After my wife nearly died giving birth, I spent months at home caring for my family. Every dad should be empowered to do the same.
By Alexis Ohanian
Credit via Alexis Ohanian
When I was born in 1983, my father took a single day off work. He used a vacation day.
When my wife, Serena Williams, gave birth to our daughter Olympia in 2017, I took 16 weeks of paid paternity leave — which was the policy at Reddit, the company I co-founded and led at the time.
Before Olympia was born, I had never thought much about paternity leave and, to be honest, Reddit’s company policy was not my idea. Our vice president of people and culture, Katelin Holloway, brought it up to me in a meeting and it sounded O.K., so why not?
Then came Olympia, after near-fatal complications forced my wife, Serena, to undergo an emergency C-section. Serena spent days in recovery fighting for her life against pulmonary embolisms. When we came home with our baby girl, Serena had a hole in her abdomen that needed bandage changes daily. She was on medication. She couldn’t walk.
Serena and I were lucky enough to have help at home and many other advantages working in our favor. But even with all of that privilege, including my ability to focus solely on my family and not worry about keeping my job, it was still incredibly difficult. Nothing could have dragged me away from my wife and daughter in those hours, days and weeks — and I’m grateful that I was never forced to choose between my family and my job.
Nearly one in four employed women giving birth in the United States is back at work within two weeks. Only 9 percent of work sites in the United States offer paid paternity leave to all male employees, and 76 percent of fathers are back to work within a week after the birth or adoption of a child.
[Men who take leave are less likely to get divorced, and have better relationships with their children, research shows.]
I don’t blame my dad, or anybody else’s dad, for not taking time off after a child’s birth. Our culture makes it difficult. The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t mandate some form of paid family leave. But even in countries that provide parental leave for fathers, a study conducted by Promundo, an international nonprofit, found that fewer than half of new dads take advantage of the full benefit — though the same study found that most dads want more time at home in those first months after a child’s birth.
So why aren’t they taking the leave they’re entitled to? Why aren’t expectant fathers demanding time off to care for their families?
The short answer is stigma. Men are conditioned to be breadwinners, exclusively — and another mouth to feed calls for more bread on the table (to say nothing of college tuition) — so off to work we go. Our sense of duty is often fear-based: Men assume their bosses will frown on paternity leave, so we don’t dare to go there. A recent study conducted by my friends at PL+US, a national paid-leave advocacy group, found that 84 percent of expectant fathers plan to take leave, but only half believe their employer supports them. Nearly a third of dads think that taking leave could negatively impact their career. We could miss out on a promotion. We could become obsolete. We could get fired. Career fear is powerful.
I get that not every father has the flexibility to take leave without the fear that doing so could negatively impact his career. But my message to these guys is simple: Taking leave pays off, and it’s continued to pay dividends for me two years later. It should be no surprise that I also encourage all of our employees to take their full leave at Initialized Capital, where I am managing partner; we recently had three dads on paid paternity leave at the same time.
Spending a big chunk of time with Olympia when she was a newborn gave me confidence that I could figure this whole parenting thing out. As an only child with no cousins, I didn’t grow up around babies; in fact, I had never held one until my daughter was born. At first, holding her terrified me. I am a giant and she’s so tiny … What if I break her? I didn’t — which was encouraging — and then I learned how to calm her crying, rock her to sleep and handle her toddler years with grace.
Taking leave also set me off on the right foot for sharing parental responsibilities. Two years later, there is no stigma in our house about me changing diapers, feeding Olympia, doing her hair or anything else I might need to do in a pinch. They’re all just dad things (not “babysitter” things — I hate it when people refer to dads spending time with their kids as babysitting).
My day job is all about investing in and working with the best founders and C.E.O.s in the world. There are two types of leaders in a business — leaders who bring problems, and leaders who bring solutions — and I want a household (and I seek out businesses) with the latter. Parents who can only identify problems aren’t leading, and I’m encouraged to be seeing more and more fathers exercising their role in household leadership by solving problems, whether it’s bringing home a paycheck or performing dad things.
The understanding of my responsibility to care for my family that I gained during those first months after Olympia’s birth has never left me, and it gives purpose to my fatherhood today. It’s not always easy — my wife’s job takes her all over the world, as does mine — but I will do whatever I can, even if it means taking a dreaded red-eye or making a 24-hour international trip, to optimize time with Olympia and Serena.
Whether I’m taking Olympia to the aquarium (she’s really into fish right now) or just hanging at home torturing her favorite doll, Qai Qai, spending quality time together is of the utmost importance to me, and I really learned that through the experience of taking leave.
All people deserve fulfilling work and close family ties. No dad should feel forced to wholly prioritize work over family at a time as important as the arrival of a new baby — a time that is not only critical in the beginning, but has far-reaching impact years down the line. Getting dads (and in turn, families) off on the right foot begins at birth, and it can’t just be up to individual businesses to ensure that happens. We need a federal bill that mandates quality paid family leave for everyone — birth parents, adoptive parents and caregivers alike.
Until that happens, dads, let me be your air cover. I took my full 16 weeks and I’m still ambitious and care about my career. Talk to your bosses and tell them I sent you.Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder and managing partner of Initialized Capital and the co-founder of Reddit, has partnered with Dove Men+Care on the Pledge for Paternity Leave to fight for policy change with paid family leave legislation.