'I Wasn't There To Help': Dad With Newborn Struggles With Lack Of Leave

Oct 5, 2016
Originally published on January 4, 2017 2:09 pm

Mike Cruse is the father of a new baby. His daughter Olivia was born in July. But like most fathers in the U.S., he doesn't get paid parental leave. That means his wife, Stephanie, will have to take care of the baby mostly herself — an already difficult task that may be even harder for her since she's dealing with postpartum anxiety.

Cruse, who manages the warehouse for a lighting company, had to take vacation days from his job to stay home and help for those first 10 days. Now he has no vacation left for the next calendar year.

And that's better than the situation about four and a half years ago, when his son Benjamin was born. Cruse says he wasn't able to take any vacation at all then — he was working for a different company that told him to be back at work in five days. Those days off were unpaid.

"This is exactly what millions of men all over the country are dealing with," says Josh Levs, who has written about parental leave in the book All In. Levs is a journalist and advocate for paid family leave, including paternity leave. (Disclosure: Levs has reported for NPR in the past.)

Levs thinks the solution is a government fund taken from payroll deductions that would pay for time off after a baby is born as well as time needed to care for sick or elderly family members. As of now, paid leave programs of this kind exist statewide in California, New Jersey and Rhode Island. Much of the developed world outside the United States has these social insurance funds as well.

That's not an option for Cruse, who lives in Alexandria, Va. He recorded an audio diary with some of his thoughts during those first days after Olivia was born. The diary is part of Stretched, an All Things Considered series on the challenges facing working parents.

"For whatever reason, people in this country don't see parents, let alone dads, like they do in other countries that offer family leave," Cruse says in one audio diary entry. "I don't think people quite understand what's all involved when you have a child and how much work it is and how much help you need."

He recounts his wife's earlier struggle with postpartum depression after their first child was born. She was alone with the baby for three months while he had to be back at work. "It was just hard on both of us — and I wasn't there to help or understand," he says.

On July 31, he was preparing to go back to work. His daughter was less than two weeks old. But he really wanted to be there for his wife.

"It would be nice for me to be able to stay home and be there with her," he tells his diary. "And be able to assist her and help her. Whether it's changing diapers, holding the baby, going grocery shopping, fixing meals, getting a glass of water — or just being there as a presence. Just being there as someone to talk to, someone to support, someone to care."

Fathers across the country feel the same way.

"What's happening now is that men — working fathers — are very involved in home life. And not just at birth," Levs, the author, says. "The average working father spends three hours every work day caring for his children. But we have no infrastructure in this country to give families real choices. And when it comes to a birth, we have no system in place to make sure that a parent can be at home and put food on the table for at least a block of weeks."

A report from the Boston College Center for Work & Family says 96 percent of men surveyed in 2011 took two weeks or less off from work following the birth of their most recent child. Even more, 99 percent, felt "that their supervisor expects no change to occur to their working patterns as the result of their becoming parents."

Among private sector workers in the U.S., just 13 percent have access to paid family leave, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Men also typically take shorter leaves than women after the birth of a child.

The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to the issue of paid leave. Papua New Guinea, Suriname, a few small South Pacific island states and the U.S. are among the handful of the 193 countries in the United Nations that do not provide this benefit to new parents.

The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 lets workers at many private and public-sector jobs take up to three months of leave and come back to their jobs. But that leave is unpaid; certain conditions apply and not all workers are covered.

"This is essential for building a stronger economy," Levs says. "When you make gender-neutral paid family leave available as a social project — available on the state level and hopefully nationally, you keep more people in the workforce."

Now back at work and speaking in late September, Cruse says he hopes things change in the country going forward. "I hope that the conversation just continues to pick up as the next generation starts to move into the senior management realm," he says.

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Juggling a job and kids isn't easy for moms or for dads.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's about the busiest I've ever been.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It's a real influx of strange emotions.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: I think how I've described my daughter so far is delightful terror. It is harder than I expected and also much better than I expected (laughter) - both.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: It's a pain in the butt, and it's a lot of work, but I still would much rather be at home taking care of my son.

MCEVERS: For the past several months, we've been talking to working parents for a series we're calling stretched. Today we meet Mike Cruse of Alexandria, Va. He has two kids.

BENJAMIN CRUSE: Excuse me, Daddy. Can I give her one of my toys?

MIKE CRUSE: You can give her a toy, sure. That'd be awesome.

BENJAMIN: I want to give Dory.

MCEVERS: Four-year-old Benjamin is helping his dad give a bath to newborn baby Olivia.

M. CRUSE: We're going to get your baby sister's hair wet.

BENJAMIN: Can I do it?

M. CRUSE: You want to help?


M. CRUSE: OK, sure. So here, I'll block her eyes, and you just kind of squeeze a little bit over her head, OK?

MCEVERS: Like a lot of American dads, after Olivia was born, Mike wanted to be home to get to know his new baby and help his wife, Stephanie, recover. He was able to do that for a little bit, but like a lot of American dads, he couldn't afford to do it for very long. When he burned through all his paid time off and it was time to go back to his job as a warehouse manager, he started keeping this radio diary.

M. CRUSE: This is Mike Cruse recording on the evening of Sunday, July 31. I have been home the past 10 days or so since my second child, my daughter was born. None of those days are covered by any type of paternity leave. I had to use my own vacation. That also means that I have no vacation for the next calendar year, which, you know, in itself is kind of rough but a lot better than any other company I've ever worked for before when everything was just strictly unpaid.

The last company I worked for when my son was born four and a half years ago was not so kind even to (laughter) let me take vacation days. Days were just unpaid, and I was basically told I'd better be back in five days or, you know, there would be no job to come back to.

When my wife had my son - had our son four and a half years ago, she had a very strong battle with postpartum depression, and it was very hard because she was home for three months with our son, and she was by herself. And she struggled a lot, which means we struggled a lot because it was just hard on both of us. And I wasn't there to help or understand. And after a long day of work, it's hard to come home and understand the kind of struggles your partner's going through.

This time my wife's recovery is going a lot slower than last time, physically that is. It would be nice for me to be able to stay home and be there with her and be able to assist her and help her, whether it's changing diapers, holding the baby, going grocery shopping, fixing meals, getting a glass of water or just being there as someone to talk to, someone to support, someone to care. I'm having a hard time kind of wrapping my head around it, too - going back to work tomorrow. We'll see what this next week holds.

MCEVERS: For Stephanie and for a lot of women, childbirth is a big thing. And you need help recovering from it, especially when you're dealing with the very common condition of postpartum depression. On that last Sunday night of his paternity leave, Mike asked his wife how she was feeling about him going back to work. She said she was going to miss having him at home.

STEPHANIE CRUSE: First I'll miss your companionship. It's a bit of a monotonous life just the same rinse-repeat cycle of feeding, diaper changing, trying to get her to sleep, and so it gets a little lonely - and then just the seemingly overwhelming tasks of this all by myself because I still don't feel like I'm 100 percent physically. And so that's going to be challenging physically and probably emotionally.

M. CRUSE: Something we've talked about was, you know, our prior experience. You had your journey with postpartum depression. Obviously that has to be in the back of your mind somewhat. So I'm just curious as your partner on, like, where you are right now. Like, how are you feeling knowing that I'm going back to work tomorrow and that access to me is going to be drastically more limited than it was for the last 10 days?

S. CRUSE: I feel scared that you're going back to work, but so far this experience feels different. And I have resources. And I know I can reach out to people. So I'm scared, but we'll just have to see what happens.

MCEVERS: We wanted to know how common Mike and Stephanie's experience is, so we called up Josh Levs. He's an advocate for paid parental leave. And here's what he said.

JOSH LEVS: This is exactly what millions of men all over the country are dealing with. We (laughter) are no longer the old stereotype. You know, what's happening now is that men, working fathers are very involved in home life and not just at birth. You know, the average working father spends three hours every work day caring for his children.

But we have no infrastructure in this country to give families real choices. And when it comes to a birth, we have no system in place to make sure that a parent can be at home and put food on the table for at least a block of weeks.

MCEVERS: So lay it out for us. I mean how many working American dads have access to paid paternity leave?

LEVS: Well, only about 14 percent of companies offer any paid paternity leave at all.

MCEVERS: So what do we know about the impact of paid paternity leave for men and their families?

LEVS: Well, we know a couple of things. First of all, we have longitudinal studies now that show that when a dad can be there in the initial weeks of a kid's life, that kid's life is changed.

And you know, when a man can be there in the early weeks of a child's life, he develops the same skills and the same confidence about taking care of the baby, and that's essential as well. When that opportunity is taken away, it changes the entire balance of responsibilities and pushes things more into this traditional "Mad Men" era way of thinking.

MCEVERS: Again, that's Josh Levs. He's written a book about this. It's called "All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families And Businesses - And How We Can Fix It Together."

MCEVERS: And we recently checked back in with Mike Cruse. Baby Olivia is now two months old. And he told us being in the thick of this newborn phase with all the demands of a full-time job is stressful. He's had some rough moments.

M. CRUSE: I just would lose my cool and get really frustrated and - you know, with her not sleeping or her being fussy and not eating or just - and just not knowing how to fix it.

MCEVERS: Add to this the fact that Stephanie says she's had some postpartum anxiety, which has made things that much harder. Both Mike and Stephanie say this time which should be such a happy time has just been really hard. But they're working through it.

We asked Mike Cruse how much time he would have taken off if he'd had the choice. He says six to 12 weeks, not the 10 days that he did get off.

M. CRUSE: I want to be involved in every aspect of my children growing up. Like, I've seen them both born. I've been there when they both came into the world, and I want to be there for every other aspect that they experience and not just because I think it would be cool. But I think it's because it's the way it should be. It shouldn't all be on, you know, my partner.

MCEVERS: There is more coming in our series Stretched. Tomorrow we'll look at how parental leave is handled in the rest of the world. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.