let’s unpack that

The UK has the worst paternity policy in Europe – here’s what that means for fathers

Childcare is shaping up to be one of the biggest issues of the election, says Katie Rosseinsky. With most fathers forced to return to work just a fortnight after their child is born, what actually needs to be done to make parenting more equal?

Thursday 13 June 2024 06:00 BST
In the UK, most new dads and same-sex partners are entitled to up to two weeks of leave after their baby is born, while in Sweden a couple can get 480 days of paid leave between them
In the UK, most new dads and same-sex partners are entitled to up to two weeks of leave after their baby is born, while in Sweden a couple can get 480 days of paid leave between them (Getty)

When Billy Beech’s daughter was born in 2019, he was able to take the maximum two weeks of paternity leave from his job as a groundsman at a Premier League football club. It went by “in a flash”, the 33-year-old says. “For two weeks she was asleep on my chest, we were cuddling and feeding, and then that’s gone before you know it.” After that fortnight, he returned to work. “You’re still worried about the baby, you’re still tired, you’re still thinking ‘right, I need to get home,’” he recalls. The fact that his wife was still recovering from a C-section was an extra concern, too. Back in his job at the stadium, he ended up “watching [his daughter] grow up through my phone” – receiving “photos [and messages] saying, ‘she rolled here, she’s moving around, look how cute she is’. You miss those moments.”

It’s a situation that many dads will recognise all too well: the blur of the first couple of weeks adjusting to life as a new parent, followed by a jarringly quick return to your old routine. As Beech puts it: “Your life has changed forever … and now you’re right back where you left off.” For many fathers like him, statutory paternity leave provision feels insufficient – and no wonder, given that the UK’s offering is the least generous in Europe.

This may be the reason that childcare provision is shaping up to be one of the biggest issues of the upcoming general election. The Labour Party has vowed to create 100,000 additional nursery places to support working parents, while the Tories previously promised to offer 30 hours of free childcare for kids aged nine months to five years old from September 2025. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have set their sights on a major paternity leave overhaul. They’ve promised to introduce a “dad month”, giving new fathers an extra “use it or lose it” month of paid leave. But would that actually be enough to change things for ordinary families, let alone shake up a clearly inadequate system? And what is the long-term impact of the current policy on fathers and their children?

Paid paternity leave was only introduced to the UK in 2003. Currently, most new dads and same-sex partners are, like Beech, entitled to up to two weeks of leave, which they can take either consecutively or in two week-long chunks during the baby’s first year. That option to split up your paternity entitlement is a very new one – it only applies to babies born or adopted after 6 April 2024. The “secondary” caregiver receives either £184.03 each week or 90 per cent of their average weekly salary – whichever of those figures happens to be lower – and tax and national insurance are still deducted from that sum. To be eligible for this, they must have been continuously employed at their current place of work for at least 26 weeks before the end of the “qualifying week” (that’s the 15th week before the baby is due).

Psychotherapist Kamalyn Kaur says she has worked with men who have felt “devastated about not being able to spend time with their children” after the birth. “In the short term, there’s guilt, stress and anxiety – feeling as though they’re not supporting their partners as much as they could,” she explains. “Imagine the guilt that you would experience, leaving your partner after those first two weeks and knowing that you don’t really have a choice other than to go back to work.”

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has vowed to introduce a ‘dad month’ for new dads
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey has vowed to introduce a ‘dad month’ for new dads (Getty)

Some companies, of course, do offer a more generous package – although the charity Pregnant Then Screwed recently found that less than a third of fathers were able to access enhanced paternity leave pay following the birth of their most recent child. And if you’re self-employed? There is currently no statutory paternity provision for freelancers. Beech left his old job a few years after his daughter was born and decided to retrain with childminder agency tiney. He and his wife now run their own childminding business, so he now falls into this category, and notes that if they decide to have another child, the situation would be different. “There’s so many financial factors that you have to worry about.”

Many workers who are eligible aren’t taking their leave in full – often because they simply don’t have the means to do so. Having a baby is expensive. In the thick of a cost of living crisis, it’s hardly a surprise that many families just can’t let their monthly income drop so significantly. Pregnant Then Screwed found that more than 70 per cent of dads only used part of their paternity leave entitlement because they could not afford to stay off any longer. In another survey co-commissioned by the organisation and released in 2023, 62 per cent of fathers said they would take more leave if statutory paternity pay was increased. Uptake for shared parental leave is also very low: only 1 per cent of eligible mothers and 5 per cent of fathers are opting in. Like paternity leave, it is poorly paid and mired in complicated eligibility criteria.

There are other factors at play too. When Alison Green’s coaching company Work, Me and the Baby launched a study with Hult International Business School, they found that dads “had come up against generational biases in the workplace around the division of childcare responsibilities”, she says. “There was still an unspoken – and in some cases, spoken – expectation that women should shoulder the majority of the caring, with some senior managers likely to raise an eyebrow if their male employees had to miss meetings or take time off to deal with a childcare issue.” Of course, when women do take on this responsibility, they inevitably face the motherhood penalty, leading to lower salaries and curtailed career opportunities. Under the current set-up, it feels like no one wins.

So are any countries actually getting paternity leave right? The Scandinavian nations are predictably good at this: the contrast between our system and the shared parental leave on offer in Sweden is stark. A couple is entitled to 480 days of paid leave between them (a single parent will receive the same amount too) and for the first 390 days, they can receive 80 per cent of their salaries up to a monthly cap; for the remaining period, they are given a set stipend.

The early months are crucial for establishing a strong emotional bond between a parent and a child

Kamalyn Kaur, psychotherapist

The impact of the UK’s policy goes beyond finances: it might even set the template for a father’s relationship with their child. “The early months are crucial for establishing a strong emotional bond between a parent and a child, because that’s when a lot of the early attachment takes place,” says Kaur. Recent research has found that fathers’ brains can change after the birth of their child (despite the fact that they don’t physically undergo pregnancy) to better prepare them for fatherhood. Spending quality time with their baby drives those changes. A 2023 study compared brain scans of first-time dads in California and in Spain. Only the Spanish fathers – who are entitled to 16 weeks of paternity leave on full salary, and so are more likely to spend more time with their new babies – experienced significant changes in the brain regions linked to sustained attention span.

This attention is important for babies, too. “Early experiences shape the developing brain and lay the foundations for positive social, emotional and cognitive health,” says Crystal Miles, doula and infant communication expert at Connected Babies. “The more that fathers can interact, and the earlier the interaction, the better the result,” she adds. And if that interaction is curtailed? “In the long run, it can potentially lead to emotional detachment with the father and less involvement in the child’s life as they grow,” Kaur says. “The child may then just lean more towards the mother and whoever the other primary caregiver is.” There isn’t a huge amount of research dedicated to the longer-term impact of paternity leave (or the lack thereof) – the limited uptake inevitably means there are limited statistics to work with. But the existing studies do tend to associate longer periods of leave with better paternal engagement in early childhood.

Right now, the limitations of our paternity leave mean that it’s almost a given that most of the caring responsibilities will end up falling on a child’s mother. In a 2022 survey, 80 per cent of parents said that the UK’s unequal parental leave policies had reinforced traditional gender stereotypes. That can have a huge impact on a relationship: in her new book Milf, the singer and actor Paloma Faith suggests that the change in dynamic after the birth of her children contributed to her eventual breakup with her long-term partner. “We [mothers] don’t always want to be the boss and our partners to be the manager,” she writes of the unspoken expectation that women will take the lead on childcare. It can certainly be a sure-fire recipe for bad feeling. “I think it’s easy to fall into that cycle of resentment, bitterness, anger, fear of missing out on your career [or] being held back,” Kaur says. Research has repeatedly shown, too, that more equal parental leave could help reduce the gender pay gap.

The impact of paternity leave, then, goes far beyond a baby’s first few weeks. It might just prove to be a decisive issue during the election – and whatever your politics, surely we can all agree that the current policy isn’t just doing a disservice to dads, but to the entire family.

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