Fathers taking parental leave to spend time with their newborn child are 25 percent less likely to see their marriage or relationships end within a few years, says a new study from Ball State University.

If I [Take] Leave, Will You Stay? Paternity Leave and Relationship Stability,” which was published in the November 2019 issue of the Journal of Social Policy, found evidence that fathers’ leave-taking is associated with more stable parental relationships. Research was supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health.

The study’s lead author, Richard Petts, a Ball State sociology professor (along with colleagues Daniel L. Carlson and Chris Knoester), found that couples were 25% less likely to end their relationship in the first six years following the birth of a child when fathers took leave as compared to couples where fathers did not take leave.

“Results suggest that increasing access to parental leave for fathers – and encouraging fathers to take this leave – may help to increase family stability,” he said. “Overall, our study suggests that fathers’ leave-taking may help to promote more stable parental relationships in the U.S., identifying an additional benefit of fathers’ leave-taking for families.”

The study also found that taking two weeks of leave or less is most likely to reduce the risk of relationship dissolution as couples were 29% less likely to end their relationship when fathers took 1 week of leave, and 25% less likely to end their relationship when fathers took 2 weeks of leave.

However, Petts found that taking three weeks or more of leave was unrelated to relationship stability.

“If taking leave provides fathers with time to learn to be an engaged parent, and parents’ time to establish equitable co-parenting relationships, it seems logical that more time on leave would be better for parents and help to strengthen parental relationships,” he said. “However, it is important to consider the cultural norms surrounding parental leave and the implications of taking more time off than is expected, or accepted, within a society.”

Research data was taken from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, Birth Cohort, which contained a nationally representative sample of about 14,000 children born in the U.S. in 2001. The sample was restricted to resident two-parent families in which fathers were employed both at the time of their child’s birth and following the child’s birth to accurately assess information about paternity leave. The sample was further restricted so that there was only one valid case for each family, resulting in a sample size of about 6,000 couples.

For the last several years, Petts has been examining the patterns, predictors, and consequences of paternity leave-taking in the U.S. to investigate the potential benefits of paternity leave and whether an expansion of current parental leave policies would be beneficial for American families, specifically focusing on benefits for children and co-parents.

He noted that in the U.S., most fathers take a short period of time off work when a child is born and it is widely accepted that fathers should be present for the birth of their child.  It is uncommon for fathers to take longer than a couple of weeks off work when a child is born, and there are actually career penalties and stigmas associated with taking longer periods of leave, he said.

“Given the numerous benefits of parental leave, the increased attention on expanding parental leave policies in the U.S. is warranted,” Petts said. “Ameri1an parents need greater access to paid parental leave in order to take advantage of the benefits that parental leave provides, such as more stable parental relationships.

The findings regarding variations in relationship stability by length of leave suggest that norms regarding parental leave-taking also need to change, he said.

“For the full benefits of parental leave policies to be realized, U.S. culture needs to be more accepting of fathers taking leave,” Petts said. “By doing so, we may be able to work towards greater gender equality by encouraging – and providing opportunities for – mothers and fathers to share more equally in childcare.”

Visit Ball State’s Department of Sociology website for more information.