Paid leave from work following the birth of a child has long centered on mothers, who are assumed to face the greatest mental and physical challenges of new parenthood.
But new research from Stanford University shows that when fathers are also allowed time off from work, it can not only benefit the mother's health, but the newborn baby's as well.
"The typical mother is already on leave; this is about on any given day whether the father can use his parental leave benefits," Maya Rossin-Slater, one of the authors of the Stanford study, said.
In an article published by the National Bureau of Economic Research on June 3, Rossin-Slater and fellow Stanford faculty member and author Petra Persson detailed their study of the effects of a reform in Sweden that introduced flexibility in paternity leave.
The 2012 law removed prior restrictions preventing a child's parents from taking paid leave at the same time. It also offered fathers up to 30 days of paid leave usable at any time within the child's first year.
According to the Stanford study's empirical analysis, the policy change resulted in clear benefits for mothers, like reductions in post-childbirth-related complications and anxiety.
"The flexibility would matter because mothers' postpartum health is not predictable," Rossin-Slater said. "It could vary day to day: On some days the mother may be feeling well and other days she can come down with an infection."
Rossin-Slater said she undertook this research in part because of the lack of studies on paternity leave for both parents at the same time. There are no federal policies on paternity leave, though some policies exist in California.
Even without a wealth of data to back up the benefits of paternity leave, tech companies have been leading the way in the area of family leave.
Amazon allows all eligible full-time hourly and salaried employees up to 20 weeks of leave for new birth parents (including four weeks pre-partum) and six for non-birth parents, according to an Amazon spokesperson.
Through the company's Ramp Back program, birth parents can return to work slowly, working partial hours. Amazon's Leave Share program lets employees give up to six weeks of paid parental leave to a partner who isn't eligible for eligible through their employer.
Amazon changed its policies after surveying employees, who described the struggles they faced in the days leading up to birth, the pressure on partners who do not receive paid leave and the challenge of returning to work, according to the Amazon spokesperson.
Rossin-Slater said, "In many ways the tech industry in the Silicon Valley is sort of a leader in providing parental leave benefits."
But there's still a cultural norm discouraging men from taking paternity leave due to stigmas around having to provide for the family financially.
However, in places like Silicon Valley, where households now sometimes need both parents to work to keep up with the high cost of living, that norm seems to be fading.
“As that's changing and that now more and more of the majority of households both parents are working when the child is born, the norm should shift once enough time passes," Rossin-Slater said.
Tech leaders may already be influencing cultural norms. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took two months of paternity leave after the birth of both of his daughters. His company offers new parents four months of paid leave. Netflix, in Los Gatos, offers unlimited paid leave during the employee's first year with a new child.
Just because new fathers in Sweden are offered paid leave doesn't mean they take maximum advantage of the opportunity. According to Rossin-Slater, fathers who get paid leave don't use the full 30 days. On average they use a couple of days, presumably those that are most important.
In spite of the strides that tech companies have taken, Rossin-Slater hopes to see a government policy crafted to provide paternity leave. Currently, there’s an inequality when people in higher-paid positions get family leave but lower-paid workers do not get that privilege.
"If the leave provision is left in the hands of only the employers and not government policy, that could potentially exacerbate inequality and access to the benefit," Rossin-Slater said.