Five years ago this week I went back to work after a blissful 10 months of maternity leave. And it really was blissful – but in the time since then I have fretted about whether I took too much time off, whether I had been out of the work game for too long, whether I would still be good at my job because I had been nurturing my daughter rather than my contacts. I could have taken a year off, but I was too worried about money. And yet six months didn’t seem long enough before handing over my baby to a childminder or nursery. Strangers, essentially.
This agonising balancing act – just one dish on the running buffet of mothers’ guilt – will be familiar to many women. It would have been nice if shared parental leave, introduced a year ago, spread the burden of guilt as well as the caring responsibilities. But, according to research published to mark the anniversary, it sounds like neither is happening: fathers don’t seem to be joining in on the guilt trip or the offer of leave.
While two thirds of fathers say they would like to take advantage of the rules that allow them to split 52 weeks of leave, just 1 per cent are actually doing so. Half of men say they are worried they would be perceived negatively at work. It's a perfect example of something that is wonderful in theory but nearly impossible in practice.
Oh, but women are still feeling guilty: the research by My Family Care finds that 57 per cent of mothers say they are worried about the leave harming their partner’s career. And 55 per cent of women seem to jealously guard their time with their new baby: they simply don’t want to share.
Of course, money is central to this decision too. For 39 weeks of the 52, statutory pay for parental leave is £139.58. For many fathers (and indeed mothers) that would be too drastic a drop in salary to be worthwhile. But balance it with the punishing cost of childcare, and factor in the priceless benefit of time with your baby, this has to be worthwhile.
If fathers are worried about work, then employers need to be more enlightened. Bosses need to acknowledge, explicitly, that shared parental leave is a positive thing for their male workforce; that they could be happier, and potentially more productive, with their work-life balance as a result of taking it. It doesn’t have to be a straight six months for a father, after six months for the mother. How about taking a couple of months before the baby’s first birthday?
Supporters of this policy shouldn’t be too disheartened: the government has forecast between 2 per cent and 8 per cent take up, which isn't huge but the policy has only been in place for one year. It is going to take far longer to change a historic culture, embedded for generations, in which a father is the main breadwinner and the mother is the primary carer.
And what about mothers? I understand why 55 per cent of women just don’t want to share. There is a powerful instinct that tells a mother that the care that anyone else, including the father of her child, gives to her baby pales in comparison to her own. But putting aside breastfeeding (which is not an impossible challenge, given the use of breast pumps) women – and I am sorry if this adds to our guilt buffet – have to stop seeing fathers as second best.
This pervasive undercurrent of “men are useless” is right there for all to see on Mumsnet. It crops up at coffee mornings and continues on to the school gate. If you are a newish mother, ask yourself this: does your other half not know where the dirty nappies go because he is useless, or because you have refused to surrender an inch of the changing table? If you cannot do this, how are you going to accept your partner having full-time care of your baby for, let’s say, the final three months of your child’s first year?
I admit I am complicit in this culture of motherhood. If shared parental leave was available when my daughter was born, I would like to think I would have happily handed over primary care to her father after six months, and let him do another three. But would I really? I will never know.
I do not want to blame women. The lack of men taking up shared parental leave is not primarily the fault of mothers; both employers and fathers have to be willing to take part in this cultural shift. But if this is about sharing leave, and guilt, then it is also about mothers sharing responsibility for the decision to carve up the first year of caring responsibility. Changing this culture is up to us all.
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