Jamez James (copy)

In this 2014 photo, Jamez James, 47, holds his son, Melchi’Tzdec, during an outing in New York's Central Park. Before becoming a father, James said, “I was a single guy, living the life, well, so I thought.” James describes fatherhood as opening a door, and “little did I know, as I chose to go through, my entire life changed. ... That’s where I met my son, on the other side of the door.” 

This week, the U.S. Senate is debating their version of President Joe Biden’s massive Build Back Better legislation. As our senators hash out what stays in the bill and what gets cut, we will soon find out whether all Americans will have access to paid family and medical leave to care for a new baby, another family member or themselves.

Paid leave is often treated as a women’s issue because women bear the brunt of unpaid family care. But paid leave is critical for men too.

Our research and practice with fathers during the pandemic show that families benefit greatly when fathers are able to care for loved ones who need them. Federal paid leave would finally allow fathers to do so without risking the jobs they and their families rely on.

As an assistant professor of social work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of us (Tova Walsh) has spent years studying child and family well-being. In interviews with new parents during the pandemic, she heard time and time again that a "silver lining" of the pandemic has been the extra time at home for fathers.

Due to work-from-home arrangements, workplace closures and job loss, some fathers got to spend time with their new babies, which otherwise would not have been possible. Both mothers and fathers frequently spoke about the value of that added time for bonding with the baby, for mothers' well-being, and for fathers developing skills and feelings of competence to care for the baby.

As one mother said, “(He was out of work because) all the restaurants shut down. … I got lots of support and we could balance each other out.” And as one father said, “I think it just allowed me to be more hands-on, be more active, you know, something I was missing.”

At the same time, the other author of this piece (Darryl Davidson) has been leading the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative (MFI). MFI is a multi-partner initiative to connect Milwaukee men to resources to help them better meet the social, emotional and financial needs of their children and families.

During the pandemic, MFI experienced a rise in interest in fatherhood phone discussions and dads’ groups. In these discussions, fathers reported taking on more around-the-clock child care than ever before. Many also spoke about a new focus on work-life balance and their desire to find work that would allow them to be there for their children and family when they are needed.

As a researcher and practitioner with shared interest in supporting father involvement and strengthening family well-being, we are now collaborating on a project to explore how the stresses and uncertainty posed by COVID-19 compound existing economic instability and family pressures for low-income and noncustodial fathers. In focus groups with Black fathers in Milwaukee, the city with the highest Black-white student achievement gap in the U.S., fathers have told us about changing jobs or reducing work hours so they can support their children with virtual learning during school closures and quarantines.

Fathers want the best for their children and are fiercely determined to both provide and be present for them. Unfortunately, with the absence of paid leave to accommodate increased child care responsibilities, fathers face difficult decisions. As one father told us, “The system ain’t really set up for us (fathers) to have that time (with our kids) … (but I’m) just trying to be that support, trying to be everything they need.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for paid family and medical leave clearer than ever, but the need predates the pandemic and will extend beyond it. For fathers to more equally share in child care responsibilities, and for mothers and fathers to be able to maintain their employment rather than lose or leave work to fulfill caregiving responsibilities, all parents need access to paid leave.

As one father said to us of the pandemic, “It’s been tragic but … I’ve learned a lot of lessons from this, especially just about being present.”

The Senate must keep paid family and medical leave in the final Build Back Better bill so that all parents can be present at the times when their loved ones need them most.

Tova Walsh is an assistant professor in the Sandra Rosenbaum School of Social Work at University of Wisconsin-Madison and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. Darryl Davidson is director of community engagement for the city of Milwaukee and director of the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative.

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