Fathers are not taken seriously in our society. Not as parents, anyway. Manufacturers, retailers and marketers treat men as doers--gardeners, barbecuers, auto mechanics--not caring for their children in the same way mothers do.
But society is changing. Increasingly, fathers want to spend more time with their families. A whole generation of new fathers wants to be able to stay at home in the first few months after their babies are born because they know just how important that bond is to their children's development.
As Edward Ziegler, director of the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, describes it, "Fathers are moving from a left-out role to a very involved role."
But many new fathers are afraid to ask for time off from their work to spend with their newborn or newly adopted children.
Patricia Albjerg Graham, a Harvard professor, said recently that a successful man in the mid-20th Century is expected to place a higher priority on the demands of his job than on the responsibilities of his family.
"For him to fail to do so," Graham said, "would lead many to question his professional commitment, a surrogate for manliness."
It's this attitude that unfortunately prevails in the workplace. Men who ask for time to spend with their new children are assumed to be less than serious about their jobs.
A father who stayed home with his two small daughters while his wife finished medical school was told at a job interview: "There isn't a male I know of who would accept raising children as a legitimate excuse for not working for three years." Yet I doubt that there are any fathers who have lamented on their deathbeds, "I should have spent more time at the office."
This country needs federal legislation allowing fathers unpaid, job-protected leave for the birth, adoption or serious illness of children.
Such a measure would give some meaning to pro-family rhetoric by providing legislation recognizing that fathers, as well as mothers, need to have time to build relationships with their newborn or newly adopted children.
Child-rearing experts agree that the early months of a natural or adopted infant, especially the first four months, are an important time for the new family to cement its relationship.
Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, Harvard pediatrician and authority on child-rearing, has said that a father's active role in his baby's first months will not only help the baby but will also enhance the father's image of himself so that he will be more confident in his new role as father.
Parental leave also takes into account the demographic changes in the American work force, as well as the changes in the American family. Most American families are made up of two-earner couples working outside the home. It's the norm.
Some companies have already begun to respond to this demographic trend. A 1984 survey of Fortune 1500 companies by the New York-based research group Catalyst found 119 companies offering parental or paternity leaves. This figure represented an 8.6% increase since 1982 in the number of companies offering fathers parental leave.
Honeywell and Hewlett-Packard are among the companies that offer parental leaves to fathers. And when Don Sessions, a vice president at General Foods, took four weeks of parental leave, it led to his company's developing a parental-leave policy for all employees.
As Stephen F. Weber, a member of the international board of the United Mine Workers of America, asked while testifying on behalf of a national parental-leave policy, "What's an official of a macho male coal miners' union doing in a place like this?"
The answer is simply that fathers deserve recognition as the parents that they are and want to be.