June 12, 2008 -- I've always felt the world was divided into two kinds of people: the family-track folks (most of the population), and the holdouts (people like me) who were too busy, too unprepared, or too satisfied with their status quo to raise a child.
Then, one of my fellow holdouts — a friend I've known since college — decided to give parenting a whirl. Suddenly, I took great interest in every detail of how she and her husband planned to juggle raising a baby with their office jobs, especially during those first few trying months.
While the Family and Medical Leave Act allowed my girlfriend to take off four months (mostly unpaid) from her social service job, her husband only managed to nab a week off from the small wine distributor he worked for, as companies with less than 50 employees aren't subject to the FMLA.
Hubby's measly week away from work wasn't just hard on his wife, who needed a c-section, which meant she needed help doing everything from lifting the baby to her breast, to finding the time to brush her own teeth. Not being home during the day to help his spouse and bond with his baby pained new daddy, too.
Obviously, today's hands-on, quality-of-life-loving fathers are a far cry from the dads of, well, my dad's generation. Back in the late 60s, when I was a wee sprout, dads didn't dare enter the delivery room, let alone take time off from work to bond with junior or toss in the occasional load of laundry.
But these days, studies about fathers happily doing their fair share of child care and housework abound. Ditto for Web communities that cater to stay-at-home dads, such as AtHomeDad.org and DadStaysHome.com.
It would seem that, as a society, we're finally in grave danger of catching up with the fact that 75 percent of moms work outside the home, wage gap and lack of paid family leave be damned.
Most of the public conversation about family-friendly workplaces dwells on the needs of moms. So, in honor of Father's Day, I thought it was high time we let dads have their say about parental leave.
Call of the Nurturer
"More than two-thirds of dads with a kid of under five will take paternity leave when it's offered by their employer," says Stephanie Coontz, director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families.
Martin Focazio, a 43-year-old father of three, and a strategist at a digital media agency in Manhattan, is one of those fathers.
"It used to be provide, protect, nurture -- pick any two," he says. "But now, it's provide, protect, nurture -- pick any three. And that's the difference between the generations."
When his third kid was born in February, Focazio gladly accepted the three paid weeks off his company offered so he could play nurturer alongside his wife, and he didn't have to sacrifice any vacation time to do it.
"At my company, half of the top managers have young children -- under 5 years old -- and I think that's a big factor," Focazio says. "The folks at the top have to have some kind of reference point that matches your own."
Family Leave Envy
For workers who aren't caregivers, it can be tough to watch colleagues with dependents leave an hour early to drive little Danny to the dentist. Drew Grgich, a 35-year-old IT professional from Gilbert, Ariz., can attest to this. Once upon a time, he, too, suffered from family leave envy.
"Before I had kids, I did resent co-workers who had constant medical appointments for their children," says Grgich, who used two weeks of vacation time when his first child was born and was — to his elation — offered one week of paid paternity leave at the birth of his second child in May. "But having [children] of my own shows how difficult it can be to avoid having to take time off to care for sick kids."
In fact, his second child was born with a cleft lip, which means "more doctors appointments than the typical newborn." As Grgich's wife also works outside the home, he plans to use his vacation time to attend many of these appointments. And because he wants to pull his weight at the office, he ensures he makes up any workweek hours he misses while on dad duty.
Blast From the Past
Of course, not all managers are as supportive as Focazio's and Grgich's, and most companies won't pay a lick of family leave (U.S. law doesn't require them to).
One 34-year-old Ohio dad, who wanted to remain anonymous, works as a communications professional in an office that he says is "very mommy-friendly," but less than understanding of fathers who request flexible work arrangements.
"Most of my female colleagues take as much time as they need — usually more than the 12 weeks of FMLA -- and all have been offered telecommuting setups once they return," says the father of two, who's expecting his third child this fall, and whose wife also works outside the home. "When our youngest son was born, I had hoped to take two to three weeks of vacation time to help around the house and enjoy the growing family, but the phone and BlackBerry never stopped ringing. I was back in the office by week's end."
Unfortunately, for Ohio Dad, the male management at his company has a retro view of parenting, one that doesn't get why dads might want to put family first.
"Our department director has even made off-the-cuff remarks like, 'Don't you have a wife?' or 'What's your wife doing?' when I said I was taking my son to the doctor," Ohio Dad explains.
According to Coontz, who's written about gender roles and families in five books, including "Marriage, a History," this "vicious cycle" plagues many of today's new fathers.
"Because the assumption has been for so long that a man has a wife to take care of him, the man who wants to take time off is seen as an unproductive worker," she says. As a result, she adds, many dads will pretend they need the day off because they're under the weather, rather than admit they need to care for a sick kid.
Brian Reid, who publishes the popular stay-at-home-dad blog RebelDad.com, says it's up to enlightened execs to pave the way for making parental leave and flexible work acceptable for men.
"The problem isn't that work doesn't allow for flexibility -- it's that guys are working in a culture where that sort of thing isn't encouraged," says the 33-year-old Washington, D.C.-area father of two, who started the blog when he was a full-time parent and now works for a PR firm. "The only way to begin changing that culture and making it more acceptable, is to lead by example. It's amazing what a difference one or two high-profile employees can do to prove that work-life balance is possible."
This work is the opinion of the columnist, and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Michelle Goodman is a freelance journalist, author and former cubicle dweller. Her books -- "The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube" and "My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire" (October 2008) -- offer an irreverent take on the traditional career guide. More tips on career change, flex work and the freelance life can be found on her blog, Anti9to5Guide.com