Although paternity leave is now a legislated right for Israeli dads, many say it still has its flaws.
By RUTH EGLASH
When Ygal Berdugo and his wife Mona decided to utilize an under-publicized national law back in 2005 to allow a man to take paternity leave following the birth of a child instead of his wife, little did they know that they would encounter bureaucracy at its finest.
"I had to get a note from Mona's work saying that she had returned, we had to fill out a form confirming that she permitted me to take the leave instead of her and one saying that I was requesting the leave," begins Berdugo, an immigrant from the US who now lives in Jerusalem and is a father of five. "The only problem was that the first clerk in the National Insurance Institute office did not know that it could be done. She claimed that the law had been canceled. After telling her that the NII Web site said it was possible, she sent us to a different clerk who straightened it out."
However, recalls Berdugo, who works for a hi-tech company, "even though I put my bank account information on the forms, the compensation still went into Mona's account."
The same kind of bureaucratic confusion was encountered by Frankie Sachs, also formerly from the US and a father to two boys, who took paternity leave two years ago when his second child was born.
"Everything during the first time around, when my wife took maternity leave, was very smooth. But for me everything was very bumpy," says Sachs, who works for Euroleague Basketball. "At first they didn't have the right forms that they needed, each time I went they wanted something new, I had to return with all sorts of different papers and it took almost a year, if not more, until I got all the money."
Of course the confusion over such regulations is easily explained: The law allowing a man to take paternity leave instead of his wife - after the first six weeks of birth and within the first three-and-a-half months - has been in effect since 1998, but was turned into a permanent law by the Knesset only last month. Until then, a Knesset committee was forced to review the law every three years, leaving families who wanted to use the option constantly guessing whether they were eligible.
While the lack of knowledge that such an option exists might be one reason that fathers have been slow to take up the opportunity to spend those precious first few weeks with their newborns - NII statistics suggest that between 2001 and 2005 only 180 men on average took formal paternity leave, compared to 80,000 women - professionals in the field, academics and fathers themselves say it is more a combination of social factors and the shortsightedness of the law itself.
Velli Mualem, director of the department of maternity leave at the NII, claims that the law has been well publicized and that her staff is well trained in how to help men who want to exercise their right to paternity leave.
"There is information about it on our Web site and 90 percent of the population has access to the Internet," she says, noting that in her experience the reason the law is underused is because most mothers are not willing to give up their maternity leave.
"A woman really needs that time off, that rest period after she has a baby," she adds. "Most of the time she has to get up through the night and feed or care for the baby; how is she supposed to go back to work?"
WHILE Mualem brings up a reasonable argument, Berdugo and Sachs, as well as their wives, argue that it is not only an individual decision for each family to make but that it greatly contributes to the bonding process between father and child and creates in the men an appreciation for the difficult work that is usually considered to be a woman's.
"In the beginning, the kids are naturally very attached to the mother because of the nursing," says Sachs. "What I was able to do was to establish a routine with Matan [his second child]. I would bathe him and put him down for naps. I was able to establish my own bond with him. If my older child, Avinoam, has nightmares, he usually doesn't want me, but the younger one will come to me because of that early bond we developed."
"For me, being at home was extremely nice. I had time to cook and work on the connection with my child," points out Ze'ev Eisen, a team leader at Amdocs who recently returned to work after his second round of paternity leave. "It was especially good the second time because I also got to spend time with my older daughter. I could be there to pick her up from kindergarten and spend the afternoon with her.
"[Taking paternity leave] is a very individual decision. Not all men or even all women can manage to stay at home and look after a child for a lengthy period of time. Everyone talks about motherhood being for the woman, but really it is different for every person."
While Eisen certainly welcomes the opportunity that he was afforded to take a break from the rat race and spend more quality time with his family, he acknowledges that there are some serious flaws in the current law.
"For the man to stay at home, it should not come at the expense of the woman being forced back to work," he notes. "This is one of the main reasons why many men do not take up the opportunity. If a woman goes back to work after six weeks, she cannot stop again when her husband goes back six weeks later. The ideal situation would be if both the man and the woman could be at home together. Of course, not everyone has to get the benefits, but really if a person is paying national insurance and becomes a new parent, it should not really matter what the other person in the relationship does."
Mualem is quick to defend this clause in the law, saying that its main aim is to allow women the freedom to return to work more quickly if they are required to do so.
"If a woman is not working or not needed back at work so soon [if she is a teacher and it is the school vacation for example], there is no reason why the husband needs to take off as well," she says. "The goal is for at least one of the parents to be at home to take care of the child during the first three-and-a-half months."
Former MK Naomi Chazan, who was instrumental in establishing the initial law, disagrees.
She is clearly peeved when she hears it referred to as "paternity leave." "It is parental leave," she corrects immediately. "I believe that parents are parents, a mother or a father, it does not matter. From a young age it is important that both are around for the child."
When asked whether she believed the law should allow for couples to take the leave simultaneously or whether the law is misguided and should have considered that maternity leave is only a short three months, Chazan points out that earlier this year the Knesset added two weeks to the existing maternity leave period, from 12 to 14 weeks.
"The role of the legislature is to open doors. It will only be a matter of time before this law is improved upon, too, and then we can move forward to make other changes," she says.
"I believe that maternity leave is far too short," states Yonit Shmuelov, who works for a hi-tech company in Ra'anana and whose husband, Robbie, took an extended non-paid leave from his work as a carpenter to care for their second child, born eight months ago. "For a woman to return to work after 12 weeks is much too soon anyway, and to ask her to take six weeks is crazy. The basics need to be changed before this law can work properly."
Both Shmuelov and Eisen agree that the ideal situation would be to allow the woman her three months' paid maternity leave and then provide the man with an option to extend it, if the family chooses.
AS FOR perceptions surrounding men's role as a newborn's primary caregiver, Avishag Rager, who studied the trend in paternity leave for her master's degree thesis at Bar-Ilan University, notes that there are still many people who "see this as something unnatural."
She describes the interviews conducted with two of the 15 fathers who had taken paternity leave interviewed for the study.
"One told me that while he was walking down the street with his newborn, a neighbor asked him if he was sick because she had seen him at home a lot recently," says Rager. "Another father took his child to Tipat Halav [the well-baby clinic] and the nurse told him to relay to his wife how much corn starch to put in the baby's milk."
"There are some biological factors involved here," she admits. "But some things can be changed and this process not only allows men to bond with their children but introduces men to that world too."
While Rager's study also found that relatively few men take formal or non-formal maternity leave compared to women, she notes that there has been a steady rise since the law was initiated.
Other barriers preventing the numbers from increasing include unwillingness of men to be seen in a traditional female role or their helplessness at not being able to calm a baby down like a nursing mother, as well as attitudes in the workplace. A man who is on the fast track to a promising career is less likely to want to take time off to care for a baby.
"It is mostly men who are less interested in developing their career who take the time off," says Rager, adding that her study noted three distinct groups: men whose work was suitably flexible or freelance; husbands of women who were self-employed; and men whose jobs were of a high enough level to feel secure in taking off time to care for a baby.
Dr. Orly Binyamin, a sociologist and senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University, says that in many cases the decision to take paternity leave very often boils down to financial concerns and where the family stands on the socio-economic ladder.
"When the couple's income is strong, they have no worries about doing this kind of thing," says Binyamin. "Those who can't do it are usually families in which the woman is making a lower salary, then there is less chance that the husbands will take paternity leave."
She notes that "like in many other societies, we have the traditional model that raising children is the job of women. However, there is a slow rate - today about 15 percent of couples - moving away from that tradition and strengthening the father's involvement in the role of raising the children."
"There is a steady growth of men and women wanting to be equal in the home," concurs Rager, adding that while the law has not been used by so many people, it is strong step forward to raising awareness of gender gaps in society.
Eisen says that while he did not have negative reactions from either his workplace, his peers or society in general during either of his paternity leaves, it was his wife, a social worker, who suffered a variety of criticisms.
"I actually think it was harder for her," he admits. "There were all sorts of responses, including questions like why does she not want to be with her child? Is she some sort of workaholic? Society does not accept that some women are not maternal, that they do not want to take the maternity leave.
"It is something that I still don't understand. [Paternity leave] is something that certainly helps the interest of women, so why is there so much criticism of it? We live in a modern society and women should be able to do what they want."
Ehud Zion Waldoks contributed to this report.
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