Paternity leave was the first time that Alexis Ohanian’s fast-paced lifestyle as a hard-charging businessman and husband to tennis superstar Serena Williams really slowed down and he could take stock of the rapidly changing priorities in his life.
“I have a sleeping baby in one arm and my smart phone in the other and would still be like aware, but this was a priority and being present in the house was a priority,” said Ohanian, co-founder of Initialized Capital and Reddit, in reference to the time he took off after the September birth of his daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian.
Ohanian’s realization comes at a time when companies themselves as well as lawmakers in Congress are taking a second look at the policies and laws in place in to see whether parents have the time off work they need to take raise their infant children.
Ohanian said that the thought of taking such a long amount of time off work didn’t come natural – admittedly, he had always thought of his career as his “kid.” But it was the time spent with his newborn daughter that brought him more of an understanding of the true value of paternity leave – not only for a man to bond with his baby, but to bond with their partner as well.
“To have those moments and feel that closeness was just spectacular and there are things we have with each other that I’m grateful for,” Ohanian recently told CNN at his home in San Francisco, “Being able to develop that connection to the little one, but then also to my partner, my wife was so valuable as well.”
Leading by example
Williams and Alexis have been documenting their parenthood journey through family Instagram posts – showing pancake breakfasts, swimming lessons and trips to the Zoo – rare glimpses into the private everyday moments that make life as a family rich.
Those moments, Ohanian said, he only came to fully appreciate by taking a pause while on paternity leave. He has since become an advocate for the importance of paid family leave – not just for moms, but for dads, too, many of whom want to be equal caregivers in the weeks after birth.
While at Reddit, Ohanian was a big proponent of the parental leave policy and also took advantage of it when his daughter was born. And at his new company, Initialized Capital, he designed a family leave plan, which includes 16 weeks of paid family leave and an additional leave plan for women who have complications during or after birth.
“I had every intention as co-founder and executive to lead by example and take that whole period, and I didn’t realize though just how important that would be,” he said. “My wife had had a really great pregnancy but then complications during and after the birth meant she was dealing with a lot herself and I had to do everything I could to be the supportive husband and supportive father, and it really put into perspective for me how important creating this family leave policy is for men and women who want to become parents.”
At Reddit, one of his co-workers who took advantage of the police was Greg Taylor, an engineering manager whose own paternity leave at Reddit was longer than his wife’s at another company. He stayed at home for four months with his newborn son, while his wife went back to work – and he said that time was essential for developing his own relationship with their baby.
“Over time, we used that four months to develop our own bond,” Taylor said of his son who will turn 2 this September. “We got to know another, and today, we have a great relationship I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
A national issue
While family leave has been long considered a woman’s issue, men’s views on fatherhood have been changing – many wanting to be there equally – and looking for companies with better family policies writ large as well. And some companies are listening.
In the last year alone, big companies like Starbucks, Lowe’s, Dove, CVS, Dollar General and Walmart, have expanded or created new family leave policies, many specifically geared towards working dads.
Ohanian says having happy workers, who are investing in their own families, also helps a company’s bottom line.
“What it’s ultimately going to mean for the organization is a way healthier, better functioning organization,” Ohanian said. “I think what is lost on a lot of people is your teams are not robots, they are humans and if you really are expecting them to do great work, they need to be in a great state of mind.”
The political landscape is changing too, with a big federal shift on Capitol Hill. What used to be seen just as a Democratic issue is now attracting Republicans.
In the past four years, the number of lawmakers supportive of paid family leave has more than doubled. In the 115th Congress currently meeting, 205 members of Congress signed onto some type of paid family leave legislation, compared to just 80 members of Congress in the 111th.
“It’s not traditional to the Republican and conservative movement,” Florida GOP Sen. Marco Rubio told CNN in an interview. “If we’re going to truly be pro-family, then we have to provide people options for that.”
Congress considering several plans
Rubio is one of many on Capitol Hill who are working on the issue and is currently working on writing his own legislation, with the White House and senior adviser to the president, Ivanka Trump. That legislation is expected to be released in the coming weeks, according to his Senate office.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, has the Family And Medical Insurance Leave Act (FAMILY) – which has garnered a lot of Democratic support but no Republican co-sponsors. Her bill would give 12 weeks of paid time off for men and women, and also applies more broadly to those who are taking care of a family member with a serious medical issue.
One of the newest signers of the FAMILY act, New Mexico Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich said this is something he takes very personally as a dad to two himself.
“I’m absolutely positive that my personal relationship with both of my sons would be markedly different if I had not had the opportunity to be so much a part of their lives in the first year,” Heinrich said in an interview with CNN, “We are kind of behind the curve here – most of the rest of the world has some form of paid family leave.”
While the issue is attracting bipartisan attention, it does not have bipartisan solution on Capitol Hill yet.
Democrats and Republicans are still split on how to pay for it and how broad a national paid leave policy should be.
Rubio’s bill, while not public yet, would provide the option of people taking Social Security benefits earlier and then delaying retirement by a commensurate number of weeks, as a way to pay for the bill.
“There’s criticism of it because people don’t want to touch Social Security so we’ve got to see what the numbers are and make sure we’re not also undermining the program which is not our intent,” Rubio said in his Capitol Hill office while defending his bill that has not even been unveiled yet. “It’s not perfect. No proposal is going to be. But I think it has a chance to pass and provide people an additional option if they don’t have that already available from their employer.”
Gillibrand’s bill is paid through tax contributions that employers and employee both pay into – which some Republicans criticize as a new tax.
Outside of the Washington beltway, though, there is more movement.
Thirty-one states, as well as Washington, DC, had paid family leave legislation under consideration this year alone. And five states along with DC have passed new or expanded paid family leave laws.
But despite momentum, advocates say, there is still a long way to go. Still, only 15% of workers in the US have access to paid family leave.
Ohanian said he “would love to see DC get something done on this issue.”
“Why can’t we get something accomplished legislatively because I don’t just want this to be part of the tech industry,” he said. “I want this to be something everyone can use.”