Alexis Ohanian has recalled the horror of watching his wife Serena Williams fight for her life after she suffered near-fatal birth complications, as he continues to advocate for paid paternity leave.
In an op-ed for the New York Times, the 36-year-old Reddit co-founder and venture investor reflected on the four months he spent at home caring for his family after his tennis star wife almost died giving birth to their daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. in September 2017.
‘Serena spent days in recovery fighting for her life against pulmonary embolisms. When we came home with our baby girl, Serena had a hole in her abdomen that needed bandage changes daily. She was on medication. She couldn’t walk,’ he wrote of her emergency C-section.
‘Serena and I were lucky enough to have help at home and many other advantages working in our favor,’ he added. ‘But even with all of that privilege, including my ability to focus solely on my family and not worry about keeping my job, it was still incredibly difficult.’
Alexis explained that he couldn’t imagine how he would have navigated such a difficult time in his life if he also had to worry about his job.
‘Nothing could have dragged me away from my wife and daughter in those hours, days and weeks — and I’m grateful that I was never forced to choose between my family and my job,’ he said.
Alexis took sixteen weeks of paid paternity leave, the policy at Reddit, but he admitted that he had nothing to do with the amount of time he was allotted, which is more than most mothers get in the United States.
‘Before Olympia was born, I had never thought much about paternity leave and, to be honest, Reddit’s company policy was not my idea,’ he said. ‘Our vice president of people and culture, Katelin Holloway, brought it up to me in a meeting and it sounded O.K., so why not?’
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 (FMLA) requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave annually for mothers of newborn or newly adopted children if they work for a company with 50 or more employees — but many people can’t afford to take that much time off without a paycheck.
Nearly one in four employed women giving birth in the United States is back at work within two weeks.
Alexis noted that the U.S. is the only industrialized country that doesn’t mandate some form of paid family leave, and only nine per cent of work sites in the country offer paid paternity leave to all male employees.
The entrepreneur also stressed that the stigma surrounding paternity leave prevents many new fathers from taking their allotted time off out of fear their absence will negatively impact their careers.
However, Alexis insisted that ‘taking leave pays off’ in more ways than one. He explained that spending quality time with Olympia as a newborn gave him confidence as a father.
‘As an only child with no cousins, I didn’t grow up around babies; in fact, I had never held one until my daughter was born,’ he said.
‘At first, holding her terrified me. I am a giant and she’s so tiny … What if I break her? I didn’t — which was encouraging — and then I learned how to calm her crying, rock her to sleep and handle her toddler years with grace.’
The father of one said taking four months off also helped him navigate sharing parental responsibilities with Serena.
‘Two years later, there is no stigma in our house about me changing diapers, feeding Olympia, doing her hair or anything else I might need to do in a pinch,’ he said.
Alexis stressed that the U.S. needs ‘a federal bill that mandates quality paid family leave for everyone,’ saying the time he spends with Olympia is ‘of the utmost importance’ to him.
The proud dad couldn’t help but gush about taking her to the aquarium because ‘she’s really into fish right now’ and hanging out at home with her and her Instagram-famous doll Qai Qai, who has more than 134,000 followers.
‘The understanding of my responsibility to care for my family that I gained during those first months after Olympia’s birth has never left me, and it gives purpose to my fatherhood today,’ he wrote.