Sharing the Mental Load Begins at Paternity Leave

Shifting Trends in Childcare

Over the last decade, there’s been a shift in the role of fatherhood. Dads are becoming more engaged in raising and parenting their children. Despite these positive developments, a large gap remains when it comes to equally sharing the responsibilities of parenting. According to a 2019 New York Times article, roughly 90% of fathers took some time off for the birth of their child. However, 70% of fathers only took 10 days or less of leave. How can the critical task of raising children be equitable when the large majority of dads go right back to work? 

Give yourself a moment to let the weight of that sink in. 10 days or less. To make sure mom and baby are safe and healthy post labor. To help mom heal and rest. To bond with baby and learn how to be a parent. I don’t know about you, but it takes me more than 10 days to learn ANYTHING.

Gendered Expectations and Stigma

The idea that a new dad would take a significant parental leave has historically been uncommon and unpopular. There’s a belief that “something must be wrong with you” since “that’s women’s work”. We receive these messages from TV, social media, our own family and friends, our places of employment, as well as our state and federal policies. We are often told “the dad is supposed to be the breadwinner for the family”. So when it comes to taking a longer leave, societal expectations and stigma make it abundantly clear that dad needs to get back to work to pay the bills while mom must stay home with the baby.

In addition to stigma and gender role expectations, most men report not taking longer leave due to financial and economic reasons. Simply put, the longer leave would be unpaid. When a new dad has been externally and internally conditioned to the message that he’s the breadwinner and will get little, if any, paid time off, the choice of taking leave has already been made. 

Just Leave, Dad

For the 30% minority of new fathers who take 10+ days of leave, the benefits include more equitable child care between parents, reduced work-family conflict for dads, increased employment pay for mothers, increased engagement and bonding with children and family, improved developmental health outcomes for children, and improved overall mental health for the entire family. When dad is around to share the load, less responsibility falls onto mom. She can rest, heal, and maybe even take a shower!  

Super Mom to the Rescue

As the systems within our society create exhausted, overworked mothers, we train ourselves to expect Super Mom will take care of it all, no matter how detrimental to her mental and physical health. This brings us to the idea of cognitive, or mental load, which includes all the mental gymnastics we expect our mothers to perform to keep us healthy, happy, and functioning. So it’s usually mom who takes on all the mental labor of running and maintaining the home and family. What size diapers does little Johnny need now? Is Sally still not eating quesadillas if she finds out cheese is in there? Do the kids have appropriate spare clothes at daycare for the summer? 

Mental load entails constant anticipating, observing, and decision-making. Research conducted by Ciciolla (2019) indicates that “mental load is linked to strains on mothers’ well-being and low relationship satisfaction…and the burden left them feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and unable to make space for their own self-care”. In essence, a cycle of poor mental health is established when dads aren’t present to equally participate in child care. This absence leads to moms carrying the mental load of caring for a new baby, feeling overwhelmed, and likely experiencing perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. And according to Postpartum Support International, a new father’s mental health is strongly correlated with the well-being of the new mother. So ultimately, many new dads begin to experience the very same mental health concerns as their partners. 

Dads Don’t Babysit

Much of the emotional strain that stems from the identity shift and life transition into parenthood feels unavoidable. There’s really no way to prepare yourself for becoming a new parent, from the intense exhaustion to the overwhelming joy. Now add stigmatized gender roles and societal norms, and you have a recipe for failure. Change doesn’t happen overnight, and more must be done on a policy-wide, societal level to create equitable solutions for all families. Until then, we must normalize dads taking leave, changing diapers, and sharing the mental load. After all, dads are not babysitters, they’re parents!

Sharing the Load

Becoming a dad myself was an eye opening experience. My employer at the time provided five days of paid parental leave. After cobbling together the entirety of my paid time off, I had a whopping 15 whole days to adjust to my new life and identity as a parent. My lack of work-life balance put a strain on my family and contributed to my wife and I experiencing many of the struggles I’ve discussed here. Ultimately, this gave me the needed push to explore employment options that supported my life as a parent. Fast forward to three years later, and I’m a certified perinatal mental health professional (PMH-C) expecting another daughter. But this time around, I can be more present physically and emotionally for my wife as she brings another life into this world. I have the time I need (eight weeks!) to adjust to being a dad of two, a family of four. I’m able to shoulder my fair share of parenting and mental load. And I’m an example that it’s ok to reject societal norms and combat stigmatized gender roles when they don’t align with your identity. After all, I’ll be setting an example for two little girls very soon.