Your Boss Should Take Full Parental Leave
This week in NYT Parenting, Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and Initialized Capital, writes about how important parental leave has been for him and his family. He describes how pivotal those early days were, not just because his wife, Serena Williams, nearly died giving birth and needed additional care — but because extended family leave gave him time to deeply bond with their daughter, Olympia. As Nathaniel Popper pointed out in an article for us in June, when dads take full advantage of parental leave, it is better for their kids, their parenting abilities and their marriages.
Alexis ends his piece by saying: “I took my full 16 weeks and I’m still ambitious and care about my career. Talk to your bosses and tell them I sent you.” Alexis was a leader at Reddit when he took his leave, and top management modeling that kind of family commitment is incredibly important for everyone on the totem pole. “If you see someone in leadership not taking the full amount of leave, what that says to an employee is that if they do take the full amount of leave, they will be somehow disappointing,” said Lauren Smith Brody, the founder of The Fifth Trimester, a consultancy that helps companies change their culture to retain parents. (Keep in mind: There is no federally mandated paid parental leave in the United States.)
American men who have access to paid leave don’t always take what’s available to them, in part because they’re getting messages, whether implicit or explicit, that they will be punished for taking that time away from work. While a far greater number of American women take maternity leave, just under half get paid time off, and they may feel pressure to be doing some work while on leave, Brody said. (Courts have generally ruled that it is not a violation of the Family Medical Leave Act — the unpaid 12 weeks of yearly family leave available to many United States workers — if an employee answers occasional calls and emails.)
It’s crucial that people in power don’t just pay lip service to the necessity of family time — they must walk the walk. When I had my second kid, I was the editor in chief of Lenny, an email newsletter and website. I spent months preparing for my leave, making sure that the C.E.O. of the company and my co-workers knew exactly what to do in my absence. And because I wanted to be excruciatingly clear to my direct reports and also to outside contacts that my leave was sacred, this is what I wrote in my out-of-office message:
“I will automatically delete all emails sent to this address while I am away, so if it’s something terribly urgent or time-sensitive (as in, you are on fire and I am the only person in the contiguous United States who can put it out OR you want to give me money but only in August), you can reach me at my gmail account.”
I know the tone of the note is sassy, and not appropriate for many workplaces. (And guess what? I didn’t actually delete all the emails.) Furthermore, many leaders may not be able to fully step away during leave for a variety of reasons, and in those cases, Brody said, they should be transparent with their workers about the privileges they have, like access to night nurses, that make this work possible.
But for me, the tone of my note signaled to everyone who worked with us that for just a few months, work was not my priority — and that it shouldn’t be. I’d also made clear to my reports that I trusted them to handle anything that came up, and that my leave could be an opportunity for them.
Anna Sale, the creator and host of the WNYC podcast Death, Sex & Money, agreed that her leaves made space for her team to grow creatively. “We experimented with format and guest hosts during both of my maternity leaves,” she said in an email. “We were open with our listeners about why I was out, and the important work I was up to at home, and they kept listening and gave us really useful feedback as we tried different things.”
The more that public figures like Anna and Alexis use their platforms to talk about the importance of leave for their families, and their businesses, the more the private sector can move toward the humane policies that working families deserve.
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Want More on Alexis Ohanian and Working Parents?
In his piece for us, Alexis mentions torturing his daughter Olympia’s favorite doll, Qai Qai. In case you missed it, The Times’s Caity Weaver goes deep on whether Qai Qai is America’s most important doll (spoiler: obviously).
In honor of National Breastfeeding Month, we have a bunch of reader stories about pumping at work, including this incredible quote: “There’s nothing quite like sterilizing your pump equipment in the company lunch room while talking to your male C.F.O.”
We also have a new guide from Robin Shulman about pregnancy discrimination. Know your rights.
Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.
To get my toddlers to agree to (and stand still for) sunscreen application, I have them pretend that the sunscreen gives them wild animal powers. I slather it on, they “become” whatever animal they’ve chosen and I pretend to be scared. They love it.
— Katie Ostrove, Wynnewood, Pa.
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