Over the years that women have fought to achieve equal opportunity to men in all realms of life, particularly the workplace, the issue of childcare has loomed large. Women’s role in giving birth to and rearing children has been an obstacle to achieving both work opportunities and remuneration equal to men. The struggle for equal rights has included advocating for universal government childcare and for the participation of men in the care of children. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg argued that women would not achieve equality in the workplace as long as men were discouraged from taking on caregiver roles.

A move in that direction may result from a settlement by JP Morgan Chase of a class action case initiated by a father who was denied the 16-week parental leave offered by the company on the grounds that he was not the primary caregiver. There have been other recent challenges to parental leave policies for new fathers at other companies but this would be the first to result from an action brought by employees.

The interesting thing about the Chase situation is that although appearing gender neutral on the surface, offering 16 weeks of paid leave to primary caregivers and two weeks to other caregivers, the actual company policy was to consider birth mothers as the primary caregivers. If the birth mother returned to work before the end of 16 weeks the father could use the balance of the time.

The percentage of companies offering paid parental leave appears to be rising but the issue of primary caregiver varies. Among employers specifically offering paternity leave, there appear to be major differences in the number of fathers taking advantage of the policies. Apparently, despite the policy, the question is the extent to which employers make fathers of newborns feel comfortable taking time off. Also, to what extent are fathers concerned that taking time off will adversely affect their jobs or careers in much the same way that mothers have been handicapped by their role as caregivers.

Even without increasing opportunities for paternity leave, in today’s world fathers do seem to be more involved with their children than ever before. The father who achieved the 16-week paternity leave in time for the birth of his second child reported that his presence had a huge impact. However, as with mothers, this does not solve the problem of ongoing caregiving. Caring for children remains a largely unsolved problem for families where both parents are employed out of the home.

Given the multiple ways in which children are cared for these days, one might raise the question of who now is the primary parent as contrasted to the earlier answer - the mother. Is the question answered in terms of number of hours providing care? Is it who has primary responsibility for decisions about a child’s medical care, education, social world? Is it someone who is responsible for matters of daily life such as toilet training, sharing, discipline?

The answer to these questions is of concern to parents themselves as they find themselves of necessity turning the care of their children over to others. Mothers often worry about whether a child loves the nanny or caregiver more than the parent, and often report that the child behaves better with the caregiver. On the other hand there is concern that children are exposed to values and methods of child-rearing that differ from their own.

In this new age of changed parenting, we may do better to recognize the multiple influences on a child’s development and accept the idea of primary attachments rather than primary parents.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.