Israeli Paternity Leave Plan Can Give a Boost to Fatherhood

If anyone thinks that this is not the concern of the state, a report found that the deficient functioning of the Israeli man is damaging to him, to the children’s development and to women’s status and wages

Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff
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Father with a baby girl at home, sleeping on the sofa. Paternity leave. Close up.
Credit: Halfpoint / Getty Images/iStockp
Meirav Arlosoroff
Meirav Arlosoroff

The time has come to talk about the problematic status of the Israeli man. Israel is a conservative, traditional, bordering-on-chauvinistic country – with an average of 3.1 children per woman, almost double the average of 1.7 in other developed countries.

>> Family business: Read more from Haaretz's summer magazine

Although Israeli women work a great deal – the rate of employment of Israeli women is the second highest in the world – the wages they receive are humiliating. The wage gap between men and women in Israel – 34 percent in monthly wages – ranks Israel as the fourth worst country in the OECD in terms of equality.

But whereas the cost of the conservatism that is levied on women in Israel is overt and transparent, no one considers the cost levied on men. The Israeli man is father to an average of 3.1 children, but does not bear the responsibility for raising them. When the offer was made to men in Israel to share the mother’s maternity leave, only one percent of men took advantage of it. This low figure could be excused by saying that the women did not consent to give up the maternity leave to which they are entitled, or one could excuse it by saying that the fathers were not consumed with any great desire to stay at home with the newborn child. In any event, the outcome is the same: Men in Israel raise their children by remote control. Their parental role is lacking and limited.

A government advertisement from when Swedish paternity leave started in the 1970s, featuring famous Swedish wrestler Lennart "Hoa-Hoa" Dahlgren.Credit: Embassy of Sweden in Israel

The “problem,” as a high-ranking government official termed it, is that “fathers in Israel do not assume responsibility for raising their child. They think their role is to help the mother care for the child, instead of understanding that they, too, are its parents – and that they must take part in raising the child, as fathers, not as mothers’ helpers.”

Practically speaking, men in Israel function as deficient parents. If anyone thinks that this is not the concern of the state – and certainly not the concern of the Treasury and the Prime Minister’s Office, which issued a lengthy report on this topic in 2019 – they should think again. The report issued by the interministerial team found that the deficient functioning of the Israeli man is in fact damaging to him, to the children’s development and to the woman’s status and wages.

The most serious damage is to the children themselves. The report of the interministerial team quotes a research study carried out by Professor Ruth Feldman, head of the Center for Developmental Social Neuroscience at Reichman University, which addresses the critical effect of the father’s involvement in parenting on children’s development. The relationship of father and child is unique, and it encourages the child to investigate his or her surroundings from a place of energy and interest. In the study, children who had experienced a close connection with their fathers were less aggressive in kindergarten. As adults, they tended toward less belligerence and violence, were more empathetic and socially involved, and were more adept at regulating their negative emotions. Their emotional health was found to be better, and there has also been research conducted around the world that linked this to higher scholastic achievement.

Men with a ‘parental brain’

The contribution made by a father involved in his children’s development is immense, but what makes this even more fascinating is that the father also benefits just as much from the interaction. Studies worldwide have identified the effect of pregnancy and birth on forging a “parental brain” in the mother, enabling her to be attentive and empathetic, and to better deal with the complex situations presented by parenting.

It turns out that the “parental brain” can also develop in men. Men possessing a parental brain undergo hormonal change, the result of which is a man who is more attentive and empathetic toward his children in particular and to society in general. The parental brain of men is similar to that of women. In other words, they are capable of developing a connection and a sense of responsibility for their children no less than the mothers, and this connection also remains stable over the years.

The catch is the condition for the development of a parental brain: Since men do not have the period of pregnancy and birth that brings about the production of the hormones required to build up the parental brain, the only way men have to bring about the release of the requisite hormones is behavioral change. This happens only if they function as full-time fathers over a prolonged period of time. The emphasis is on full-time fathers, in other words a father who is the primary caregiver to the child, and not a father who is a mother’s helper.

The third type of damage is to women’s employment. Following the birth of the first child, only 18 percent of men change their employment habits, as opposed to 53 percent of women. Of these women, 24 percent stopped working altogether and 19 percent reduced their work hours. Approximately 34 percent of all women in Israel work part-time, half of them so as to care for the children. As stated above, the gap in monthly wages is 34 percent.

A study conducted by the office of the chief economist in the Treasury concerning women working in high-tech found that the wage gap between women in the sector who gave birth to a first child in comparison with women who have not given birth was 9 percent. Upon the birth of the second child, the gap already grew to 15 percent. This is the “motherhood penalty” – the price levied on women, not due to them being women, but due to them being mothers.

The obvious solution to reducing these three types of damage is paternity leave for fathers. Paternity leave would enable fathers to raise their children while creating the connection needed to promote the child’s development – as well as the masculine “parental brain.” Paternity leave would also reduce the “motherhood penalty,” because men who have served as the primary caregivers of their children will subsequently take a more equal role in domestic duties, and because employers would modify their point of view toward mothers as primary caregivers. If men became co-caregivers for their children, employers would stop regarding childbirth as such a disadvantage for women.

Credit: O_Lypa/Shutterstock

Not suspected of feminism

This truth has been accepted long ago elsewhere in the world. Some 27 of the 35 OECD states offer paternity leave for fathers, at full pay, for an average of four weeks. The idea made its way belatedly to Israel, thanks to the activities of ministers Merav Michaeli and Meirav Cohen, and was adopted in mid-May by the finance minister, Avigdor Lieberman – who is not generally suspected of feminism.

The current proposal is for a two-week paternity leave at full pay for the father alone, after the mother has completed her paid maternity leave. The leave would be granted only on condition that both parents work. In other words, it is an incentive granted to the working middle class, and, of course, a penalty to Haredi families in which the father does not work.

Lieberman, with political astuteness, realized that he could in this way buy the support of the Labor and Yesh Atid parties on passing the 2023 budget (before it became apparent that the coalition government would fall). The step would benefit the middle class, promote significant social values and would apparently not be particularly expensive. The cost to the state budget is unknown, because it depends on the number of fathers who choose to take advantage of the right granted to them. The interministerial team assumed that the degree of positive response would be 40 percent, in which case the cost would amount to approximately 214 million shekels per year. Even if 100 percent of fathers chose to take the paternity leave, the cost would only be about half a billion shekels per year.

While the current policy, which allows paternity leave to be taken instead of part of the maternity leave, has attracted few, the new proposal to provide additional leave solely to fathers is expected to draw many more takers. If the state is offering two weeks at home at its expense, why not take it?

Apparently, in most families the father would take paternity leave once the child has been placed in a day-care center. Perhaps it would be the father who would be the one to do the first “week of acclimatization,” once the burden of changing diapers and preparing meals would be less onerous. If in the future paternity leave is extended to four weeks, one may assume that some families would already push off the child’s enrollment in day-care by an additional month, and the fathers’ participation in raising the children would become much more significant.

Two weeks of paternity leave is not a lot, and one doubts it is enough to establish a father-child connection and develop the “parental brain.” Achieving that would apparently require at least four weeks of paternity leave.

But this is a critical foot in the door. “The idea is not these two weeks,” senior government officials explain. “The idea is the father’s responsibility for his children, not to mention the state recognizing its responsibility and being willing to pay for it.”



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