The case for paternity leave in India is quite simple: it’s a matter of equal rights. Anyone who believes maternity leave is a human right must also believe that paternity leave is a human right, too – and not, as former Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi so famously said in 2016, “just a holiday.” At that time, Gandhi called for examples of men using their sick leave to care for their child as evidence that paternity leave should be granted as policy. But equal human rights don’t work that way – they’re inherent dues ensured by the government, not bonuses earned by a pleading populace.
Fast-forward six years, and Indian examples are there – most contentiously, India’s then-cricket captain Virat Kohli taking leave for the birth of his first child in 2020-21. Indian corporates are increasingly equalising parental leave policies or offering explicit paternity leave – and reporting that most new-father employees are availing it.
And yet, despite this encouraging trend, the assumptions that underlie Gandhi’s statement still run deep. This became clear in the outcry that met Kohli’s decision to take paternity leave. Men are expected to put work first. And then, perhaps, family – which is still subsumed as a function of work, as work pays for the existence of family in the socially defined male role of ‘provider.’ To take leave merely to be with family, to bond with a baby, to assist in child care, to share a formative moment with a woman partner is, according to traditional, socially prescribed norms, to be less of a man.
What Gandhi perhaps meant to say six years ago (if we’re being generous), is that in order for paternity leave to work, to be in demand and welcomed, men need to recognise how they’re being harmed and what they’re missing out on in its absence.
Kolhi not only recognised this but pursued it, which is in part why his leave was met with so much contention. It was a rejection of his work as his primary identity (and at a time when his presence at work was arguably most desired) and a valuation of himself in the domestic sphere. His choice hinted at a different kind of masculinity, one that does not cast women as innate, natural nurturers and men as (at best) clueless, well-meaning assistants or (at worst) distant providers.
The truth is, physiologically speaking, everyone has the innate capacity to be nurturing, regardless of biological sex or gender. Research has shown that the brains of fathers who are primary caregivers to infant children change in a similar way as women’s do during pregnancy. The men developed a ‘parental caregiving neural network,’ through which their brains became more vigilant, attentive, motivated, and empathetic. Childcare also activated the part of the men’s brains linked to feeling rewarded.
To deny or not provide paternity leave is to deny men growth, quite literally. To keep them stunted. (And, in the case of homosexual men, additionally to deny a child parental care of any kind.) But then, that is the point of traditional masculinity, isn’t it? To prescribe such a rigid, narrow definition of what it means to be a man and punish any attempt to expand beyond it. To convince men that clipped wings make them able to fly higher.
It doesn’t help (and isn’t fair) that much of the discussion around paternity leave has been couched in its importance to the mother and child. This is, of course, critical to consider, especially given the hugely unequal burden women have traditionally carried (and continue to carry) in the domestic realm. Helping men to understand how maternal and child mental and physical health benefit from their supportive, involved, and caregiving presence is crucial.
But equally crucial is helping men to understand how their own mental health, brain function, and general well-being benefit from nurturing a child. When the conversation about paternity leave makes this the focus in order to further the policy goal, it undermines itself by playing into one of the most noxious tropes of traditional masculinity: man as the protector. A new father’s presence is only necessary to protect his vulnerable family. When the conversation includes the message that men benefit from caregiving, too, the rigid boundaries of masculinity expand, and men are freed not only to enjoy and grow into a new role more fully, but also to challenge other traditional masculine strictures. What else might men benefit from that they were previously not allowed to explore?
When we expand the conversation about paternity leave to include how it benefits men, how getting time to focus on and care for a brand new life is a human right, not merely a medical or gendered necessity, we actually challenge the traditional idea of what it means to be a man. And we evolve a fuller understanding of what it means to be a human.
This evolution leads, naturally, to the more inclusive concept of parental leave, which decouples the concept of parenthood from gender and heteronormativity in a way that allows masculinity to expand further. It also allows for the more respectful inclusion of non-binary parents, single parents, gay and lesbian parents, and more. Or to the even more inclusive concept of family leave, which widens our understanding of family beyond the nuclear – and acknowledges that individuals may have critical caregiving responsibilities to relatives far beyond their first few months of life.
And men should be able to experience and grow from those, too.