Fathers Wanted Fewer Kids After They Got Paternity Leave, Study Shows

father, with baby
Stock photo: What effects did the introduction of paternity leave in Spain have on fathers' desire to have more children? iStock

In 2007, the Spanish government introduced a policy that gave most new fathers the opportunity to take two weeks of paternity leave with full pay. Now, more than a decade later, two economists have looked into the potential consequences of the original program—which saw significant uptake and has been expanded upon in subsequent years.

For a study published in the Journal of Public Economics, Lídia Farré from the University of Barcelona and Libertad González of Pompeu Fabra University investigated families who had children before and shortly after the paternity leave policy was instituted. And their findings are certainly intriguing.

"We wanted to understand the effects of the introduction of paternity leave in Spain," González told Newsweek. "At first we were mostly interested in the labor market outcomes of the affected fathers and mothers. Paternity leave extensions usually have an explicit goal to promote gender equality in the labor market, so we wanted to test any potential effects in that direction in the Spanish case."

The economists found that, in one sense, the policy seemingly achieved what it was supposed to: Participation in the work force was about the same for the men who took part in the plan compared with those who didn't, and the fathers also became more involved in child care when they returned to their jobs. Furthermore, the partners of these men were also more likely to stay in the work force.

But more surprisingly, the researchers found that following the introduction of the policy, parents who were just entitled to the new leave waited longer to have another child, and eligible couples were also less likely to have another child within the next six years.

"We first submitted the research article with a focus on the labor market effects," González said. "We found no impact on labor market outcomes for eligible fathers, while mothers in affected households started working earlier after giving birth, leading to higher earnings. We also found that fathers increased their childcare time persistently, even three years after the birth of the child."

"The journal, however, was more interested in a side finding: we found that eligible couples took longer to have another child," she said. "This finding was surprising. The policy change was meant to make things easier for families with children, so if anything, we would have expected it to increase fertility, not decrease it. The policy 'succeeded' in promoting gender equality at home and in the labor market, but with an unexpected side effect. Governments should not expect that introducing or increasing paternity leave should necessarily lead to more children."

While the researchers did not investigate the possible reasons behind these trends, they did suggest an explanation: Farré and González argue that becoming more involved in child care—or even just becoming more aware of the efforts and costs involved—could have tempered the desire to have more children among men.

"Fathers' increasing involvement in child care led to higher labor force attachment among mothers," the authors wrote in the study. "This may have raised the opportunity cost of an additional child. We also find that men reported lower desired fertility after the reform, possibly due to their increased awareness of the costs of childrearing, or to a shift in preferences from child quantity to quality."

On the other hand, the researchers said that women actually began to show an increased desire for slightly larger families—potentially as a result of the fact that their male partners were taking on more of the child care responsibility.

Intriguing as they were, the study's results had limitations, which the authors clarified. Just because the researchers identified these trends didn't mean the introduction of the paternity leave necessarily caused them.

For example, several other factors that the researchers didn't look into—such as the global financial crisis, which took a huge toll on Spain from 2008 onward—could have also influenced the men's desire to have children.

"It's just one data point, one specific country and one specific policy change—introducing a few weeks of paternity leave from a baseline of zero—so it should just open the door for further research in other countries and further extensions of paternity leave," González said.

Furthermore, as David Evans—an economist from the Center for Global Development—pointed out, conditions that are unique to Spain may prevent us from drawing broad conclusions from the results of the study.

"There are a couple of reasons that I'd be hesitant to believe that these same impacts would apply elsewhere," Evans told Quartz. "In Spain, almost no men were taking paternity leave before the policy, and that jumped to more than half of men after the reform. At the same time, men in Spain wanted more children than women did. That wasn't the case in a number of other European countries."

This article was updated to include additional comments from Libertad González.