Sometime last year, while many in India were celebrating the passage of a new maternity bill in Rajya Sabha, the Women and Child Development Minister, Maneka Gandhi decided to drop a bombshell. Speaking to The Indian Express, when asked about paternity leave, she said, "Paternity leave can be considered only if, once the woman goes back to work after her 26 weeks of leave, we find that men are availing their sick leave for a month to take care of the child. Let me see how many men do that. I will be happy to give it but for a man, it will be just a holiday, he won't do anything."
While there may be some truth in her statement, there is also enough evidence to show that the role of a father in parenting has undergone a change from what it was a decade or two ago. Before we go into that, let us understand what we mean by paternity leave.
What is paternity leave?
It is a set period of absence from work granted to a father shortly before, or immediately after the birth of his child. It usually ranges from a few days to a couple of weeks.
In India, men in government service are permitted to take up to 15 days of paid leave that can be coupled with any other leave. While there are no such mandatory policies in place for private sectors firms, many organisations have started granting paternity leave for a short duration.
The rise of the modern father
Modern Indian fathers are no more mere wage-earners. They are keen to share parenting responsibilities, as well as enable and empower their wives who are often working women themselves. They have no inhibitions in changing the baby's diapers or taking their turn in spending sleepless nights caring for the newborn. In fact, they wear the badge of fatherhood with pride. It is the struggle for gender equality that has led to this evolution of fatherhood. And, the transition has been quite exciting to watch. Given this scenario, paternity leave will provide fathers with an opportunity to fulfil their parenting duties satisfactorily.
A decade ago, when paternity leave was a much-debated topic, FIRA (Father Involvement Research Alliance) compiled a set of studies titled, The effects of father involvement: an updated research summary of the evidence (Sarah Allen and Kerry Daly, 2007).
A quick review of the findings from these studies show that newborns and infants with involved fathers are more likely to be emotionally secure and eager to explore their surroundings. Children with involved fathers turn out to be more sociable as they grow older and are better able to deal with stress.
Pros and cons of paternity leave specific to Indian fathers
In a country that isn't particularly known for its gender-neutral policies, paternity leave can help promote a gender-balanced approach to child care. It can help change the traditional mindset that childcare is primarily a woman's role, and thus break cultural stereotyping of parental roles.
It can encourage fathers to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of newborns - engaging in activities such as bathing the baby, changing diapers, putting the baby to sleep and so on.
It can help fathers to bond with their newborns.
It can ensure that a new mom gets the support of her husband during a time that can be particularly trying for her. This can strengthen the bond between them and result in happier families.
If implemented efficiently, it can be an important tool from an employer-employee engagement point of view. It reaffirms to the employees that the organisation is keen about the happiness and well-being of their families. This will lead to enhanced employee satisfaction and increased productivity.
It helps push fathers into the 'Daddy mode'. Unlike mothers, who have a physical and emotional connect with newborns right from conception, studies say that fathers need to spend quality time with the newborns for the realisation of parenthood to hit home.
Our society tends to ostracise anyone who doesn't conform to its preset norms; therefore, there may be a tendency for some men to treat it as a holiday of sorts.
Many Indian firms are still not entirely on board with the concept. This can have a negative impact on the psyche of the father who would like to spend time with his family, but is reluctant to request time off from the workplace.
If paternity leave is unpaid, it may not be a financially viable option for many fathers, especially in single-income families.
Tips for fathers on paternity leave
Jump right in: From changing dirty diapers to giving your baby a bath - just do it. Don't wait for the right opportunity.
Assist in feeding the baby: Of course, fathers can't breastfeed; but there are things you can do to help - bringing the baby to the mother when it's time for a feed, burping the baby and so on.
Have some 'alone time' with the baby: It'll help you bond with the baby better.
Spend time with your wife: Despite the happiness on becoming a mother, delivery is a traumatic experience for most women. Your wife has been through a lot. So, be there for her in the immediate days after delivery.
Take frequent naps: A newborn will take considerable time to get into a sleeping schedule. A cranky father/husband won't be of any help. So use the baby's nap time to take short breaks.
Switch off from work entirely: In today's age, you could be tempted to check the odd email or answer that message from your boss. Don't! This is time dedicated to the family and the newborn. Be with them.
Get into sync with the baby: Every parent has it and every baby has it. Spend time and find your 'sync' with the newborn. It'll help soothe the child and calm you down too.
Learn together: The first few weeks of parenthood set the tone for how you and your spouse will work together in the long run. Keep at it and you will find that you can work together brilliantly as a team.
Be the gatekeeper: In India, we have the custom of friends and relatives visiting the newborn and the mom. But, too much of anything isn't good. So, be the gatekeeper. Limit the number of visitors and make sure you give the baby, mother and yourself some rest.
Enjoy it all: Take photos, hold your baby often, read, sing, and engage in simple talk. You will miss all of this when you go back to work.
5 Activities that fathers can indulge in with the baby
Massage: Babies respond fabulously to touch. Gently rub the tummy, arms, legs, sides of the neck, and watch the baby gurgle happily!
Do a jig: Newborns like to sway and move. Hold your baby close and slowly waltz around the room. She'll love it.
Go out for a walk: Get a baby carrier or a stroller, strap the baby in and take him for a walk after he is 3 months or older. Talk to him, point out objects and name them. While he may not understand, it will help him connect better with the world around us.
Read and talk to the baby: It is said that newborns can differentiate between the father's and mother's voice from as early as day three. So, why not talk to your baby and help her get used to your voice?
Make funny noises and faces, and tickle them: Babies are fascinated by faces and noises. So, let the clown in you entertain your baby. Be expressive. Allow your baby to touch your face as you make funny gestures.
While I understand that the need for maternity leave easily outweighs the need for paternity leave, a two-week 'sick leave' won't hurt. Go for it 'Papas'!
Sid Balachandran is a writer, stay-at-home dad to a feisty toddler and proprietor of www.iwrotethose.com.