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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

You may have seen a recent picture of NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh in a classic new-parent pose, holding his infant daughter while also trying to sneak a peek at his laptop. Unfortunately, this nice moment of paternal devotion has been upstaged by a rocking chair.

The $1,895 rocking chair was a gift to Mr. Singh’s wife, and he landed in hot water when he tagged the chair-maker in an Instagram post. He’s now said the couple is repaying the cost of the chair, and the NDP is working with the ethics commissioner on a disclosure.

The photo has caused quite a flap. If you travel down the devil’s highway that is Twitter, you’ll see a certain amount of fury directed at Mr. Singh and his fancy rocker. I understand the anger: It was a dumb and possibly unethical move. But really I’m just sad, because this was an opportunity for a progressive politician to take a stand on something that is hugely important, which is the need for new dads to loudly and proudly take advantage of paid parental leave.

When Mr. Singh’s daughter was born earlier this month, the NDP said that he was “planning to take some time off to spend time with his wife and new baby.” When I called the NDP this week to see if Mr. Singh was on paternity leave, the party seemed to be backing away from the “P word,” perhaps feeling burned by the chair fire. “We’re working as a team to lighten his responsibilities so that he can spend some time with his wife and baby,’’ said a spokesperson, who added, when I prodded about paternity leave: “If you call it paternity leave it implies he’s away more than he is.’’

I wish the NDP would just throw caution to the wind and own this issue, since the party campaigned on better child care and more flexible parental leave. Something along the lines of, “Hell yes, he’s taking paternity leave, because the NDP believes in the health of families, and research shows that fathers who take leave have closer bonds with their kids, and also help women’s participation in the labour market.” (This may be further evidence that I’ll never be employed in politics.)

The stigma around fathers’ leave is one of the main reasons more men don’t take it. More than 90 per cent of fathers in Quebec take advantage of parental leave, but in the rest of Canada, where the compensation is less generous, less than a quarter do. In 2019, the federal government provided five weeks of leave solely meant for dads, but in the same year a poll showed that half of Canadian men worried that taking leave would negatively impact them at work, and three-quarters said it would hurt them financially.

South of the border, where everything is supersized, including idiocy, paternity leave is now just more ammunition in the culture war. Every time a professional athlete misses a game because he’s looking after his kids, it makes headlines. When the U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg took four weeks of leave to care for the new twins he and his husband adopted, the backlash was both sexist and homophobic.

Mr. Buttigieg responded to the criticism calmly (it takes a lot to faze a parent who’s ridden the whirlwind of baby twins): “The big thing is having a newly personal appreciation for the fact that this is work,” he told The New York Times. “It may be time away from a professional role, but it’s very much time on.”

I think everyone who’s spent hours pulling mashed peas out of their hair will agree with Mr. Buttigieg’s assessment. The early days of parenthood, alternating between sleep deprivation and panic, are not for those with quaking hearts. Maybe that’s why more men don’t want to do it. You have to be tough to take on those babies.

American parental leave is almost absurdly dismal, and the Biden Build Back Better plan, with its original proposal of 12 weeks paid family leave, has been stalled and watered down to four weeks.. As a result, it’s been left to forward-thinking corporations and courageous men like Serena Williams’s husband Alexis Ohanian to fight for paternity leave. “There’s no such thing as work and life being separate,” said Mr. Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit and father of Olympia. “Paid leave can pay dividends for years and years and years to come.”

There’s all kinds of evidence that this is true. Men who take paternity leave have closer bonds with their kids and a lower chance of divorcing their spouse. Paid leave taken by both parents increases women’s participation in the work force.

Just listen to those pioneers in Scandinavia, where “daddy quotas” – parental leave meant to be taken only by the father – have been the norm since the 1990s. According to a report from the Nordic Council of Ministers, fathers who take leave “do more household work and domestic chores, communicate better with their partners about the needs of their children and have a better understanding of their children and partners’ daily life. Studies from all over the world, including Denmark, also show that involved fatherhood improves their health status.”

When you think about the kind of father you want for your kids, you’d probably hope for somebody who’s brave, self-assured, loving and concerned about the well-being of others. In other words, the kind of guy who takes paternity leave.

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