Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more.

Rep. Colin Allred for Voices
Credit: Amandamarie of Electric Feels Studio

Rep. Colin Allred, the congressman in Texas' 32nd District, is a former linebacker for the Tennessee Titans who is tackling his biggest challenge yet: Bringing attention to what he says are the United States' inadequate parental leave policies. (The United States is the only one of 41 "peer" countries with no paid parental leave.) Allred, who was elected in 2018, became the first member of Congress to officially take paternity leave when he and wife Aly Eber welcomed their son Jordan in February 2019. When son Cameron was born in March 2021, Allred took an even longer leave — a full month. He then went on CBS This Morning with his newborn baby to make the case that paid leave for parents, including fathers, is important for healthy families and a healthy economy, and that men's voices in this fight are crucial to achieve gender parity. Allred's upbringing, background in sports and ability to effect change all have had an impact on why including 12 weeks of paid family leave in the American Families Plan is so important to him. These are his words, as told to PEOPLE.

I was raised by a single mom who was a public school teacher. There were times when she had to take me to school when I was sick, because she had no other choice for childcare.

For us, growing up, it was a struggle. I spent a lot of time at the YMCA; I had a lot of coaches and teachers who took me in, a lot of friends and family, just because my mom was teaching during the day. And often at night, she had another job — she was working hard, trying to own a home and raise a child by herself.

I've thought about that all my life: The decisions that working parents are having to make, around balancing childcare and providing. Most American families, just to pay the bills, to have any kind of savings at all, to even imagine being able to pay for college, both parents have to be in the workforce, and working full-time, and sometimes more than one job.

I don't think that many policymakers, lawmakers of any level have that same experience. It's pretty uncommon to come from that kind of background, in some of these positions that I'm in. And that doesn't mean that they don't have empathy, but I do think that there's a fundamental disconnect between the economy writ large and what's actually happening in most American families. We need to have some policies that reflect that.

When I was in the NFL, it was a big deal if you missed the game for the delivery of your child. I remember seeing stories about guys who made this big sacrifice to be there for it. But then of course, there was no leave after that to be there for the really important, critical early days.

The expectation in the NFL, even more so than other workplaces, is that your partner is going to be responsible for the family life. You're going to be 100% committed to the football. And it was this cultural idea: The woman had the baby, so she's the one who needs to recover, have that time with the baby.

But that's not true. All of the social science has told us that men need time with their children, too, and that children benefit from the father being there in those early days. It even increases gender equity in the home when the father is able to be there as well. It's overwhelmingly beneficial to have some time for men to be with their children.

But we have to break down the social stigma associated with that, and if a former NFL linebacker talking about paternity leave can help crack that a little bit, then that would be a good thing, because it's not about masculinity. It's about what's best for your family.

Collin Allred and his sons
Credit: Collin Allred

In the NFL and at my law firm, I saw people not taking leave or working through their leave. Once my wife and I found out that we were pregnant during my congressional campaign, I knew, as someone who did not know my father growing up, that I was going to be as involved as I possibly could be, and that I was going to spend as much time as I possibly could with my kid — and that meant from the beginning.

I started talking to myself about how we could make a statement about this, to try to be a part of a positive story in terms of men taking leave. And I became the first member of Congress to take paternity leave. I had to miss votes. I only took only two weeks, which wasn't enough for me, and it wasn't enough for my wife. But it was part of setting that culture, and now parental leave has become an even bigger discussion point.

Having had a longer leave [and extended time at home due to the pandemic] with Cameron, I've been able to see how quickly babies go from being a newborn to being their own little people. And it's been great to see my 2-year-old interacting with his little brother. Being there for all of that is special.

Raising two sons, I feel like I'm trying to deprogram them a little bit from what I know is going to be coming in terms of gender expectations and masculinity. My boys are probably going to be pretty big; they already are. There's a certain set of expectations and a culture that comes along with when you're a big, athletic guy.

I don't want them to become a part of that; I want them to be their own people. I want them to understand that gender equity doesn't mean that they have any less rights or any less capacity to chase whatever their dreams are, but it just means that women are every bit as equal, every bit as deserving of a chance to chase theirs as well. I think that we're trying to model that, and trying to get ahead of a culture that we know is going to increasingly seep into our little bubble as they get older.

I've thought a lot about what being a "good father" is, and I think number one, it is setting an example. There's just no substitute for time spent, for being there whenever your kid needs that input, needs that feedback.

I don't think that there's any special sauce to being the greatest dad in the world. I don't think it's that you're the head coach of the little league baseball team, or that you do all the homework every night. I think it comes in many different flavors. But I think the one consistent factor has to be that you're there as much as you possibly can be, and that your kids know that if they need you, you'll be there as well.

Taking the leave been good for us as a family. And I think it will make me a better member of Congress. I think it will allow me to serve my constituents better for having had that time and that understanding. And the reaction [to me taking leave] has been universally positive. We've all been in each other's living rooms [on Zoom] for a year — we're ready to talk about our home lives!

In the NFL, we have a 100% injury rate, which just means that every single player in the NFL at some point is going to get injured. And it's also true that in life we have 100% chance that something's going to happen, where you're going to need a little bit of time off from work.

Sometimes it's kids, or a sick family member, or something in your own life that you just need a little bit of time for, but this happens to everyone. There's productivity hits for our economy that we're really not talking about, by not acknowledging the reality that everyone's going to need a little bit of a break at times, you know? And so, that's what I think we're just trying to do right now through the American Families Plan, is acknowledge the reality that I think Americans have already arrived at.

Voices for Change is PEOPLE's editorial series committed to elevating and amplifying the stories of celebrities and everyday people alike who are dedicated to making change and uplifting others in the fight for racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, climate action and more.