Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Social importance of parental leave for fathers

By Pia Schober (China Daily) Updated: 2016-01-04 08:17

Some studies suggest that by taking at least several weeks of leave to look after their newborn children, fathers develop a better understanding of their wards' needs and greater respect for domestic work. Whereas short leaves of fathers around childbirth may help mothers recover faster after childbirth, fathers are not likely to acquire substantial domestic work skills or greatly improve the bonds with children in a short time.

Ideally, fathers should take extra leave after mothers return to work so that they can shoulder the main responsibility of child care. Generally speaking, 98-day leave for mothers and one week of leave for fathers is relatively short compared to most European countries. If the maternal leave entitlement is not even partly transferable to fathers, then they cannot be more involved in child care even in families, where, for instance, women earn higher wages than men and therefore would want to return to work sooner.

It is difficult to define an ideal period for parental leave entitlements, because it depends on the objectives a government is pursuing. If the goal is to promote gender equality both in the labour market and on the home front while supporting child development, most studies recommend the following parental leave policies: The total leave entitlement (for mothers and fathers) should be for at least 6 months and ideally for one year. Also, it should be a fully paid leave so that all families can afford to take it, and part of the leave should be transferable between couples with a rest reserved for each parent.

To promote jointly gender equality and child wellbeing, some researcher recommend three months' leave for mothers and fathers each, and six months of transferable leave. For mothers six to eight weeks of maternity leave after childbirth are usually considered necessary to help them recover and to encourage breastfeeding. Besides this, it would be better to give parents the choice of when they want to take their share of the leave without restricting it to a few weeks after childbirth.

There is not enough evidence to conclude whether leave arrangements have different consequences for the first, second, and third childbirth. One may argue that the first transition to parenthood requires more changes and learning of new skills and therefore warrants longer leave, but the workload is much higher after the second or third child is born. So it is not clear after which child parents require more or less leave.

The cost of granting parental leave for mothers and fathers should be borne in part, if not in full, by the government, because otherwise some employers may start discriminating against employees of childbearing age and force them not to take the leave. If aligned with early childhood education and care policies, well-designed parental leave policies can provide an important support for mothers, fathers, and children during childbearing transitions.

The author is associated with the Department of Education and Family, DIW Berlin (German Institute for Economic Research). The article is an excerpt of her interview with China Daily's Zhang Yuchen.

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