John Troutman McCrann is a math teacher at Harvest Collegiate High School in New York City.
In June 2018, I was part of a team that demanded and won paid parental leave for New York City teachers. Thanks to the hard work of activists and our union, teachers in the nation’s largest school system who become new parents get paid time to bond with their children. We’ve come a long way from the era when teachers were fired for getting pregnant.
This is an important win for teachers, but my argument was — and is — that the most important winners from the new policy are the children brought into teachers’ families. By devoting resources to develop the supportive and responsive relationships these infants and young adopted children need, our schools and our city are not just doing the right thing — we are building the right foundation for our community.
These children will grow to become happier, healthier and more resilient — and whether they become doctors, activists, basketball coaches or even parents and teachers themselves, they will better support a vibrant city in the decades to come because of this strong start.
Recently, my wife, Kelly, and I learned that we would be expecting a child this winter. Yet, with our budget already tight and the additional cost of a new family member, there is no way we would have been able to afford for me to take unpaid leave. If we’d had the baby 19 months ago, I would have taken only three personal days before returning to work.
In this alternate “no-parental-leave” reality, I wouldn’t develop skills to care for our baby, and my son would have less time to get to know me. Kelly would be the only person who could solve problems that come up.
All three of us would be more stressed out and frustrated. Each day, I would go to school after a few hours of sleep. I wouldn’t have reserves to support students and couldn’t devote energy outside of school to grade papers or improve lesson plans. My students would get less feedback and support.
Instead, I will be at home for six weeks. Here are three tasks I can do during my six week paid parental leave to lay a foundation for healthy relationships with my child, family and career that will ultimately result in a collective benefit.
Caring for my wife and our relationship
In background research for a piece on the impact of childbirth on women’s bodies, Emily Writes asked women to share how their pregnancies had changed their bodies. “Within half a day” she’d received dozens of messages that read “like a list of car crash injuries.”
I know my wife appreciates having someone to help her out. A well-cooked meal and fresh laundry won’t magically heal her, but the fact she won’t have to cook the meal or do the laundry could give Kelly the space she needs to focus on her healing while still bonding with our newborn.
Physical care is important, but not the only way paid parental leave will enable me to help my family. I won’t just be present more, I’ll be more present.
On a typical workday, I teach math to 125 teenagers. This means engaging with 125 different individuals in 125 different emotional states and with 125 different sets of needs. I love doing this work, but it comes at a cost. Folks in caring professions know there are days when it is hard to come home and meaningfully engage in the care of even one more person.
Six weeks of paid leave are giving Kelly and I space to create systems that allow us to work together through the ebbs and flows of parenting without the mental/emotional strain of my job. From week seven onward, we’ll be able to lean on those systems, allowing me to show up for my students from 8:30 to 3:22 and for my family the rest of the time.
Getting good at baby stuff
“Math is not something you are good at,” I tell my students, “it is something you get good at.”
Fourteen years of working alongside students as they improve their understandings has left me with a deep faith in humans’ ability to change. It would be hypocritical to ask my students to take a growth mindset if my own mindset stays fixed (they helped me uncover this hypocrisy).
I’m not a person who has spent time caring for infants. I am learning how to swaddle, soothe, change diapers and all of the other things that one needs to be good at to care for an infant.
Humans learn by watching, reading, thinking, talking and — most importantly — by doing. This is how my students learn math. This is how I’m learning to care for my child. Kelly and I are lucky to have parents, siblings and friends who help us care for our little one. These people serve as models, mentors and partners in the learning process.
But as happy as I am to hand the screaming baby off to someone more expert than I am sometimes, I won’t learn if I don’t struggle through the difficult parts of infant care. (Another teaching truism: “The person who’s doing the work is doing the learning.”)
I’ve been reading about mother/father dynamics and how they share (or, more often, don’t share) unpaid child care work. It seems like the fact fathers are less likely to struggle through tough infant care moments must have a detrimental impact on their relationship with their children.
I am committed to getting good at caring for my child. I have the time and space to do so thanks to my paid parental leave and will lean on the skills I develop when I go back to work.
Being — just being — with the baby
How did you fall in love or forge your best friendship? I bet there were intense moments of struggle, crisis or co-creation. But I suspect there were mundane times too: afternoons spent walking aimlessly, meals shared while chatting about nothing in particular, hours when you were able to be — just be — together.
The first six weeks of my son’s life is providing some intense moments to facilitate bonding — new experiences are hard, and we’re having a lot of them. And, when the dust does eventually settle, I won’t have to rush off to work. Those are times when we can just be and begin to figure out who we are and how our relationship will work.
Paid parental leave comes at a cost, but the alternative does, too. Policymakers in New York City have correctly judged — after a push from our union — that paid time for teachers to bond with our children is worth some investment.
Supporting families and children will lead to better relationships at home and work. Better relationships will lead to a better world.
New Yorkers should be proud we have made the world a little better by giving time to our city’s teachers and their new children, but we should not be satisfied. Paid parental leave is not the norm nationwide. Many others — including NYC teachers — don’t have paid time to care for seriously ill family members.
Extending this crucial benefit, which is now mandated for most New York private-sector workers, should be a top priority.
If you’ve taken paid time through a state- or business-funded program, what did it enable you to do? If you don’t have family leave, how has this impacted you and your loved ones? Let’s share our stories. Write to them, tweet them, send them to our legislators. Keep sharing and fighting until we commit to supporting healthy relationships in all families.