Open Letter: Moments Matter for Fathers, Too

By Shawndi Johnson| Dads Matter

The need to provide financially for a new family is the biggest roadblock when encouraging low-income or underserved fathers to take paternity leave after the birth or adoption of a child. I experienced that when I had my first child. I wanted to take time off to be with him but I hadn’t quite figured out our finances ahead of time. That didn’t mean I wasn’t there for him, but I was not in a financial position to take time off work and school during that first year with our son.

As fathers, the stereotype that many of us have to live up to is that of the provider. Not even Father’s Day provides a respite from that responsibility. As the program manager of Children’s Bureau’s “Dads Matter” in Orange County, I work with fathers and fathers-to-be on what responsible fatherhood looks like and how to plan ahead to fulfill and sustain the parenting role they envision for themselves.

We are fortunate here in California because fathers have access to California’s Paid Family Leave (PFL) program, which offers the highest wage replacement rate in the country. As of 2018, California PFL offers eligible Californians up to 70 percent of their pay during leave—an increase from the 55 percent the program previously offered.

For me, being a father had always been what I looked forward to in my adult life. When I was in high school and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always said “I want to be a father, I want to have a family.” Even with the knowledge that fatherhood was on the horizon, I didn’t know what was required of me and my family in planning for our second child, a daughter, and for parental leave to be with her.

Through working at Dads Matter, I have learned how important it is for dads to be involved with their kids from the beginning. When a father is present at the beginning of their child’s life, his rate of long-term involvement with that child increases. Moreover, the beginning of a child’s life through their second birthday involves more learning than any other period in a person’s life—and having a father present during this crucial developmental time is pivotal to a child’s potential for future developmental success.

That being said, a lack of basic financial literacy plagues underserved communities, along with extreme financial stress. Given the pressure men face to provide financially for a family, Children’s Bureau’s mission, which is to protect vulnerable children through prevention, treatment and advocacy, includes having healthy discussions about what it means to be an involved father and the financial responsibilities associated with it.

One of the aspects of California PFL that makes it more accessible for a wide-range of Californians is that the 6-weeks of benefits offered can be split up over a 12-month period. This is especially helpful for fathers who can only take a couple of weeks off from work at a time, or who find it useful to switch off taking care of a newborn with their spouse or family member.

Further, it is important to know PFL is not a government assistance program. The program’s benefits are paid for by California employees themselves through mandatory paycheck deductions that go into the State Disability Insurance program (noted as “CASDI” on paystubs), which means this is money fathers should take– because when it comes down to it, it is their money already.

Having children is the hardest job you will ever love, and it’s important to start thinking about your paid leave options ahead of time. I have learned more about myself through raising my kids than anything else I have ever done and I believe there is no substitute for time spent with them. I encourage every father to explore ways in which the PFL program can work for them — their future, their child’s future, and the future of our communities.

To learn more about California PFL, visit


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