How to decide who should take parental leave

January 22, 2015, 10:00 AM UTC
paternity leave fatherhood
paternity leave fatherhood
Photograph by Sean Gallup—Getty Images

If there’s one stereotype about Millennials that may have some truth to it, it’s they have had to wait. They’ve been slower than previous generations to take full-time jobs, buy their own homes, or get married.

Yet one by one, Millennials have started to reach these milestones. The next one on the horizon? Children.

It’s time. More than 71% of Millennials are between the ages of 20 and 34. Even if the average age of the American first-time mother is creeping up from the 2009 level of 25, the last time it was measured, the Millennial generation has reached its prime baby-making years. While some surveys of college graduates indicate that this generation doesn’t want kids, others, like Bentley University’s “Millennials in the Workplace” study, show that 57% of working Millennials consider being a good parent as very important.

Unlike previous generations, Millennial men have stood out in their willingness to take on household duties, split childcare responsibilities, and even sacrifice a few years of their career to be a house-husband while their spouse heads to work. The number of stay-at-home dads has nearly doubled from 1989 levels to 2 million, according to a Pew Research report released in 2014. And 21% of those stay-at-home dads decided to be home to care for the children, as opposed to simply being stuck in the house due to a lack of a job or being ill. Stay-at-home dads by choice accounted for 5% of the total in 1989. Meanwhile, only 20% of mothers who have a working husband choose to stay at home, which is near all-time lows that have only shifted slightly since the early 1990s.

It’s no longer assumed that mom will stay with the kids all day while dad heads to the office. For families who want to have a parent at home to care for the children, this raises a dilemma: How do you decide which parent should continue working and who should stay home?

First, you need to make sure that both you and your spouse agree that one of you should quit at all. If you both want to work, then there are ways to manage it. Jessica DeGroot, the director of The Third Path, which helps parents find ways to negotiate flextime, suggests seeing if you both can work four days a week at the office and one day at home. You will likely have to take the initiative and ask for a flexible schedule, since companies don’t usually voluntarily make such offers. “Right now, most organizations aren’t really getting it,” says DeGroot. “What they get is the courage to ask for it [flextime].”

If you can show that you’re able to be just as productive during the week with the more flexible schedule, most companies will allow you to give it a try, says DeGroot.

If you’re thinking of having one person stay at home, make sure you start having the conversation with your significant other long before kids arrive. That’s not what happened for Paul Gilbride and his wife. Twelve years ago, while working as a CPA, he and his wife discussed over martinis whether or not they were raising their five and three year-old kids like they had imagined they would. When it was clear they both felt as if the children were getting the short end of the stick because of their careers, the two decided it was best one person stayed at home for a nine-month trial. Paul didn’t enjoy his job at the time so he nominated himself.

“We agreed that I would not juggle anything the first nine months,” says Gilbride. “If I felt like I needed something to fulfill me then I certainly would have entertained it.”

Gilbride’s situation was unusual in that both he and his wife made above-average livings, but it wasn’t odd that he chose to stay at home because his wife was making a slightly higher salary than he was. Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, says that typically men who stay at home with the children are often teachers or social workers, while the mom heading to work is an executive or doctor.

This doesn’t mean that the person who makes less money should automatically get relegated to domestic care. “Who has the most appropriate disposition for the kids?” says Harrington. “And who won’t get bored by routine aspects of cleaning the house and doing laundry?” You need these characteristics to handle the day-to-day of home life.

It’s also important to examine whose career would be punished most by taking a multi-year break. In Gilbride’s case, if he took a year off, he would have fallen behind, but he reasoned that he could have found a job again at or near the level he exited from. But his wife’s career would have likely suffered from a lengthy sabbatical, as she worked at a fast-growing healthcare company.

Gilbride took to home life rather quickly. He volunteered at his kids’ private school, helping with accounting, and now he coaches prospective stay-at-home dads on what to expect if they decide to take the plunge.

“Any time you interrupt your career, especially in Corporate America, you have to assume you’re going to take a couple steps back,” warns Gilbride. “The longer you are away, the further back you’re going to have to start.”

A stay-at-home dad can do wonders for a working mom’s career. Gilbride’s wife rose to an executive position at the health care firm. In a survey of families where the mom worked while the dad stayed at home, the Boston College Center for Work & Family found that women had more flexibility to do the tasks needed—hold late meetings, stay long hours—to rise up the corporate ladder faster. “The time they could invest in their work and their peace of mind increased as had their career advancement,” says Harrington.

Of course, they’re still mothers. Many expressed residual guilt as their “own parental expectations,” weighed on them, added Harrington. You can always reverse course, though, if one parent feels dissatisfied. At least now, many parents have more options than their parents and grandparents did.