Serena Williams’ Husband Pens Powerful Letter on Why Paternity Leave Matters

“When we came home with our baby girl, Serena had a hole in her abdomen that needed bandage changes daily. She was on medication. She couldn’t walk.”
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ByStephanie Grassullo
Associate Editor
Published
Aug 2019
alex ohanian holding toddler daughter
Photo: Paul Kane / Getty Images

Let’s be clear: Parental leave in the US needs lots of work all around. Many moms are barely granted the time they need to adjust, and for dads the grace period can be even more stark. Now more than ever, the topic has been the focus of much debate, and Alexis Ohanian is just one of the advocates leading the charge. The dad was featured in an op-ed piece for New York Times where he discusses how paternity leave proved invaluable for him and his family, but acknowledges that unfortunately, it’s a privilege not many are privy to.

Ohanian and Serena Williams welcomed their daughter, Olympia, in September 2017. Following her arrival, the dad, who co-founded Reddit, was granted 16 weeks of paid paternity leave, which was the company’s policy. Though, he points out, he can’t be credited for its generous leave.

“Before Olympia was born, I had never thought much about paternity leave and, to be honest, Reddit’s company policy was not my idea. Our vice president of people and culture, Katelin Holloway, brought it up to me in a meeting and it sounded okay, so why not,” he admits.

But like all new parents, once he had a child of his own in the picture, everything changed. After a near-fatal pregnancy where their daughter’s heart rate dropped dramatically during contractions, Williams was forced to undergo an emergency c-section. After her life-threatening experience, it was clear to Ohanian that his paternity leave was not only generous, but necessary. “Serena spent days in recovery fighting for her life against pulmonary embolisms. When we came home with our baby girl, Serena had a hole in her abdomen that needed bandage changes daily. She was on medication. She couldn’t walk,” he recounts in the New York Times piece.

“But even with all of that privilege, including my ability to focus solely on my family and not worry about keeping my job, it was still incredibly difficult. Nothing could have dragged me away from my wife and daughter in those hours, days and weeks—and I’m grateful that I was never forced to choose between my family and my job.”

Ohanian is one of the lucky few, because the truth is, so many partners are forced to make that difficult choice. Under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, eligible workers—including non-birth partners—are entitled to 12 weeks of unpaid time off from work following a birth or adoption, although not everyone qualifies for this. And when it comes to paid time off, how much time and how much money you get is entirely up to your employer. According to the Families and Work Institute, about one in five employers barely offer any paid paternity leave. In fact, only 17 percent of US workers have any access to paid parental leave.

“I don’t blame my dad, or anybody else’s dad, for not taking time off after a child’s birth. Our culture makes it difficult,” Ohananian writes. “The United States is the only industrialized country that doesn’t mandate some form of paid family leave. But even in countries that provide parental leave for fathers, a study conducted by Promundo, an international nonprofit, found that fewer than half of new dads take advantage of the full benefit—though the same study found that most dads want more time at home in those first months after a child’s birth."

Part of the issue, he says, is the stigma we can’t seem to shake.

“Men are conditioned to be breadwinners, exclusively—and another mouth to feed calls for more bread on the table…so off to work we go. Our sense of duty is often fear-based: Men assume their bosses will frown on paternity leave, so we don’t dare to go there,” the dad writes. “I get that not every father has the flexibility to take leave without the fear that doing so could negatively impact his career. But my message to these guys is simple: Taking leave pays off, and it’s continued to pay dividends for me two years later.”

During the dad’s time off from work, he was not only able to be there for his recovering wife, but it allowed for a unique bonding period with his newborn that he wouldn’t have otherwise had the opportunity to experience. “Spending a big chunk of time with Olympia when she was a newborn gave me confidence that I could figure this whole parenting thing out. As an only child with no cousins, I didn’t grow up around babies; in fact, I had never held one until my daughter was born,” he admits.

Plus, there’s never any question about shared parenting roles in their home. It’s a given. “Two years later, there is no stigma in our house about me changing diapers, feeding Olympia, doing her hair or anything else I might need to do in a pinch,” he says. “They’re all just dad things ( not ‘babysitter’ things—I hate it when people refer to dads spending time with their kids as babysitting).”

As time rolls on, we can only hope more employers expand their paid paternity leave options. Because, as Ohanian points out, “I took my full 16 weeks and I’m still ambitious and care about my career. Talk to your bosses and tell them I sent you.”

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