David Walsh: Men have to step up to paternity leave

If all goes to plan, I will be a father for the first time in eight weeks from now, give or take. I'd be lying if the fast approaching advent of baby Walsh didn't terrify and thrill me in equal measure.
Young father holding his newborn baby son in his armsYoung father holding his newborn baby son in his arms
Young father holding his newborn baby son in his arms

For most of the process (besides the conception, obviously), I have felt like a voyeur on the other side of the glass looking in as my wife experiences bouts of indigestion, nausea and tiredness amid hormonal tsunamis of self-doubt, self-loathing and exorbitant joy.

Even the birth promises to be another occasion where I will no doubt flap about and convince myself that I’m doing something useful to help her. Time is on my side though. The hour when baby finally arrives is when fathers-to-be like myself can come into their own as the partnership returns to more even terrain. Or rather, it would in an ideal world.

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While this week marked another milestone for our pregnancy, it also saw the issue of paternity leave brought firmly back to the fore.

MPs were informed that only one in 100 men have requested leave in the 12 months after the flagship Shared Parental Leave legislation championed by then deputy prime minister Nick Clegg was enacted in 2015.

Under the scheme, parents can carve up between them up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay in addition to two compulsory weeks’ leave for mothers. As it stands, most men can avail of just one to two weeks’ statutory pay outwith the scheme.

Government estimates paint an even bleaker picture for the future with as few as 2 per cent of the 285,000 eligible working fathers looking to take leave under the current system. Furthermore, 33 per cent of fathers responding to a survey by the charity Working Families said they could not afford to take leave.

While the thought of monetising such a happy event is unconscionable, concerns about the financial implications of having a child are all too real for many couples.

A friend of mine in the merchant navy, for instance, contemplated asking for shared parental leave for the recent birth of his second child but decided against it. Given the precarious supply-and-demand nature of his work, he felt it would ultimately hamper his chances of being offered further contracts and consequently hurt his young family’s finances.

In some industries, it’s true to say that men are not confident of a positive outcome when asking for paternity or shared leave. Bucking the trend, a teacher friend of mine managed to secure his paid shared leave in a profession which is otherwise generous with maternity leave, but only after wearing his local authority down with a concerted campaign of daily e-mails and phone calls which raged for months.

By comparison, uptake of parental leave is high in most of the tax-high spend Nordic countries. Roughly nine in ten new fathers in Sweden and Norway benefit from the statutory scheme which protects 80 to 100 per cent of their income for the duration of their shared leave.

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On the other hand, money isn’t everything. In the 2017 Modern Families Index, more than half of fathers said they would take a demotion if it meant they could be a better parent. So what is holding many men back from stepping up to fathering duties?

Even in some enlightened countries like Denmark, where state provisions offer considerable incentives to new parents, uptake of paid leave hovers around the 7 per cent mark. As with the UK, the enduring ideas surrounding child rearing will always make men perhaps uncomfortable to be seen to be taking up their share of the load in what is perceived by some to be almost exclusively a woman’s realm.

The entrenchment of these centuries-old gender roles has ensured that the current system in place in the UK - and other countries around the world - has forcibly welded some women’s hands to their children’s cots.

However, it’s important that we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that changing these attitudes and facilitating fathers into more active care-giving roles are crucial to advancing the return of women to the workplace. It could be argued that some - not all - women in the past succumbed to the “motherhood penalty”, taking a step backwards in their career and earning less over time in order to have children.

Conversely, we are now seeing the rise of the “fatherhood penalty” - the balancing act facing millennial men who want to spend more time raising their children at the risk of hampering their own careers or their family’s income.

My wife is the breadwinner in our household. I can say with pride that at no point have I felt emasculated by it, or indeed envious of the anxieties the position can give rise to. On the contrary, I often think about how excellent a role model she will be for our son or daughter to look up to.

At the same time as willing my wife on to make of her career what she would have it be, I unashamedly make no bones of my desire to be present for the formative months of my child’s life. It should be my right as much as it should be that my wife can keep the momentum going in her career. With that said, any initial thoughts we had of shared parental leave were holed below the waterline by financial realities, as is the case for many new parents across the country.

It would be wrong to suggest that there are no success stories out there, however. I need look no further than my London-based friends, Isobel and her husband Tim, for inspiration.

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For them, shared parental leave actually made more sense financially. Tim was able to benefit from his employer’s progressive paternity pay policy, meaning he and Isobel could split their leave into six months each.

While it presented its own challenges and periods of adjustment - not least when Isobel returned to work when her baby daughter began weaning - the benefits of shared parental leave are evident.

“I think that it has made our marriage a more equal partnership in matters child-related,” Tim tells me, “and gave me a wonderful opportunity to spend an extended period with M. when she was developing at such a fast rate.”

The road to achieving change is often arduous; the push for gender equality no less so. Even if it’s for selfish ends, men should be fighting to abrogate the enforced female monopoly on childcare by lobbying employers and government to offer policies that make the choice between work and homelife a reasoned one and financially viable for both mothers and fathers.

Ultimately, we men are the ones missing out on one of life’s most fundamental experiences if we’re willing to remain a bystander in our children’s early lives.

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