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The Globe and Mail

The daddy shift

Fathers across Canada are taking more time off to care for their children as the idea of paternity leave gains greater acceptance. Rebecca Dube reports

Globe and Mail, by REBECCA DUBE, June 24, 2008

A few weeks ago, Alex Smith had a revelation: He doesn't need to wear a belt any more./p>

He had grown used to the daily ritual of strapping on his BlackBerry or cellphone, the tools of his trade as a communications officer with the federal government.

But now Mr. Smith answers only to calls of "Papa."

"It's so liberating," he says.

Alex Smith says his six-month paternity leave with son Noah-David and infant daughter Nellie-Rose is 'the greatest gift I've ever had.'

Mr. Smith is taking a six-month paternity leave to spend time with his two youngest children, 2½-year-old Noah-David and seven-month-old Nellie-Rose.

Across Canada, fathers are taking longer parental leaves: The average was 17 weeks in 2006, according to Statistics Canada, up from 11 weeks in 2005.

The percentage of men who use their parental leave benefits has remained flat, at 11 per cent, except in Quebec, where 56 per cent of fathers used their paternity benefits in 2006, up from 32 per cent the previous year.

Quebec's daddy boom stems from a new provincial parental leave program introduced in 2006. It includes five weeks of non-transferable leave just for fathers, in addition to 32 weeks of shared leave that can be taken by either the mother or the father; the federal program, in effect in the rest of the country, offers 35 weeks of shared leave, with no fathers-only time.

Also, the Quebec program doles out more onnerous benefits - up to 75 per cent of the parent's average weekly income, versus 55 per cent in the rest of the country.

So far, Quebec is the first province to go beyond the federal parental leave program. (And given the costs, it may be the last. The Quebec Parental Insurance Plan costs $1.45-billion a year; the employment minister last week announced that QPIP premiums will increase by 7.5 per cent next year, and future increases will probably be necessary to keep the plan afloat.)

While the trend is most pronounced in Quebec, fathers across Canada are taking more time off to care for their children. The Statistics Canada report released yesterday examined only those fathers who used their federal or provincial parental leave benefits; many more dads took an informal leave, paid or unpaid. The proportion of fathers who took any kind of leave after a birth or adoption rose from 38 per cent in 2001 to 55 per cent in 2006, according to another Statistics Canada report.

The trends reflect a larger social shift, researchers say.

"An important aspect is the cultural change in fathers' participation and involvement with children, from parental leave to child care," says Katherine Marshall, a senior analyst with Statistics Canada.

For eligible fathers who didn't take paternity leave, the most commonly cited reason was family choice (40 per cent), followed by difficulty taking time off work (22 per cent) and financial issues (17 per cent).

All of those concerns factored into Mr. Smith's decision to take a six-month leave. His employer and his wife are both supportive, and he and his wife sat down together to figure out whether they could both take a leave and keep paying the bills.

They're cutting back on spending and might incur a bit of debt to make the paternity leave work, but Mr. Smith and his wife decided the experience is worth the cost. Already, he says, he's bonded more strongly with his baby daughter, who just emerged from a bout of colic and loves to touch things and babble.

"It's really the small things, but they all add up to something wonderful," he says. "I don't want to sound corny, but truly it's the greatest gift I've ever had."

The idea of paternity leave is rapidly gaining acceptance, says Clarence Lochhead, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family. In some industries and workplaces there's still a stigma around fathers who take more than a few days or weeks off, he acknowledges, but among younger generations paternity leave is increasingly seen as normal.

"There's more of an acceptance that, yes, men can do these things, and can and should take part in the raising of the child," Mr. Lochhead says.

A growing body of research supports the push for paternity leave. Studies have shown that greater father involvement correlates with better cognitive development in infants, higher educational attainment, fewer behavioural problems in the teen years, lower rates of criminal behaviour and better social functioning.

Mr. Smith, for one, highly recommends the experience to anyone who has the chance.

"You can always make money, but you can never make time," he says. "The time is precious."

*****

By the numbers

56  Percentage of Quebec men who took paternity leave in 2006, making use of the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan.

11  Percentage of men who took parental leave throughout the rest of the country in 2006, making use of federal parental leave benefits.

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