While Serena Williams was practicing her powerhouse serve for her next US Open match, her husband and Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian ran the court on stage Wednesday morning in Boston.
A few hundred people gathered to see him at Inbound, a marketing and ideas conference underway in the Seaport this week. But he didn’t come to talk tech or the self-described “front page of the Internet” he helped create out of a Medford apartment almost 15 years ago.
He came to chip away at corporate values undermining the importance of paid family leave. It’s not just a mom thing. More specifically, he wants Americans to rethink how we define fatherhood.
Dads should not be boxed into the pay bills box. We can’t keep portraying them on TV and film as emotionally cold but funny, masculine, and overworked.
His father, he said, only took one day off work when he was born — a vacation day, because fatherhood is defined as providing, not presence, in our country.
Companies don’t always offer paternity. There’s a stigma surrounding dads and their duties.
Fatherhood, Ohanian believes, should be embraced as actively spending time with your family.
“It’s not babysitting if I’m taking care of my daughter,” he said. “It’s dadding. It’s parenting.”
For this reason, one of Ohanian’s favorite subreddit communities is Dad Reflexes. Basically, it’s a collection of GIFs and videos of dads catching their kids before they fall off sofas or hurt themselves.
The posts range from funny and terrifying to tender and sweet everyday moments of dads and their children.
It’s not newsworthy. It’s normalization. And Ohanian believes we need more dads on social media sharing the little things, the wins and fails and love of fatherhood with the world to see dadding as more than monetary and masculinity.
In another Inbound discussion less than an hour later, “Educated” author Tara Westover, a 2010 visiting Harvard fellow, echoed the sentiment.
“I don’t know that we know what the costs are to the really rigid gender roles we enforce and how damaging it has been for generations of people to have an absent father,” Westover shared on stage. “A friend said that in a lot of ways the concept of a good father has only been around for about 30 years. We don’t know what it would be like if we took fatherhood as seriously as motherhood.”
One of the strongest ways we can do that, Ohanian believes, is by fighting for paid family leave for all parents, not just moms. Workplace culture must take family life seriously.
He’s not just talk. He said as a white man with power he’s using his platform to create change.
For as sexist and racist as tech bro culture can be, and Reddit and Facebook are no exception, the two tech giants have been offering four months of leave for all parents for years now. The policy wasn’t Ohanian’s idea. But he signed off on it.
Google, Amazon, Netflix, and Pinterest all have generous policies in place. Tech companies, he says, have taken the lead on this issue.
Average maternity leave in the US is 10-12 weeks. In America, Ohanian pointed out, nearly 1 in 4 women return to work within two weeks of childbirth. We’re not even talking 14 days. According to PL+US: Paid Leave for the United States , a non-profit advocating for paid family leave, a quarter of new moms return to their jobs in 10 days. The United States of Family Values America doesn’t even have a federal mandate on family leave.
“For a country that prioritizes and prides itself on things like family values, this feels unconscionable. When you think about the fact that a woman who had a C-section, who is still bearing the wound, could be waiting your table or taking a meeting, it feels wrong,” he said.
When he and Williams went through their 2017 pregnancy complications, an emergency C-section, pulmonary embolism, and a hematoma showed him how real the struggle can be for new parents. And they had privilege.
“My wife nearly died in that process, and in the weeks that followed, there was no place I was going to be other than with her and our daughter,” he told the crowd. “With all of our wealth, with all of our support, and even with the fact that I co-signed the policy and could take time and not have to worry about my job, it was still an incredibly traumatic time for our family. I cannot imagine anyone in our country going through that same thing without the minimal guarantee that they would have a job to come back to.”
Ohanian said he is set to have conversations with lawmakers on the left and the right to help ensure America joins the rest of the industrialized world in passing a national family leave bill.
Have the conversations not just with your local representatives, but with co-workers and friends, he encouraged. And fathers, he says, have to take family leave when offered.
“Dads have to take advantage as much as women,” he said. “This will destigmatize a lot of women in the workforce. If everyone takes time off when they have a kid, it is no longer a liability to have a uterus.”
Time off should not hurt your career. Family leave should not be an indicator of a lack of ambition.
Ohanian is a father at home and in the office. He co-founded Reddit and is dad to Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. And he won’t admit it, but he and Williams post pictures of his daughter’s doll Qai Qai on Instagram.
“Normalization matters,” he said. “We are a community that is driven so much by the meme, the ideas, the mind viruses that spread.”
And it’s the little things, like seeing a dad braid his daughter’s hair or sing to his son, seeing the late nights and early mornings together, that remind us what family values really mean.