Robert Neubecker

How I negotiated paternity leave in a place where it’s not the norm

The human resources representatives were amazed when I requested parental leave. I was one of the first male postdocs to ask in the 100-year history of the institution, they told me. The response didn’t surprise me. Here in Japan, where roughly 85% of academic scientists are men and most have stay-at-home spouses, it’s rare for fathers to take leave from work after a baby is born. But the real surprise came later, as I learned how hard it was to secure the leave—in spite of careful planning and my supervisor’s support.

I wanted to buck Japan’s cultural norms and take paternity leave because I felt strongly that I needed to support my wife, who is also an early-career scientist. She works as a postdoc at a different institution and had arranged 3 months of unpaid maternity leave. Caring for a newborn is a lot of work, and I didn’t want her to shoulder all the physical and mental exhaustion, on top of recovering from the delivery. I also wanted to be home with her and the baby during those first weeks.

Our first child was born when we were in the United States, where it’s more common for both parents to take leave. We worked in the same lab—I was a Ph.D. student and my wife was a postdoc—and our adviser was supportive of us taking 3 months of leave. I greatly appreciated having that time at home. When our second child was on the way, it was clear to me that I needed to make the same thing happen.

My postdoc supervisor was on board with my plan to take 3 months off. He congratulated me on my wife’s pregnancy and told me it was my right to take leave—support for which I was grateful. I made my initial inquiry 6 months before our baby was due, thinking that would give my institution plenty of time to figure out how to grant my request.

But then the hassle began. Under Japanese law, an employee isn’t eligible for paid parental leave if their contract is set to end before the child reaches 18 months of age. My 3-year postdoc contract only extended to 3 months after our child would be born. The same law prevented my wife from taking paid leave, and we didn’t want to go months without a paycheck. So, my supervisor and I came up with a plan to draw up a new extended contract for me—but various legal and administrative hurdles meant that it took months to be finalized.

I recently returned to work, along with my wife, and our daughters are now well taken care of at day care. I’m glad I persevered in my request for leave. I don’t think my gender explains the challenges I experienced, but being a pioneer didn’t help. If you’re in a place or situation where parental leave is a novelty, here are some tips to help smooth the way.

I wanted to buck Japan’s cultural norms and take paternity leave.

START PAPERWORK EARLY. Administrative staff may have to chart new waters, enacting a new policy or otherwise navigating the ins and outs of processing such a request. It all takes time.

ASK FOR HELP. Talk to parents who have taken leave. When I was trying to figure out how the process worked, a female colleague who had children heard that I was trying to take leave and reached out to offer advice. Her help was invaluable.

STAND FIRM. You only have one chance at that time with your kids. Unfortunately, some employers will not grant parental leave. Others will retaliate after requests are made, giving employees poor evaluations or even terminating them. Get to know your legal rights by talking to a lawyer or labor union. In Japan, and many other countries, retaliation is illegal and parents are entitled to a period of parental leave.

RAISE YOUR VOICE. If more parents demand better parental leave policies, the road will become easier for those who follow. Better family-friendly policies will help all parents succeed in science—fathers and mothers alike.

Do you have an interesting career story? Send it to SciCareerEditor@aaas.org.

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