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Don't Leave Future Fathers Out of the Daddy Wars


In its latest issue and on its website, The Atlantic explores paternity leave from both a policy perspective (states that require it, companies that voluntarily offer it) and from an individual one (fathers who take it). In the issue, journalist Liza Mundy makes the case for paternity leave, which she says is good because it encourages fatherly childrearing and takes some of that onus off of mothers. “The genius of paternity leave,” she writes, “is that it shapes domestic and parenting habits as they are forming.” And then, in wise recognition that policy discussions are not sufficient, the magazine convened a colloquy on its website in which four different writers—two writing in the first person about their own experiences—explore the consequences of paternity leave at a more individualized level.

But there is one crucial voice totally missing from the magazine’s coverage. The testimonies of fathers are all well and good, as is reporting on fathers. But there is little to make future daddies—who still have time to make consequential decisions that could affect how their (also future) children are raised—listen up as well.

The best feature of The Atlantic’s coverage is that it focuses both on individuals’ helplessly idiosyncratic choices and the social and legal framework in which those choices are made. So Mundy notes that the great thing about policies is that they solve, or at least help mitigate, collective-action problems. In this case, a man will be less afraid to take time off to help raise his new child if he knows that the other fathers in his office are more likely to as well. This is to say nothing of the way in which paternity-leave policies improve the lot of working mothers, which, Mundy writes, is “a core goal of many workplace-equity policies: spreading the parenthood stigma around. Widespread paternity-leave plans raise the possibility that bosses will stop looking askance at the résumé of a 20‑something female applicant, or at least apply the same scrutiny to a similar male applicant.”

And in terms of those individual choices, Arlie Hochschild, a family policy expert notes why it may be in businesses’ interests to offer paternity leave. Ta-Nehisi Coates meditates on how even the discourse of pro-paternity leave folks can mask unstated expectations that mothers still be primary caretakers. Scott Coltrane acknowledges that fathers taking leave are sacrificing earnings, but argues that on several bases it is worth it anyway. And Alexis C. Madrigal, who spends most of his professional hours braving the new world of Internet media, relates that paternity leave helped teach him—and could help teach other men—to get over a crippling fear that he was unable to take care of the fragile, tiny human who happens to be his child.

It is all a new, welcome salvo in “The Daddy Wars,” in which we discuss the importance of fathers investing extensive time in childrearing responsibilities—with perhaps a slight emphasis on shaming those fathers who don’t.

Here’s a funny thing, though. Lots of the issues surrounding The Daddy Wars are relevant before one becomes a father. For example, some states and some companies have better paternity leave than others, and a young, childless man might be more attracted to living in such states or working at such companies in anticipation of a future desire to take leave; and this, in turn, could benefit those states and companies as well as force other states and companies to compete by improving their own leave policies.

But this dynamic will only work if “aspiring fathers”—young men who are not yet fathers (and probably not yet married) who have some notion, ranging from pretty specific to highly hazy, of one day becoming a father—are already thinking about these issues. (I think it is more likely that “aspiring mothers” already are thinking about these issues: For reasons and with consequences that are both good and bad, they have been conditioned since their teenage years to think of themselves as future parents, to an extent that “aspiring fathers” have not.)

And unfortunately, the discourse surrounding fatherhood, paternity leave, and The Daddy Wars still too often ignores “aspiring fathers.” To wit: the Atlantic did not invite the contribution of such a person.

Speaking as an “aspiring father,” getting us to pay attention now, when we might make consequential decisions, is an uphill climb. I, for example, have lots of other, more immediate fires to put out every day than what I’m going to do when I, God willing, have my first child. There is no Home Ec class to make me carry around a fake baby for a week, and anyway my track record with umbrellas suggests I would not pass this test. So I need some other kind of help. Daddy Warriors are slowly but surely winning the battle among fathers. The next battle is over the fathers-to-be.