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Fri, Jun 16, 2000
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Fathers Fear Expressing Family Needs
Even When Programs Available

By Maggie Jackson  Associated Press
NEW YORK — There were snide comments and many, many jokes. And when Maryland state trooper Kevin Knussman won his four-year legal fight this week against the bosses who denied him parental leave, only a couple of colleagues called to congratulate him.

Gail Burton/AP
State trooper Kevin Knussman won a four-year legal fight this week against the state police who denied him parental leave

Knussman's victory highlights the rights of working fathers to take time off with their babies. But his isolation shows how balancing a job and a family remains a silent struggle for many men.

"Much of the progress (for working fathers) is still going on underground," says James Levine, a leading researcher on fatherhood and co-author of the book Working Fathers.

Fearing — often with reason — that they'll be labeled slackers, fathers cobble together sick days and vacation time to create leave time after a baby is born. When they want to go to a school play, they dash for the door, under cover of attending a "late meeting."

Ben, a New York city money manager and father of a 3-month-old, carefully left his computer on and his desk lamp lit not too long ago when he took his wife to the hospital for a sonogram. "It made it look like I was still there," said Ben, who refused to be further identified, fearing for his career. "Plus, it made me feel better."

Progress has been made, albeit slowly, in accepting men's growing desire to be involved parents.

Asked 15 years ago how much unpaid parental leave time was reasonable for men to take, 63 percent of business leaders at large companies said, "none." Even 40 percent of executives at companies with a parental leave policy at the time nixed the idea of actually using it, according to Catalyst, a non-profit group that studies women in business.

Today, half a million men take some sort of parental leave each year to care for a new child, under the auspices of the 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act. That compares with 1.4 million women.

Mike Derer/AP
Howard Nathanson, a computer analyst with AT&T; says he never felt any opposition from his employer when he took nine months of parental leave

A total of 20 million people have taken leave under the federal law, which says all employers with 50 or more workers must allow up to 12 unpaid weeks off to care for a new baby or seriously ill family member.

Knussman, a helicopter paramedic, sued the state police after he was denied 12 weeks leave following the birth of his daughter in 1994. He was given 10 days off, but sought more time because his wife experienced childbirth complications.

On Tuesday, a jury awarded him $375,000 in damages for mental anguish, in the first sex discrimination case under the Family Leave act. Attorneys for the state police said they may appeal.

"There's still a presumption that women are going to be the primary caretaker," said Sara Mandelbaum, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who represented Knussman. "Those attitudes are hard to change, especially in a male-dominated organization like the state police."

Some companies do encourage fathers to take parental leaves — and more men are taking them. AT&T; offers new parents up to a year, unpaid, with a guaranteed job upon return. About one man takes advantage of the program for every 18 women. That's up from a 1-to-400 ratio a decade ago.

Howard Nathanson, an AT&T; computer analyst, says his co-workers and bosses fully supported his decision to take nine months parental leave in 1996. "There was never any grief about this," he said.

But for other men, obstacles, both perceived and real, prevent their making use of work-family programs.

Not only do men fear career trouble or teasing if they openly make family a priority, but they feel, sometimes rightly so, that work-family progams are mainly pitched to women.

Money also plays a role. A few companies, including Merrill Lynch and the software maker Lotus Development Corp., offer paid leaves for men. But most don't, and since men are major breadwinners, it's hard for them to take unpaid time off.

Nathanson and his wife, for example, both felt strongly that one parent should be home with their daughter for a year. Since she earns two-thirds of the household income, he stayed home. "Financially, I wasn't burned by the fact that if I took off, there goes the family income," he said.

For now, many men choose to do what they can, when they can. Clark Adams, chief executive officer of Needham, Mass.-based Mulberry Child Care Centers, says fathers pick up or drop off 25 percent of children at the company's 55 centers daily, and more are serving on parent advisory committees.

Still, Knussman is glad he took a stand. After he filed his suit, the state police gave him a full 12 weeks off following the birth of his second child.

"Biting the hand that feeds you is never easy," he said by telephone as his daughters giggled in the background. But taking three months off was "just a great, great time. I will never, ever regret that."

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