Although nearly half of men support paid paternal leave and federal law allows fathers to take up to 12 unpaid weeks off, fewer than 5 percent of fathers take two or more weeks of leave. Even those who receive paid leave take a week or less.

In a recent article published in the journal, Community, Work & Family with researchers Chris Knoester and Qi Li, Dr. Richard Petts (Associate Professor of Sociology at Ball State) analyzed data from three nationally representative datasets to explore the attitudes, practices, and predictors of paid parental leave-taking in the United States.

The evidence indicates that several forces influence fathers’ decisions to take leave. Fathers who have higher incomes are more likely to take leave; however, U.S. paternity policies seem to limit access to paid paternity leave. This helps to explain why leave-taking is rare.

“Policymakers should recognize the consequences of the current piecemeal system,” says Petts. “The current structure of paternity leave exacerbates family inequalities, as more advantaged families are more likely to have access to (and the ability to take) paternity leave and its related benefits.”

This connection between inequality and parenting practice suggests a meaningful way for policy to address a trend that is increasingly seen as a social problem.

“In a society where there is growing awareness of the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor (and a shrinking middle class), providing paid paternity leave to all workers may be one way to help reduce inequality.”

Non-financial influences also affect fathers’ decisions, as well. Those who are first time fathers, fathers who were involved in parenting activities before the child was born, and those who have a positive attitude toward fathering are also more likely to take leave.

“Workplace culture and gender norms emphasize the importance of always being available to work, leaving many people (men especially) to feel that they cannot take (or cannot take a long period) of time off when their child is born,” Petts explains. “Workplaces need to become more supportive of men taking leave (especially if they offer paternity leave), as evidence suggests that offering and using paid leave increases worker productivity and loyalty.”

Dr. Petts expressed surprise at the results and public reaction to the research.

“I was struck by the consistency across datasets in illustrating the clear socioeconomic variations in support and usage of paid paternity leave. I have also been surprised by how much attention this project has received, and how surprised people are by how little time off fathers take when they have a child even if that time off is paid.”

Nonetheless, he hopes that, with greater awareness of the many benefits of paternal leave and with policy changes, more fathers might take the opportunity.

“Everyone has an adult lifetime to work, but only one opportunity to spend time with a newborn child.”