Daddy’s home: ‘Why on earth did I take shared parental leave?’
Last December, while the rest of my office was settling into its Christmas lunch, I was singing “Wind the Bobbin Up”. Instead of an afternoon of drunken shouting I was sitting with a circle of new mums at a music group in our local community centre belting out an irritating song to a room of babies who have no clue about bobbins, or any other part of the textile industry. I know I was meant to be enjoying the moment, but in truth I was wondering why on earth I’d taken shared parental leave (SPL) following the birth of my second daughter, Nina, in September.
SPL was introduced in April 2015 as a way to give fathers more time to bond with their babies, and to ease expectations on mothers. Instead of the traditional 52 weeks of maternity leave and two weeks of paternity leave, new parents could now share up to 50 weeks between them. “More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children, but too many feel that they can’t,” said the then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, introducing the scheme. “That’s an Edwardian system that has no place in 21st-century Britain.” SPL, already the norm in Nordic countries, was billed as an unequivocal step towards gender equality.
A year on, it isn’t working. The government won’t evaluate the policy until 2018, but a study by the employee benefits organisation My Family Care found that just 2% of companies have seen a significant uptake of SPL. Financial considerations, cultural restraints and a lack of awareness have all been blamed. I was the first man in my company to take SPL. I’m still the only man in my company to have taken it.
I don’t think that makes me a better dad than anyone else. I certainly didn’t have feminist motivations for taking time off work. I figured I could be paid to come into the office. Or I could be paid to stay at home. Also, my wife Alice and I aren’t planning any more children: this opportunity won’t come along again. I’m lucky, I work for a progressive employer. The majority of HR directors interviewed by My Family Care said that taking leave could be “frowned upon or career limiting”, but I never felt this. Though my HR department struggled with the logistics (the paperwork is complicated) they were encouraging and helpful.
We elected to share Nina’s first three months, with Alice taking a further six months off once I returned to work in January.
This was mainly for financial reasons. I would only get my full salary if I used my SPL during the first 12 weeks, but Nina’s birth coincided with our first daughter, Robin, starting school (fantastic parental planning there – we really blew the kid’s world apart) so I could be there for her, too. Shared parental leave can, however, be split in any number of ways: parents can take it in turns, or be off for 25 weeks together, while earning 37 weeks of statutory pay between them, or 90% of earnings, whichever is lower.
AS A NATION our attitudes to family life have changed. Mothers have been the driving force of social change across the last 60 years, moving in unprecedented numbers into paid work as the cost of living increases. Fathers spend more time with their children than their fathers did, and more than their fathers did before them. “There’s been a huge shift, even in the last 10 years,” says Jeremy Davies of think tank the Fatherhood Institute. “In 2012 the percentage of British people who believed in what you’d call a ‘traditional model’, where the dad is the breadwinner and the mum is a carer, was only 35%. If you look at the youngest people, the 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed, it’s just 5%.”
But these attitudes have yet to translate into realities. This month a report found that women still take on more than two-thirds of the childcare duties in the UK and do nearly four weeks a year more unpaid work in the home than men. Ireland was the most unequal of the 37 countries studied by the Overseas Development Institute, with men doing just 7% of childcare, less than in Iraq. A recent article in Harvard Business Review, based on interviews conducted with nearly 4,000 American male and female executives, suggested that men still regard family issues as primarily a female concern.
When presented with work-life conflicts, men were unreticent about choosing work, the report found, because they see their main role as that of breadwinner, even if that’s no longer true. Despite the grooviness of being a “hands-on dad”, as suggested by various male celebrities (“I did the first nappy: it’s a badge of honour” – Prince William; “You need to get a bit of shit on your hands” – Rio Ferdinand; “I actually like being with my children” – Nick Clegg), the majority of mums still do the majority of childcare.
“When you become a parent you suddenly find yourself back in the 1950s,” says Jeremy Davies. “The disparity between maternity leave and paternity leave in the UK is the biggest in the developed world. Men get two weeks and women get 52. What does that say to everybody about who’s responsible for kids?”
All the evidence shows that paternity leave helps society, too. If fathers take parental leave, their families are more likely to stay together. Even if there is a separation, the father is more likely to remain involved with the children. They tend to achieve higher marks at school, be better adjusted and have greater self-confidence. Meanwhile women are likely to do better at work.
“All the evidence shows that paternity leave encourages bonding and sets a pattern for being more involved in childcare,” says Justine Roberts, CEO of Mumsnet, whose own 2014 survey found that nearly a fifth of fathers took just five days or fewer of paternal leave. “In the long run, if taken widely, it could go a long way towards addressing the motherhood penalty: the phenomenon of women’s careers and pay taking a nosedive after children.”
Ah yes, that. Another recent survey, this one by the law firm Slater & Gordon, found that female employees increasingly suffer from discrimination at work when they get pregnant and are often made redundant while on maternity leave. One in seven of those surveyed had lost their job when they took time off to have a baby, and 40% said their jobs had changed when they went back to work. More than a 10th found they had been replaced by the person who covered their maternity leave.
It feels hard to argue with the biology – it may take two people to make a baby, but you’d be an idiot to claim equal parenting status with someone who’d done 36 hours’ labour and is now breastfeeding. On SPL, I’d sometimes invent a shopping trip or a task to do just so I’d look busy while Alice had a nap or fed Nina.
“The EU tried to take a dispassionate look at all this,” says Jeremy Davies. “And they reckoned the first six weeks of maternity leave is basically about the female-only stuff – recovery from the birth and establishing breastfeeding. Anything after that is basically looking-after-children-time. And that doesn’t have to be focused on women, and arguably shouldn’t be.”
Indeed, the qualities required to care for babies – meticulous preparation, strength of mind, ability to clean up, nurturing – are not intrinsically female. Don’t dwell too much on breastfeeding – only 5% of families do it for the full six months recommended by the World Health Organisation. (In Sweden a scheme to introduce paid breastfeeding time – where non-working dads can deliver babies to working mums for feeds – has collapsed in logistical chaos.)
The Mumsnet survey found that 82% of the site’s users would like dads to take more parental leave. So why hasn’t SPL taken off? Money is certainly one reason. Because men still tend to be the higher-earning partner, they face a financial penalty for being off work. Self-employed women and non-working women aren’t eligible for SPL. Also, the way it’s set up is that SPL still runs as maternity leave by default – it’s up to the mother to give this right to the father. “And that’s perceived as the mother’s loss,” says Dr Jana Javornik, senior lecturer at the University of East London, who researches care, labour and equalities issues across Europe.
There are also ingrained cultural issues to fight against. Dr Emma Banister is a senior lecturer in consumer research at Manchester Business School. She’s co-leading a project called Making Room for Dads, which is following new fathers as they embark on SPL. “Lots of employers seem to have been putting their heads in the sand, just hoping that no one comes forward, so most men have felt like guinea pigs, like the policy is being formed around them,” she says. “At least one participant has had a comment made to him by a woman at his work: ‘God, I wouldn’t be prepared to give up my maternity leave.’ That positioning is quite interesting.”
Patrick Gilbert is a human resource consultant. “The UK law has a nod and a wink, saying: ‘Oh well, sure, you’re fathers, you’re entitled to paternity leave…’ but I don’t get the sense that it’s working that way in practice,” he says. “For a lot of people who are upwardly mobile in their career, you’re definitely making a sacrifice on your own career progression.”
While I didn’t experience any negatives from my work, I do get the odd comment from senior staff, to the effect of: “You took half of last year off.” Comments I can’t imagine being directed at my female colleague who went off to have her baby at the same time as me.
Gilbert has seen both sides of it: 20 years ago he spent six months splitting childcare with his working partner. “I approached the task like a typical male arsehole,” he says.
“I thought: ‘This can’t be nearly as bad as mothers make it out to be.’ I made my list of things to do – the kitchen floor needs to be cleaned, then I have to go grocery shopping, and make a meal… Fucking hell, at the end of the day, I thought: ‘I can’t stand this, I really don’t like it, I don’t find anything good about it. I’m exhausted and I really haven’t accomplished very much.’ I love my kids, but there were times when I felt I couldn’t wait to get back to work.”
The other problem Javornik sees is a lack of role models for men. “I think what fathers really miss is the message that this is acceptable.”
When dads who are in the public eye have taken paternity leave, general opinion has not been positive. Former energy secretary Ed Davey took paternity leave when his daughter was born in February 2014, a time which unfortunately coincided with freak storms that left thousands of homes without power. He was pilloried in some areas of the press, despite remaining in daily contact with the office. (“There is open-mouthed disbelief that he has just downed tools and gone,” a Whitehall source was quoted as saying at the time.)
A less helpful public figure was Kensuke Miyazaki, who made headlines earlier this year for promoting women’s rights when he became Japan’s first male politician to take paternity leave. Six days before his wife gave birth he was caught having an affair with a professional kimono dresser and had to resign.
Conservative MP for West Suffolk Matthew Hancock took time off in 2013 – “I’m taking two months’ paternity leave, boasts Tory business minister”, according to the Daily Mail. “It was unusual,” says Hancock. “It was more difficult than I expected, and I ended up doing an awful lot of work from home. But I wanted to do it because I believe in being an active father. I also want to see a change in culture where it becomes normal for men and women to take time off when they have very young children. The goal is that there’s no bias in recruitment either way.”
New policies always take time to become part of a culture, and other countries have managed to make SPL the norm. “What we’re working against is a normative pattern that says you’re not a good mother if you go back to work before your child reaches a certain age,” says Javornik. “In the UK men are really shy of asking, but women don’t help. We saw this 40 years ago [when SPL was introduced] in Sweden and Slovenia.”
Those countries have subsequently introduced a quota for each parent, with a “use it or lose it” proviso. “Unless you introduce it as an individual right, the take-up won’t be that high,” Javornik says. “Which is what we’re seeing in the UK now.”
There could be one other reason why SPL hasn’t caught on here. Men don’t want to take it. “I know lots of people of my generation who are desperate to get more involved, but the rules prevent them,” reckoned Nick Clegg. Is he right?
“I think the big unspoken thing is that in their heart of hearts a lot of men don’t want to be very heavily involved in bringing up their children, because it’s too much hard work,” says John O’Connell, a journalist and author. “We all know men who have no involvement whatsoever, or who occasionally turn up at the schoolgates and make a huge deal of it. ‘Daddy’s here!’ Those men who develop elaborate exercise routines they have to do every weekend – ‘I’m going for my bike time, otherwise I can’t function, I can’t do my job.’ Yes, you can.”
O’Connell is admittedly biased. He provides the greater share of childcare to his two daughters since his partner’s job involves long hours and weekends away. “I’d always been fairly involved, but I think you have to see it in terms of a family gestalt. It’s not about ‘your career/my career’. It rapidly became obvious that Cathy’s career was on a totally different trajectory to mine, and rather than being jealous and macho, my response was: ‘OK, that’s what’s happening. Let’s see how we can make it work. Let’s see how it’s possible for you to do that career as well as you possibly can. My career is going to be very secondary – and actually, that’s fine.’ Women have been taking a back seat for years so that men can have fantastic careers.”
He cites Emma Watson and her promotion of the UN’s HeForShe campaign. “In terms of celebrity engagement, that was really important. Feminism isn’t going to work unless men get on board with it.”
But Davies thinks that some feminist groups might actually have affected the current low uptake of SPL. “The original plan for SPL had more in common with the Icelandic 3-3-3 system – three months to the mother, three months to the other parent and three months as agreed between parents – but this collapsed. It got pulled down by pressure from feminist groups, ironically, saying: ‘You’ve got to keep maternity leave as it is. It’s sacrosanct.’”
Javornik is more encouraging – to a point. “SPL represents a huge policy milestone by taking a symbolic step to enable working fathers to take a more active role in caring for their children,” she says. “But the new legislation has done little to enshrine shared parenting as a societal ideal. What is needed is a route to recognising, in law, the value of parenting.”
This first year may have been a bit of a shaky start, but I would recommend SPL to anyone. Not only because this is the only way that we can change perceptions of what being a father is, but also because it’s unmissable. As a man, what you’re used to hearing before you have a kid is how much worse off your life is going be, how all the fun is going to stop, and how your social life, Christmas meals and all, will vanish. That’s all true. But what few men fess up to is the overwhelming wave of love that begins the day your baby is born and only gets stronger. That’s got to be worth missing work for. Even if it does mean joining in with the mums on “Wind the Bobbin Up”.
Johnny Davis is deputy editor of Esquire
The mother’s view
‘All kids really want is your time, and that’s what Johnny gave Nina and Robin’
by Alice Fisher
Memories of my first maternity leave all hum with anxiety. When she was three weeks old, my daughter Robin developed an abscess in her chest, and it took two operations to drain it. The day she was discharged from hospital, my father-in-law announced he had terminal cancer. Two months later my mother was admitted to a psychiatric unit when the paranoia induced by her escalating dementia became uncontrollable. As Johnny and I became parents, we lost our own.
There was no sense of family growing or bonding, no advice. We spent the first year of Robin’s life feeling like we could neither celebrate nor complain, two things most new parents love to do. I’ve been asked if I suffered postnatal depression and the answer is: I don’t know. I was certainly depressed, but wouldn’t you have been?
Luckily, you can’t spend time with Robin without enjoying yourself. We’d still had brilliant times while I was on maternity leave, so I was looking forward to being with Nina, our number two. But I was surprised when Johnny announced he wanted to do SPL.
Johnny is that tosser at the next table in your favourite restaurant who checks his email all through his meal.
He’s missed my birthday and Robin’s for work. When she had the abscess, he only agreed to cancel a trip to New York when a second incision and drainage had to be scheduled. I’d like to say that I don’t resent his dedication, but of course I do. Though I admire it, too.
A baby’s first weeks are the most basic days of parenthood. It’s all breastfeeding and dirty bums and bawling for hours and hours.
There are never enough hands to hold a newborn, so having a constant wingman was great. Nina refused to take a bottle, so we couldn’t share feeding, which meant he could continue his irritating tradition of checking his emails while other people tried to eat.
I hadn’t thought how weird it would be to continually hang out with Johnny. I mean, I like the guy, but that face every day? Sometimes it felt like one of those bank holiday Mondays when you wake up with great intentions – some DIY, a gallery, go out for a meal – but then you have a row over breakfast and sabotage the day. On other days we’d talk for hours while we wandered with the pram, the garbled conversation of the sleep deprived. I learned odd things about him: he doesn’t know the plot of Macbeth; he hasn’t seen Blade Runner and he’s never heard of the Muffin Man who lives on Drury Lane. He honestly thinks he can recreate Derek Jarman’s garden on our tiny balcony.
Was shared parental leave worth it? Absolutely. Johnny jiggled Nina while she cried for a colicky six hours every night (every night – can you believe it?) He built cardboard robots with Robin and took her swimming so that Nina and I could nap. He helped with housework and even occasionally said he enjoyed it.
I think we both felt shellshocked the first time round due to family circumstance. But shared parental leave showed us that there was no special talk we missed out on from our own parents; there doesn’t have to be a handing on of the baton. The two of us can look after the children and do a pretty good job. All they really want is your time, and that’s what Johnny gave Nina and Robin.
Putting in the time made me think about the 10,000-hour rule – that all it takes to be a genius in any field is to practise for 10,000 hours. It’s pertinent to childcare and accounts for “mother’s intuition”. I know when my children are ill, hungry or tired because I’ve spent so much time with them.
By taking three months off with Nina and Robin, Johnny has clocked up an extra 2,160 hours of childcare. So he’s not quite a genius, but I think it’s helped him be a good father.