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How paternity leave can help couples stay together

The birth of a child is accompanied by many changes in a couple’s life. The first few weeks and months are a time of acquiring new skills and creating new habits which allow parents to carry on with their other responsibilities while also caring for the new family member. Many decisions need to be made: Who does the cleaning? Who does the grocery shopping? Who cooks? Who feeds and changes the baby?

In recent years many countries have acknowledged the importance of fathers taking parental leave on egalitarian distribution of paid and unpaid work between fathers and mothers. As a consequence some countries, including Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Spain, have earmarked part of the parental leave to fathers. Making part of the leave non-transferable between parents has created significant incentives for fathers to stay at home to care for their children. However, the change in fathers’ participation has often been very gradual and few countries have experienced a discrete change in the use of paternity leave, making it difficult to evaluate its effects.

Iceland is a notable exception. The introduction of a non-transferable paternity leave in 2001 lead to an immediate and significant increase in the proportion of men taking parental leave. Before 2001 the parental leave in Iceland was a family entitlement with a 6-month duration and compensated with a fairly low flat-rate benefit and less than 1% of fathers took advantage of it. The proportion jumped to 82% following the 2001 reform when the leave was increased to 9 months (in steps) paid at 80% of the salary, of which 3 months were exclusively reserved for fathers. The sharp increase in the men taking off time to care for their children creates a unique opportunity to evaluate its effect.

It appears that reserving part of the parental leave for fathers, thereby making the sharing of childcare responsibilities more equal, leads to significantly fewer couple separations. The drop in divorces is not just transitory, but rather appears to be a permanent one, as the difference in the proportion of couples divorced remains throughout the fifteen-year period that we follow them. Among the parents who did not get paternity leave, 40% were separated fifteen years after the birth of their child. Our results indicate that a paternity leave reduces the divorce rate by approximately nine percentage points.

Historically and throughout the world, it has been almost exclusively women who take time off from work to care for their children first after their birth and therefore spend more time within the household than their husbands. This time at home does not only influence the daily lives of parents right after the birth of a child but also, more generally, parental norms and practices. The birth of the first child therefore often induces a system where women are responsible for a larger share of traditional household tasks, such as childcare, cleaning and cooking, while the men are responsible for bringing home the bacon. But given that the birth of a child has an influence on the division of labor between mothers and fathers is seems likely that the design of parental leave systems may have important implications as well. Whether it affects parents’ behavior and decisions, and what the effects are, is a highly policy relevant question.

The fact that the introduction of a paternity leave lead to a decrease in divorce rates suggests that paternity leave policies are not only valuable because they can influence the labor market attainment of women but also because they can lower divorce rates by directly reducing household stress and conflicts.

Featured Image Credit: Family Tree by Mabel Amber. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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