Got paternity leave? Men value it, but are conflicted by it

Lance Stewart with his wife Jamie, daughters Abbi, 5, Brooklyn, 3 and son Connor, 1, June 8, 2014 in League City, TX at their home.
Eric Kayne | NBC

Most dads think a man should get respect for taking a few days off after his child is born. Many also think the operative phrase there is "a few days," a new TODAY survey shows.

Researchers say Americans' conflicted views over paternity leave are a potent symbol of how tough it is to figure out what it means to be a good man, and a good dad, these days. That became evident two months ago, when New York Mets' player Daniel Murphy sparked a national debate by taking a few days of paternity leave.

"The definition of what is a real man is really very much still in flux," said Brad Harrington, executive director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family.

Harrington's new research, also released Monday, finds that most professional men place an incredible value on paternity leave. Nearly all—99 percent of the approximately 1,000 well-educated, white-collar dads the center studied—said companies should offer paid paternity leave.

Also, 60 percent of the dads, who all had at least one child under age 18, said paternity leave is a very or extremely important consideration when evaluating a new employer.

And yet, the Boston College study also showed that many of these professional men are wary of giving up their breadwinning duties to be home with their partner and child. About half said they would require to be paid in full to take their paternity leave.

Harrington said that shows that many families simply can't afford to have both mom and dad take time off to be parents without bringing in a paycheck. He noted that the United States is an outlier among both developed and developing countries in not offering paid maternity leave for new moms.

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It's also further proof that dads are caught between their aspirations to share child care duties and their responsibility to provide financially.

"I think we're in a state of transition," he said. "We're clearly moving toward a much more engaged father—much more hands-on, much more likely to aspire to a shared caregiving … but we aren't there yet," he said.

'I needed to be there for my family'

Lance Stewart, 37, is all too familiar with the conflicting duties of being a dad, husband and breadwinner.

A few years ago, his family was pushed to the brink of financial ruin when he was forced to quit his job after his wife suffered such severe postpartum depression that she had to be hospitalized.

"I just left the job that I loved because I needed to be there for my family," he said.

Stewart, had taken 10 days of vacation from his job in the IT industry following the birth of his second child. His wife, Jamie, needed gallbladder surgery directly after the birth, and complications left her with a difficult recovery.

Dads struggle to shake 'Mr. Mom' syndrome

Meanwhile, Stewart had to return to work because he didn't have any more paid leave, and his job required him to travel for up to six days at a time.

One day, Jamie said she called Lance at work.

"I said, 'You have to come home. You have to take me to the hospital," she said. "I was extremely suicidal at the time. I was really scared."

It took about a year for Jamie to get healthy again, and Lance said he wasn't able to keep his job and attend to the needs of his family. He took a job that paid less and didn't require any travel, but his hours were soon cut to almost nothing. The family ended up selling their possessions to stay afloat.

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Lance Stewart with his wife Jamie, daughters Abbi, 5, Brooklyn, 3 and son Connor, 1, June 8, 2014 in League City, TX at their home.
Eric Kayne | NBC

Lance recently returned to the company he left when his wife got sick, and he is once again traveling up to six days a week. Jamie, 32, is doing well and is a stay-at-home mom to the couple's three children in League City, Texas.

Lance doesn't blame his employer for not having been able to give him more paid paternity leave during the family's dark period, because he said the small company just didn't have the resources to do so.

But, he said, if he had been able to take a longer paid paternity leave, it might have helped prevent the cascade of problems.

"That would have made the world of difference. I wouldn't have to have left the secure, stable job that was taking care of us," Lance said. "I could have taken care of my family and have the security of knowing that I had a job to come back to."

Stewart's case is extreme, but experts say that most dads don't have the luxury of taking very much time off after the birth of a child, and many appear conflicted about what the right balance is.

Lance Stewart with his son Connor, 1, June 8, 2014 in League City, TX at their home
Eric Kayne | NBC

The TODAY survey, which included about 900 dads with kids under age 18, found that 70 percent of dads thought men should be respected for taking a paternity leave, but 37 percent of the same dads surveyed also said a man should be respected for going right back to work.

Read MoreStay-at-home dads struggle to shake Mr. Mom image

The survey also found that 68 percent of dads who took paternity leave took two weeks or less, and most dads surveyed thought that amount of time was appropriate.

Harrington noted that most dads don't likely have much of a choice – very few dads have paid paternity leave.

"The idea that we're one major health issue from potentially ruining a family's situation is very real," Harrington said.