What Parental Leave Means For Dads And Non-Birthing Partners – A Detailed Guide

If you’re trying to take leave to look after a new child, then the terminology can be pretty confusing – and some of it is incredibly important.

Maternity leave, paternity leave, and parental leave can be different things, which will affect dads and non-birthing partners quite significantly.

Parental leave is not a federally-mandated requirement for employers in the US, and many individual company policies can have their own definitions and qualifications for who is eligible.

This is even more complicated for LGBTQ+ parents who may not be considered birth mothers or birth fathers to their children.

Read ahead to find out what kind of parental leave options you might have as a father or a non-birthing partner, and what you need to be aware of when it comes to your rights.

Parental Leave Options In The United States

While companies have to offer at least 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, according to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), there is no legal requirement that paternity or parental leave is offered in the same way.

In fact, statistics show that more than 3 out of every 4 fathers in the US return to work less than one week after the birth of their child, and only 9% of companies offer any kind of paid paternity leave options at all.

When it comes to other non-birthing parents, the offerings can be even more limited.

One study found that gay fathers, for example, receive less parental leave globally than any other kind of parent.

Who Is Covered By FMLA Leave?

If you’re in the United States, the FMLA is the only legal option available in every single state for parental leave.

You can claim 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave within 12 months from the birth of a child or the placement of a child for adoption or foster care.

To be eligible, you do need to meet certain criteria, though. You have to:

  • Work for a company with at least 50 employees in your location.
  • Have been employed with that company for at least 12 months.
  • Have completed 1,250 hours of work for that company within the last year.

This means that, for most families, only the mother will be able to take any form of time off – and even then FMLA leave is not available for a significant proportion of new mothers.

Around 40% of women do not qualify for the FMLA, and only 39% can afford to take it.

Additional Legal Rights For Non-Birthing Parents

Individual states do offer wider parental leave options beyond the FMLA. This is often referred to as family or medical leave, and it may even be paid.

Some of the states that currently have laws in place that support family and medical leave include:

  • Rhode Island
  • New York
  • Washington
  • California
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey

The Federal Employee Paid Leave Act (FEPLA) provides additional rights for parents that work for the federal government, and it became law in October 2020.

Under this act, federal employees are offered 12 weeks of paid parental leave to care for a new child, whether that child is born to the family, adopted, or fostered.

What Does Parental Leave Mean For Dads And Non-Birthing Partners?

The legal system in the US essentially means that most parents are forced to rely on the leave of absence policies of the companies that they work for, and these can be quite restrictive.

The language that they use is particularly important, especially for parents that might not fit the strict definition of a birthing or adopting mother.

Parental leave (as opposed to paternity or maternity leave) is usually available to individuals who are taking parental responsibility for a child.

Depending on the policy, however, this may only apply to parents who are named on the child’s birth or adoption certificate, or who have a very specific relationship with the child’s mother.

Parental leave can apply to dads and non-birthing partners as well, but this is not always the case.

You should carefully examine the exact policy that is in place at your company, and speak to a legal professional if you are unsure about what your rights might be.

No matter what kind of parent you are, time off to be with a new child is incredibly important and can have a significant impact on the mental and physical health and well-being of both you and your child.

You don’t want to miss these other related posts on this subject:

Taking Parental Leave For LGBTQ+ Partners

For parents and partners who identify as members of the LGBTQ+ community, parental leave can be particularly complicated.

Some of the legal regulations and terminology can be very restrictive, and may not apply to parents of every gender, relationship status, and/or sexual identity.

It is really important that you familiarise yourself with your rights as a parental figure, in regard to both state laws and your company’s leave of absence policy.

FMLA leave may well not be available to you and parental leave might not apply to your situation, so you may need to look into other options, like vacation days.

Summary: What Parental Means For Dads And Non-Birthing Partners

So, what does “parental” mean for fathers and non-birthing partners when it comes to taking a leave of absence from work? Unfortunately, it depends.

Usually, it applies to anyone who is taking parental responsibility for a child, but whether or not fathers and non-birthing parents qualify can be restricted by the language in a policy.

There is no federal law that requires companies to offer any kind of parental leave for dads or non-birthing partners in the US, so it is often dictated by individual company policy and state or local law. 


Is paternity leave and parental leave the same thing?

Paternity leave and parental leave can be the same thing, depending on the specific leave of absence policy that an employer has in place, or the laws of a country.

Parental leave is usually more inclusive but, in many instances, partners can take paternity leave regardless of their gender identity.

Do fathers get paid paternity leave?

There is no federally-mandated paid parental leave of any kind in the US.

Some companies do offer paid paternity leave, but it is rare – with some studies suggesting that less than 10% of employers allow for any kind of paid parental leave for male employees.

What is the typical length of paternity leave?

In the US, most fathers take an average of one week of paternity leave, although the average is much higher in other countries.

Japan offers 30 weeks fully paid and 52 weeks in total, and South Korea offers 15 weeks fully paid and 52 weeks in total.

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