Jane Bradley: Paternity leave takes steps to future

SITTING among a crowd of breastfeeding mothers, bouncing their babies on their laps while the woman at the front sang Wheels on the Bus and strummed a guitar, he was undoubtedly a curiosity.

I'm Spartacus... no, I'm Spartacus ...
I'm Spartacus... no, I'm Spartacus ...
I'm Spartacus... no, I'm Spartacus ...

For my husband, on a month’s paternity leave so that I could return to work when our daughter was 11 months old, was the only man in the room.

One mother asked him, rather sympathetically, if he was “between jobs”, unable to comprehend why a man, who should probably be off hunting and gathering, would voluntarily spend time with his own offspring, rather than sit at a desk typing e-mails and fielding conference calls.

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This week, there has been much uproar over the latest suggestion put forward by Labour leader Ed Miliband that men should be entitled to four weeks of paternity leave immediately after their partner gives birth – rather than the existing two.

Some have ridiculed the idea, which would only be implemented if Labour wins the next election, as expensive and unneccessary. Others have pointed to the new childcare policy due to be implemented by the coalition in April, which will allow couples to share parental leave between themselves for the year after the baby is born – hopefully, making the job of childcare more equal.

While there may be a few hiccups when it comes into being, I am all for the progressive nature of the policy, which is a major boon for women’s rights, and the right of a father to spend equal time with his child.

But most men will not take up extra paternity leave, no matter what their rights. Figures show that currently fewer than one in 50 new fathers use their right to do so.

And, to be fair, why would they? If I’d had the option of returning to a cosy office two weeks after giving birth, where I could drink hot coffee at will and go to the toilet alone without having to sing nursery rhymes through the door, knowing that someone else who cared about my tiny daughter as much as I did was attending to her feeding, changing and entertainment needs, I’d probably have bitten your hand off. Because, at the risk of incurring the wrath of the yummy mummy brigade, looking after a small baby is not a particularly fun experience. It is physically exhausting, emotionally draining and repetitive. All worth it, of course, but at the time about as much fun as living with an insomniac hyena.

Society has managed to create this idea that women are just naturally better at it though, meaning a lot of men find they can easily get themselves off the hook, leave-wise.

When my daughter was born, nearly three years ago, the rules allowed the father to take up to six months leave in the first year, but only after the mother had returned to work. My husband and I decided together that he would take the final month. I know of a few other couples who also took up the option – utilising a similarly small part of the allotted leave – but only a few.

Many women I have spoken to said their partner felt it would be badly regarded for them to take time off on extra paternity leave, and by that I mean the additional weeks and months provided in the existing extended policy.

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Most women seem to have little problem, their employer accepting that they will be away from the office for up to a year following the birth. Funny that.

My husband’s employer, while supportive, was surprised – he was the first man in the (UK-wide) organisation to do so, despite the right to having been in force for some time.

On the other hand, most men (though admittedly not all) happily take up their two weeks leave after the baby is born – a time when the new mother needs all the help going.

For most employers, that is an accepted right; a once, twice or possibly three times in an employment event, which is fairly well tolerated, professionally speaking.

While this is not an acceptable state of affairs, it is undeniable that society takes time to change and although very welcome, the equal split may be too much for many to comprehend.

Perhaps allowing the two weeks to gently morph into four may be a manageable baby step for some men – and for their employers.