If there are 2,200 babies born every day in Britain, we can assume that roughly that number of couples learnt yesterday that they are expecting a child. But how many of them were aware of another big bit of parenting news? This month brings with it the arrival, after a sometimes-fraught gestation, of a new rule to allow parents to split child-rearing duties during the first year of their baby’s life.
Shared Parental Leave means that the parents of babies due on or after 5 April next year can apply to share maternity leave. The pay and time off per baby is the same – 12 months – but after a minimum two weeks for the mother, eligible couples can dice up the rest into as many chunks as they like, alternating, overlapping or even engaging in a six-month mutual bondathon.
But as employers prepare for and receive the first applications from expectant parents, what seems like long-overdue progress to many presents complications for others. And that doesn’t just mean small businesses, who are bound to worry about paperwork or the potential loss of, in this case, valuable man-hours. According to a survey of 1,000 employed men and women by Glassdoor, a jobs website, only a quarter of men agreed that parents should split leave evenly, while just 10 per cent said they would take the maximum leave the new rule allows.
One friend of mine who recently returned to work two weeks after the birth of his son points out that he is ill-equipped to breastfeed him, and that his bigger salary would result in a hit to the family (money paid for leave, whoever takes it, will remain the same – 90 per cent of normal salary for six weeks, then the statutory £138 per week for the next 33 weeks). “The flip side of that is that if the mother earns loads more, you can reverse that, so it is definitely a good thing,” he adds.
The breast barrier comes up a lot when you ask people about this. So, too, does the idea that, feeding aside, motherhood is at stake. “Most women I’ve spoken to feel that this is important because it creates a better sense of choice and equality,” says Charlotte Philby, the editor-in-chief of Motherland, the parenting website. “But they also feel it’s a bit threatening. Those months are so precious and a lot of the new mothers feel like there could be greater stigma if they kept the full leave – like they’re choosing to relinquish a career, or are unprogressive.”
She adds: “The truth is that a lot of women savour this period out of work for the time it gives us to connect not just with our new baby, but also with other new mothers, forging the friendship circles that become a lifeline and long-term social network.”
But why could that not apply equally to fathers, and their careers, connections and social networks? Dan Barber is father to Aurora, who’s five, and Ottilie, six months. He works for a company (ahem, this newspaper) which decided to jump the legal gun and offer shared leave this year. His wife, Hat, took the first five months before going back to running a photographic agency. Dan is now halfway through a two-month chunk at home.
“After the whole process of pregnancy and birth itself, mothers definitely need time to adjust and develop that bond,” he whispers during a nap. “But after that, I think it’s equally important for the dad. I used to see them for an hour or so in the morning but otherwise I was a weekend father, floating in and out of their lives. Now I have this opportunity to spend all day, every day with Ottilie for two months. I get to form stronger bonds.”
Dan has already noticed more dads around since his blink-and-miss-it paternity leave with Aurora, and says the shared approach is worth the cost for his family (and Hat’s evening milk-expressing sessions). “Switching roles has also given us a mutual appreciation of what it’s like on the other side,” he adds. But other men talk about cultural expectations. “It seems like an unwritten rule that the men do the hard hours in the office,” says another male friend. “The unfortunate result of this is that I get to spend far less time with my child than I’d hope to.”
Which is why Jeremy Davies, a father and spokesman for the Fatherhood Institute, hopes the new regulations will trigger a societal as well as practical shift. “The way that we should think about this is in terms of the benefits to children,” he says, describing the perceived wisdom that the maternal bond is supreme as “1950s” thinking. He cites studies that reveal hormonal changes in men who spend more time with their babies (testosterone levels drop, for example), and others that show the importance of multiple “attachments” in the first months of life, regardless of gender.
“Allowing fathers to be engaged and confident parents, rather than assistants to an ‘expert’, has all sorts of benefits,” he explains. Most positively, he adds, “it enables a conversation that people haven’t really been able to have until now”.Reuse content