Paternity leave: Look who's balking
Fewer than one in 50 fathers take their full parental leave, fearing for their careers. Will Hawkes did four months and developed a strong bond with his son – but says never again
I can remember the feeling that descended on me the first day I had to look after my six-month-old son, Fraser, on my own. It wasn't panic, exactly, or regret, or even excitement, as you might expect. It was more a case of: "Well, what now?"
That was a couple of years ago, a few months after new legislation gave fathers the chance to take the second half of their wives' maternity leave. I appear to have been in a tiny minority: if research by the law firm EMW is to be believed, fewer than one in every 50 men took any of the 26 weeks now available on top of the statutory fortnight last year.
Apparently many fear that it will harm their careers. I'm not sure about that, but there is certainly strong resistance from men to looking after their children full-time; I know one otherwise sensible chap who refuses to push a buggy because he thinks it looks effeminate. I doubt that he's alone. Legislation is one thing, cultural expectations are quite another.
It doesn't take long to shed them, though. Your brain becomes accustomed to not having to spend the sunniest hours of the day in an office: you can go to the park, an art gallery, even the pub. Yes, the pub: a beer for you, milk for the tot. Just one, though.
It's not all fun and games. With baby-related freedom, I discovered, comes boredom. I spent a lot of time pushing my son around the local Victorian cemetery, gazing forlornly at the gravestones ("In loving memory of Violet Cummings; died aged seven of consumption") as he struggled to get to sleep.
The problem is that pretty much all baby-related activities are geared towards women, and even if the regulars at the local mother-and-baby group are welcoming, it can be difficult. For all the apparent breaking-down of age-old differences between the sexes, men and women tend to talk about different things in different ways. And then there's breast-feeding...
That said, it suited me at the time. I wanted to have a break from my career. Having spent a few months away from work, I decided to leave my job on The Independent's sports desk (which entailed lots of evening and weekend work) and become a freelance journalist. The fact that my wife (more talented and more hard-working than me, needless to say) earns an excellent wage helped, but that period away from my job helped to firm up my conviction that it was time for a change.
And that wasn't the only advantage. One long-term result was that I developed a stronger bond with my son. Our time together undoubtedly improved my life. Looking after our baby forced me to be less selfish, more relaxed, less concerned about what others thought of me. It gave me a new perspective on the world of work; I started to regret all the hours that I'd spent in fetid newsrooms in my twenties.
I guess the litmus test, though, is whether I would do it again. We recently had our second child and I won't be taking extended paternity leave this time. I work from home, so I see him all the time anyway. I don't feel like I'm missing out. On top of that, I enjoy what I do a lot more now and, anyway, as a freelancer I really can't afford to take months off work.
And money is the key factor. There are plenty of mothers who can't afford to take unpaid time off when they have a child, so why should fathers be any different? Nonetheless, for those who can, it's definitely something to consider. At the very least, you'll get to know your local cemetery.
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