Parents today are expected to do a lot. They are expected to place children at the center of their lives and organize everything around their children. Good parents are expected to spend lots of time with their children, enroll children in enriching extracurricular activities, closely monitor their children’s schedules, advocate for children’s individual needs, and foster their children’s own active voice. In short, good parents are expected to be intensive parents.
The cultural norm of intensive parenting creates challenges for American families. Notably, meeting the standards of intensive parenting is difficult for parents who work – and most do. There simply isn’t enough time in the day for parents to demonstrate commitment to their employer and live a completely child-centered life. Intensive parenthood norms are also a key source of gender inequality. Although contemporary fathers are expected to be engaged parents, parenting is still seen as secondary to breadwinner expectations. In contrast, intensive motherhood norms are pervasive, creating immense pressure for mothers to live up to these expectations. During the first year of the pandemic, employed mothers essentially worked two full-time jobs – spending over 14 hours per day in combined paid work and childcare. It is no surprise that mothers were disproportionately disadvantaged by the pandemic.
Given the challenges of intensive parenting – especially for mothers – it is important to consider policy solutions that provide parents with more time to focus on their children. One possible solution that Americans widely support is paid parental leave. In a recent study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family, we considered whether workers are viewed as better parents when they take longer paid parental leave. We also considered whether paid parental leave may help shift gendered parenting norms such that leave-taking may also increase the likelihood that fathers are perceived as good parents. To answer these questions, we conducted survey experiments involving approximately 3,300 participants who evaluated an employee’s work situation and their parental leave-taking decision after the birth of a child. Participants then rated the degree to which they viewed the employee as a good parent, taking into consideration the worker’s parental leave-taking decision.
We find that both mothers and fathers who take longer paid parental leave are seen as better parents than those who take shorter leave (or no leave at all). Consistent with most public parental leave policies in the U.S. which provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave, ratings on the good parent scale were highest for mothers who took 12 weeks of leave and fathers who took 11 weeks of leave. We also find gender differences. Among those who take very short leaves, the effects of leave-taking on perceptions of workers as good parents were stronger for fathers than for mothers. Additionally, at moderate lengths of leave-taking (i.e., 3-10 weeks), fathers were actually viewed as better parents than mothers.
These results suggest that paid parental leave policies are believed to help parents better balance work and family life and live up to contemporary expectations to be an intensive parent. Paid parental leave may be especially important in changing gendered parenting norms such that fathers are also viewed as good, capable parents. Of course not everyone has the option to take leave, as most U.S. workers lack access to paid parental leave. Implementing a national paid parental leave policy, such as the one originally proposed as part of the Build Back Better plan that would have provided 12 weeks of paid leave, may give more parents the structural support needed to live child-centered lives. A national paid leave policy may also help to change perceptions of fathers so that fathers are viewed as good parents and not just financial providers. Doing so would help to breakdown gendered norms of parenting and promote greater gender equality.
Richard J. Petts is a Professor of Sociology at Ball State University. You can read more about his research at www.richardpetts.com and can follow him on Twitter @pettsric.
Gayle Kaufman is Nancy and Erwin Maddrey Professor of Sociology and Gender & Sexuality Studies at Davidson College. You can read more about their research at www.gaylekaufman.com and can follow them on Twitter @gakaufman22.
Trenton D. Mize is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University. You can read more about his research at www.trentonmize.com and can follow him on Twitter @MizeTrenton.