(Kveller via JTA) — I was home, caring for my 4-pound preemie daughter, sick wife and two sons when I got the crushing message from work. Time Warner, parent company of CNN, was refusing me the 10 paid weeks of caregiving leave that others got.
I knew immediately how painful the news would be to my family and that I’d never be able to get back the time I’d lose with my newborn daughter. I also knew it was discrimination and that I wouldn’t give up without a fight.
Under Time Warner’s policy, anyone could get 10 paid weeks to care for a new child — except a man who impregnated the child’s mother. If some other guy at Time Warner adopted my daughter, he could get 10 paid weeks with her. If we had used a surrogate, I could get 10 paid weeks. An employee could get 10 paid weeks to care for a baby his or her same-sex partner adopted, even if the employee did not co-adopt the child. But a man like me could only get two weeks under the policy — even if, heaven forbid, his wife died in childbirth.
The company couldn’t wrap its mind around the idea that a man in a traditional set-up could be a caregiver.
My wife and I had determined that I would be needed at home after our daughter’s birth. So I asked for the benefit months before our daughter was due. I was given no answer. I kept checking in, to no avail. Then, our baby girl was born in an emergency due to severe symptoms from pre-eclampsia. Eleven days later, when I said I had to know, the answer came from work.
My attorney and I discussed our options. I could file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission because this was illegal gender discrimination. Your employer isn’t allowed to fire you for filing an EEOC claim, but — my lawyer warned me — it might anyway.
I didn’t hesitate. After we filed, I announced the move on Tumblr. The response was incredible — an instant outpouring of support from all over the country.
As I travel now, speaking about my new book “All In“ — a look at the network of outdated laws, policies and stigmas in the American workplace — I’m often asked why I didn’t hesitate. “Weren’t you scared?”
Not really, I tell people. I knew it was the right thing to do, not just for me and my family, but for all the other dads and their families who were also hurt by this nonsensical policy. I explain that when I graduated from college, I promised myself that I’d always do what was right and not let worries about mortgage and health insurance stop me. This was a moment to show myself that I was who I said I’d be.
But there’s also more to it. For me, this way of thinking is fueled by Judaism.
It’s something I explain in the book when discussing why I keep kosher. Every time I eat, part of my mind reconnects with the past. I force myself to remember the generations that paved the way to the world I live in today. Their sacrifices, struggles, hard work and successes are unimaginable to many of us. We owe it to the generations to build on what they achieved and keep moving forward. We have to keep making things better. And that means working — in the smartest ways we can — to stop injustices when we see them. Anything less would be taking our ancestors’ sacrifices for granted. I once talked about this in a Yom Kippur sermon (which took place in a church, so I actually have a recording).
It boils down to: If I’m not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?
This is true also in remembering and appreciating the sacrifices of generations of Americans who built this nation. And when it comes to religion, this way of thinking isn’t limited to Judaism. Draw the right lessons from any major religion and you can find this guidance. For “All In,” I interviewed dads who are leaders within Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism. I found incredible unity in their messages about the best way to live, make good decisions and find spiritual peace.
In this case, my bet paid off. Time Warner revolutionized its policy, making it much better — increasing the time given to dads like me and to moms after giving birth as well. Other companies took notice and have begun to update their policies. Dads across the country began calling a legal hotline to report their similar struggles. There’s now a revolution under way; dads are ready to join hands with moms in the fight for real equality. That’s what “All In” is all about. (Read the first chapter here.)
It’s up to us to fix the backward structures preventing us from achieving equality — the laws, policies and stigmas holding us back. If we don’t, our kids won’t have equal opportunities. My daughter will be pushed to stay home. My sons will be pushed to stay at work. Their choices will be taken away.
We need a national paid family leave policy, which would give men and women the chance to care for loved ones, including newborn children, while helping businesses thrive. And we need to wake up corporate leaders to the realities of modern American families so they can create policies that make sense.
It’s incumbent on us to make this happen. To me, it seems like a mitzvah.
Some people think it’s impossible. But I know from experience that we can get this done. It’s nothing compared to what our ancestors achieved in paving the road we walk on. We can do this. As long as we’re All In.
(Josh Levs is an investigative journalist and expert on modern fatherhood whose new book. “All In: How Our Work-First Culture Fails Dads, Families, and Businesses — And How We Can Fix It Together” was published by HarperOne in May. He has spent years reporting for CNN.)