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Millennials plan to trade kids for careers — but it doesn't have to be that way

Published: Sunday, March 16 2014 2:40 p.m. MDT

"Thankfully, I was able to go to my boss without even thinking, 'Am I going to lose my job? Will this reflect badly on me?' We had a good relationship, and I know the company is so flexible ... so I just ...(told) her the truth — that I'm not ready yet."

Together they arranged for Reynolds to take another two months of unpaid maternity leave, which she and her husband, Shaun, were fortunate enough to be able to afford. When she finally went back to her full-time role as director of content and community in October, she was ready.

"It made me feel like I was able to make the right decision for me and my family," Reynolds said, "and I didn't have to worry about whether or not my job would still be there."

Many new parents aren't so lucky.

The United States is one of the very few countries in the world that doesn't provide some type of paid family leave. Reynolds has had friends with similar struggles, but without the workplace flexibility and understanding boss had to choose between keeping their job at the expense of their family or just walking away.

"That's really problematic," says Jennifer Randles, a sociology professor at California State University, Fresno. "Right after having the baby (many) can't afford to take time off work. If we really believe in the idea that we often say we do, that family is first...and children are our future, we often don't put our money where our rhetoric is."

Instead, the federal Family Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers 12 weeks of unpaid, job-secured leave (often augmented by accrued vacation or sick pay) to recover from an illness, care for a new or adopted baby, or care for a seriously ill parent, spouse or child — if that employee and their company meet a variety of conditions.

A 2012 report for the Department of Labor found that only 1 in 6 work sites were covered by FMLA and only 13 percent of employees took FMLA leave. Many more don't take it because they can't afford to go weeks without a paycheck. Others avoid it because of the perceived or actual consequences that come from taking time off work — all factors that may push Millennials out of parenthood, experts say.

While the first step is to encourage companies, states and the federal government to make paid leave available for both men and women, the next and ongoing step is to make taking such leave acceptable and even encouraged, says Alice Eagly, a social psychologist at Northwestern University and faculty fellow in the Institute for Policy Research.

"If only women (take parental leave) only women's careers get compromised," Eagly says. "(It requires) attitude changes on the part of the men and the organization, that they don't think it's a horrible thing for a man to take leave."

After all, men are parents too, and often get left out of the discussion on work/life balance, despite often feeling higher levels of stress in some areas. While 73 percent of mothers say they're doing a good or excellent job as mothers, only 64 percent of fathers feel that way, according to Pew Research Center. And 46 percent of dads say they're not spending enough time with kids, compared with 23 percent of mothers.

"When it's not just women who are needing flexibility to provide care for their kids…it normalizes it," says Glynn. "Then it just becomes 'This is just what workers need.' Not just 'what women workers need.' When everyone's taking (leave), then the penalties start to fall away."

A DIFFERENT BALANCE

Martha Bean was 5 when her father died and her mother had to go back to work, teaching at the local university.

"I really felt like I was competing for my mom's attention with a job," Bean said. "It wasn't her fault. She did everything to mitigate that, but it was hard for me to feel that I was important, if I didn't feel like I could take my mom's time. She seemed really busy. I didn't want my kids to feel that way."

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