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Take all the time you can: the importance of parental leave for non-birthing parents

We already know that some form of parental leave for birthing parents – often in the form of maternity leave or short term disability leave – is important for so many reasons. This time off from work allows new mothers and birthing parents the time they need to recover from labor and delivery, attend to the business of caring for their healing bodies, and adjust to breastfeeding if that’s how they’ll be feeding their children. Other reasons – like dealing with the inevitable sleepless nights that come with a new baby, adjusting to what it means to care for a newborn day in and day out, and getting to know one very new and very amazing child – are important not just for birthing parents, but for non-birthing parents as well.

Fortunately, in the U.S. many employers and government agencies are starting to understand just how important this leave time is for new parents. Taking leave is better for the health of parents and babies; it helps families to adjust to their new normal during what’s an equally special and intense period of their lives; it helps companies keep talented employees; and it shows that parents and children are valued. But not everyone has access to leave, and for those who do, it doesn’t necessarily mean that leave time is paid. Also unfortunate? Many leave policies fall far short of the amount of time off that we know is most beneficial, and often options for non-birthing parents are not as generous as for birthing parents.

Of course, we know that most parents just do the best they can with what they have. Some parents rely on their company’s parental leave policies, paid or unpaid, but these can vary widely. Some rely on the Family and Medical Leave Act, a federal policy that gives some employees (though not all) 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to take care of families with qualified medical issues. Others use short-term disability leave. Still others rely on state leave policies. A handful of states have started to step up and offer paid family leave options to make up for the limitations of the federal law. And many new parents cobble together some sort of a leave in whatever way they can – using their paid sick or vacation time to take a few weeks off, switching shifts with coworkers, or simply take a few days off unpaid – even if it’s less than ideal.

Really, the state of parental leave in the U.S. is far from ideal, and most policies need a major overhaul before they’ll look like the kind of leave that we know from research is best for babies and parents, which is at least six months. But we do know that this time spent at home with a new baby can be invaluable, so whether you have the privilege of a generous paid parental leave or have to cobble together some time off unpaid, we do recommend that all parents take off what time their family can afford to. For dads, partners, and non-birthing parents, this time can be important for so many reasons.

Get to know your little one, and start to bond

Yes, your newborn is going to do a lot of snoozing during the day early on. But they’ll also want to snuggle with you (what could be better), their little eyes and ears and mouths and hands will be trying to take in all of the world around them (you included), and in just a short time they’ll be cooing and giggling and smiling (and you’ll be melting). Your little one’s personality will emerge before you know it, and you’ll soon be an expert in all things baby – you’ll know the noise they make when they’re hungry, what sort of a cry they make when they’re tired, just how they like to be rocked, and what makes them giggle. Days with a newborn are long, but the weeks (and months) are short, and this is really precious time to spend with your baby. Rock them, sing them songs, baby-wear – however you want to spend that time is great, and it will be quality time because they’re with you.

All of this good quality time will help you two bond. Most newborns are ready and raring to bond with you right away. They want to snuggle with you and have skin-to-skin contact, they want to hear your voice, look into your eyes, and watch your face as you talk, sing, gesture, and play. Babies are their parents’ biggest fans almost instantly. Some parents feel connected to their baby right away, but for others this takes a little longer, and that’s okay. As days of caring for a baby, playing with them, and spending time with them go on, most parents do grow attached and their love for their children grows. Often, it’s the day in and day out caregiving that can help to forge this bond – all those silly songs while changing diapers, or warm snuggles while rocking to sleep, or funny games until (finally!) you’re met with your baby’s first smile – and build toward deep affection and great joy. And while there may be some things a mother or birthing parent can do to take care of baby that you can’t – most notably breastfeeding – really, you can do nearly all of the same caregiving.

Growing in your love for your child and developing a relationship with them is a lifelong process, but you can lay a great foundation during leave by starting to create the loving, secure bonds that will help them feel safe and confident as they grow.

Get to know what it means to care for your baby and what your new life looks like now

Even if you’re someone who’s had a lot of experience caring for babies, it’s a whole different story when you have a new baby join your family. There’s plenty that will stay the same, but there’s a lot that will change too. From the logistics of packing a diaper bag or storing breast milk, to adding diapers and wipes to your family budget and then remembering to actually buy them before you run out, to taking out the trash with a baby strapped to your chest or lugging a stroller onto public transportation, there are a ton of new ways in which your new addition is going to shift how your family lives their lives. What does your everyday life look like now? How is your schedule different? What are your new concerns, responsibilities, and to-dos? How will you and your partner work together to make these adjustments, run your household, care for your child, and support each other? Taking as much leave as you can gives you valuable time to adjust, grow, and learn what it means to be a parent before returning to work – at that point you’ll have to readjust again as you figure out what it means to be a working parent – and it definitely helps to take each of these not-so-baby steps one at a time.

Focus on the basics – and get some rest

We know we’re not the first to break it to you, but as the parent of a newborn, you’re going to be experiencing a lot of sleepless nights. Babies wake a lot to feed because their stomachs are so small, and this means that even if you try to go to bed early and sleep in pretty late, a lot of that time in between will be spent waking for some or all of those feedings. You and your partner should try to tackle this challenge together in a way that works for you. In families where one parent is breastfeeding, the other can handle diaper changes and soothing. In families where a baby is formula-fed, parents might split the night into shifts and each take one shift, might switch one night on one night off, or a similar sort of arrangement. You might also try to take turns napping during the day. Really, there are a lot of options here.

If you are both going to be lacking in the sleep department, taking leave time to focus on just the basics – meaning caring for your baby and yourselves –  can at least help you both be as well-rested as humanly possible during those early days when its hardest. In time – we promise – your baby will sleep more. But it’s plenty hard enough to care for a new baby and yourself when you’re so tired. If you can take time away from work and not add that extra responsibility into the mix just yet, we certainly recommend it.

Support your birthing partner

Recovery from childbirth is no small thing. Yes, people have given birth for time immemorial. But, no, as a society we still don’t give new mothers and birthing parents all the time they need to recover. Sometimes it’s assumed that maternity leave for new moms and birthing parents is meant to be time dedicated to caring for the baby. And that’s part of it, for sure, but it’s also time for that birthing parent to care for themselves and be cared for by others. Typical recovery time from a vaginal birth is 6 weeks, and typical recovery time from a C-section is 12 weeks, and these estimates are for births with no complications.

During this time, your partner will need to rest and care for their body as it heals. They’ll also need to adjust to breastfeeding if they plan to feed your newborn in this way – and for many people this is an uncomfortable or even painful process that takes a lot of trial and error before it gets better. This is also a time when your partner will have a lot of hormones in flux, which can cause everything from night sweats to major mood swings. This is all to say that your partner will be going through a lot. If you can take time off, it should be with the goal of not only caring for your new baby, but also helping your partner in whatever ways they need – such as letting them nap, getting them a glass of water when they sit down to nurse, preparing meals, lifting things if they’re unable to do so, the list could go on. When couples can take some leave time together when a baby is first born – whether that’s months, weeks, or days – even though it can be tough and a time of major adjustment, it’s also often a really special time to be in the thick of it together.

Make leave work for you

If you can take parental leave, vacation time, or you have the ability to shift work hours around – whatever you can do – you should take what time you can in a way that works for your family. Take into consideration what sort of parental leave or time off your partner might have, as well as what sort of child care situation you’ll have in place once you’re both back to work. Some families plan for both partners to be home together right after birth, and others stagger their leaves to have one partner (usually the birthing partner) take time off just after birth and then the other partner take time off once the birthing-partner returns to work. And increasingly parents may even choose to spread out their time off throughout their child’s first year if that’s an option with their employer and if that’s what’s best for their family.

For dads: get to know what it means to be a father today

A note here for dads, specifically: Ideals about what it means to be a father have been shifting over the last several decades – and, really, this is for the better. In the past, many dads might have seen themselves only as breadwinner or disciplinarian, definitely not as expert-diaper-changer or baby’s-favorite-lullaby-crooner. Research shows – and anecdotes support – that for some fathers there’s still a struggle to balance what they think it means to be a man along with actively nurturing their children, and that many fathers struggle with the (im)balance of sticking to certain masculine norms while still being emotionally available to and nurturing toward their children. But positive shifts are taking place on this front too – recent studies show that more than ever, fathers provide care, warmth, support, and love for their children and see themselves as playing an important role in their children’s lives. Broader social trends today also encourage dads to be actively involved in raising children and also support men and boys being more aware of and comfortable with their emotions. All of this signals that dads are moving toward being just as involved in their children’s lives as moms and birthing parents have traditionally been expected to be, which is something we can definitely get behind. These changes are also an encouraging sign for the boys being raised now who might someday choose to be dads themselves.

In conclusion, take what you can

We recognize that not everyone has paid leave, and that “time off” for some parents means just a long weekend home with their newborn before going right back to work. We also recognize that dads, partners, and non-birthing parents sometimes face pushback for actually wanting to use all the leave time that’s offered to them. But our advice? Do what you can, take what you can, and use leave in a way that works best for your family. Birthing parents should be given the time they need to fully recover, and all parents should be supported in welcoming a new child into their family. But until ample paid parental leave is the norm, parents and non-parents who care about women and families should keep agitating and advocating for better leave policies and for employers, the government, and society at large to recognize that this time is invaluable for families – it says that we value the hard work parents do and recognize how invaluable raising the next generation is for all of society.

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