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May 12, 2009

A Family Man Leaves

Dinosaurs_boss While sifting through the Sunday papers, a blurb about a bill to grant federal employees four weeks of paid parental leave to care for a newborn or newly adopted child stopped me cold. This particular paragraph did the trick:

"While federal workers have been offered only unpaid leave since 1993, 75% of Fortune 500 companies grant at least a month of paid time off to new parents," wrote Joel Schectman in the New York Daily News.

See, back in the day, I worked for one of the do-nothing 25%.

When my daughter was born nine years ago, I told Dinosaur Boss that once my wife finished her three months of leave, I wanted to take a few weeks off to stay home to admire this newly chiseled little jewel in private before she became just another dirty diaper at the local daycare. DB just stared like I had asked for both his kidneys, a lung and a no-interest, million-dollar loan to start a combination Cajun bistro and alpaca farm in Chernobyl.

He denied my request before it could be filed. Around the same time I wanted to take leave, DB had to oversee a week-long "meeting" on the southern coast of Spain for the executives (his job was to ensure these seven-figure captains of industry and their spouses caught the right shuttle buses to the tapas bars and seaside shopping areas). After that, DB would then need to unwind from all that stress with 10 days of golf around Europe. As the No. 2 member of our two-person staff, this all meant I had to stay put at our landlocked corporate headquarters.

Two years passed and when my son screeched out into the world, I made the same request, but this time I went to HR first to get my paperwork in order. Again, Dinosaur Boss looked befuddled.

"You've had to have had an employee who has taken family leave before in 25 years, haven't you?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "but never a guy."

I took four weeks -- one of them paid, because the company required I use my remaining vacation time to defrost, heat and feed the boy with the stockpile of frozen breast milk his mom left in the 'fridge, and the rest came on my own dime even though I ended up doing some of my editing and writing tasks during the boy's nap time. Nonetheless, I'm glad I did it for many reasons -- most of all because it gave me at least a little time alone to focus on my new son before my attention was overwhelmed by the onset of his then 2-year-old sister's odyssey with mysterious rashes, swellings and the inability to stand up from what turned out to be the autoimmune disease juvenile dermatomyositis.

Sometime after I returned to the office, one of the up-and-coming junior financial officers announced he and his wife were expecting their first child. Someone told me that at an executive meeting shortly thereafter, his boss said loudly to mine, "He just better not think he's taking any goddamn family leave!" The other white male baby boomers, high on their stock options, broke into hysterical laughter.

The junior financial officer did end up taking a few weeks off. I like to think that it was, in part, because after I congratulated him on the pregnancy news I helped answer all his questions about filling out and filing the right forms to take family leave from the company.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), the sponsor of this current bill, I applaud you and any company out there who realizes that any employee -- regardless of his or her ability push out the pups -- who wants to care for a new child is not on vacation or sick leave or goofing off. He, or she, is doing the most important job there is and a little compensation and understanding from an employer makes for a pretty good baby gift.

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