you take for the birth of the focal child?”
Three dimensions of the parental relationship were also assessed (these were determined based on mothers’ responses):
- Relationship quality—the rating of the relationship.
- Relationship support—listening, compromise, helpfulness, encouragement, etc.
- Co-parenting quality—ability and commitment to care for the child.
The factor father involvement was evaluated based on the frequency of fathers’ engagement with their child (e.g., reading together, playing games).
The relation between time-off and parenting/relationship quality
Nearly 80 percent of fathers assessed had taken time off work after the birth of a child, though, on average, for one week only. Statistical analysis revealed that time off had positive effects on both relationships and co-parenting; these positive effects persisted over time.
Mothers reported higher relationship quality, co-parenting quality, and father involvement when fathers took time off work. Longer time off work after the child’s birth had a positive association with both relationship and parental outcomes.
To put it in terms of standard deviation (SD), taking time off was associated with a 1/8 SD improved co-parenting quality and a 1/6 SD improved relationship quality. And, compared to fathers who did not take leave, taking over two weeks off was associated with 1/5 SD better relationship quality and a 1/4 SD better co-parenting quality.
Why does fathers’ time off has a positive effect on the relationship and parenting outcomes?
It is not clear why taking time off is beneficial. One possibility is that it allows fathers to become more involved.
The results of this study show that both the fact of fathers taking time off work and the length of the time off are correlated with father involvement. And when fathers are more involved and engaged with their children, mothers are increasingly likely to evaluate their relationship with the fathers more favorably.
In other words, the association of time off work and relationship/co-parenting quality appears to be mediated, in part, by fathers’ involvement.
By taking time off, fathers show their intention to help with childcare and take on additional duties beyond being financial providers; some may even use this time to acquire parenting skills and build confidence in their parenting ability.
Longer time off may allow both parents (but especially fathers) to understand their own and their spouse’s strengths and weaknesses in different aspects of parenting, resulting in more effective cooperation in parenting duties.
In summary, the authors note, “taking time off work following the birth of a child may enable fathers to become more engaged parents, contributing to reduced role conflicts, a more equitable division of household labor, and stronger relationships with mothers.”
Of course, in reality, many fathers do take time off; however, it is often very short (i.e. one week). Why? Partly because many do not qualify for the US’s Family and Medical Leave Act, and most employers do not provide paternity leave (especially paid).
Based on the results of this study, then, “Expansions of [paid] parental leave policies may provide the structural support that parents need to enact their desires to share equally in both domestic and paid labor, ultimately benefiting parents, families, and children.” This is especially true for “economically disadvantaged families, who often face economic and social constraints that make it difficult to fulfill the dual responsibilities of breadwinning and caregiving.”
Petts, R. J., & Knoester, C. (2020). Are parental relationships improved if fathers take time off of work after the birth of a child? Social Forces, 98(3), 1223-1256.