When Dad takes a break from his job to care for baby

First, the bad news about fatherhood in the United States, from a paper by Prof. Urie Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University: "In one study, middle-class fathers reported spending an average of 15 to 20 minutes a day playing with their one-year-old infats. . . . In another, fathers recorded by microphones were found to spend an average of 37.7 seconds a day with their infants."

And then, there's Vinny Parisi, father of 5 1/2-month-old Dana Marie, and one of the few employees in the country to take advantage of AT&T's noncompensatory paternity leave policy.

Six weeks after Dana Marie was born, Mr. Parisi left his job as service manager for New Jersey Bell to care for his daughter, a job he calls "wonderfull."

"It's so fun -- I love little kids to begin with, and to be able to take care of my own child, and watch this little baby grow and change in really special," says the new father.

The decision to take paternity leave, Mr. Parisi says, was strictly economic. His wife, an assistant manager at New Jersey Bell, "makes a better salary than I do," he says, "and who wants to go into the poorhouse so I can be macho?"

Admitting that he "takes a little jiving" about his new career -- "it's a bit on the unusual side" -- he says most of their friends understand their situation , and support their choice.

At the beginning, though, the new grandparents had some difficulties with his fulltime fatherhood. "This happens to be the first grandchild on both sides," he explains, "and at first, they weren't sure if I could handle it. But then, when they saw me in action, they relaxed. Now we get full support from both sets of parents."

Mr. Parisi has no real complaints about his new job ("It does get a bit boring -- I've caught up on a lot of my reading"), and enjoys the "freedom" of staying home so much, he's decided to go for another six months.

AT&T offers six months "care of newborn child" leave to any parent, mother or father, of any newborn child, biological or adoptive. At the end of six months, the parent must be offered a job and salary comparable to the one he or she left.

But the employee may opt, like Mr. Parisi, to stay out an additional six months, at the end of which his employer will make an effort to place him, without guarantees. Mr. Parisi believes the risk of unemployment is worth it, however, because "babysitters are hard to come by. And besides, we feel that we don't want to give her to someone else yet."

The benefit Mr. Parisi is using is similar to other paternity-leave policies offered by only a small percent of the nation's corporations, according to a new survey by the nonprofit women's business firm, Catalyst. In addition, a few firms not offering paternity leave per se will consider fatherhood as a reason in granting unpaid personal leave. IBM, for example, grants such a leave for up to one year: and Equitable Life Assurance Society has unpaid leave for up to two years.

But most of the paternity-leave policies are like the one held by CBS: "Basically the same as maternity leave, but without the sick pay," says Jeff Guyverson of the broadcasting firm's personnel department.

"Any employee who has worked here for at least a year has the option to take six months' leave without pay at the birth of his child," he says. Mr. Guyverson personally knows of only two men to have taken this option, a fact he attributes to economics, "since there's no pay involved, they tend to shun away from it."

Other firms with the paternity benefit report the same sort of reluctance -- "people are not exactly standing in line to get this," says Phil Junker, spokesman for AT&T. Mr. Junker admits that the disparity in pay between men and women across the nation could account for many of these decisions, since it would make more pocketbook sense to have the spouse with the smaller earnings drop out and take care of the child.

But he believes that "traditional thinking" inhibits the decision as well: "The idea that the mother should be home raising the child still exists," he says.

There is another factor personnel officers do not talk about, and that is the effect paternity leave has on a man's career.

An employee of a large Midwestern firm, who prefers to remain anonymous, points to a gap between those setting the paternity policy and those administering it: "My boss, before I took leave, hauled me into his office, called me weird, and told me to rethink my decision. Well, I've been with the company 11 years and have learned to read the tea leaves a bit -- I know that when your boss asks you to rethink your decision, he wants a different decision."

But he continued to exercise his paternity leave option, he says, "for two reasons -- first, we're not near our families." He also knew his wife would need some help for a while. "And second, I wanted to do it -- I've never been a parent before, and I wanted to get to know my baby."

The experience, he says, had a "big impact on me. I'm not sure if it will have much impact on [his daughter], though I think we've gotten to know each other very well, the lines of communication are open.

"But it's given me a lot of appreciation for the relationship with my daughter," he says, "and a lot of appreciation for a day in the life of a housewife -- it's easy to underestimate what a housewife does."

Returning to work was easy, he says, in one sense. "In a large bureaucratic organization like ours, things move very slowly. So being out for six months, it's like you were gone for one day."

In another sense, however, the return to work has been hard on him. "For one thing, it's not nearly as satisfying as being home with my baby," he begins. And now, he claims, he is paying the cost of taking the leave. "On evaluations, I am automatically moved to the bottom rung. My immediate supervisor told me it was because of the paternity leave, though my boss says it's something else."

Asked if he thinks he has made it any easier for the next man to ask for paternity leave, he says with evident bitterness, "I think the next person will understand just what the cost is -- it's not entirely secret around here that management just doesn't go for this."

Over at the Ford Foundation, headquartered in New York City, management not only goes for paternity leave, but pays for it as well, making it possibly the first organization in the country to offer compensatory leave.

Under the Ford Foundation policy, any staff member may take up to 26 weeks of leave to care for a newborn or recently adopted child up to the age of five. The first eight weeks -- four of which can be taken before the date of birth -- are given with full pay; the remainder can be taken without pay.

Those who do take paternity leave seem sold on the idea, despite economic hardships and possible career stigmas. Says the Mid- western father, "I know of several guys who are thinking of redirecting their energy toward their families this way. It makes you remember what you're working for."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.