Here in the UK, parents can share up to 52 weeks of leave around the birth or adoption of a child. This maternity and/or paternity leave can be taken at the same time, or one after the other. It’s still pretty unusual for parents to share the leave – the assumption is that dads or second parents take two weeks off at the birth of the baby, and then the rest of the leave ‘belongs to mum’, and is hers to take as much off as possible.
Over the period of our leave, through NCT and loads of baby groups, we didn’t meet another straight couple who had chosen to share the leave. This backs up the data, which suggests that fewer than 2% of couples are currently taking advantage of the scheme. I think this is a real pity, as it was such a positive time for our family – here’s why we loved it so much, and would do it again.
We understand each other so much better
Being a stay at home parent is hard. So is being a working parent. If you’ve only ever done one role, you can tend to idealise the other one. One person can imagine the other is constantly going out for coffees and baby sign language classes, while the other is coveting the idea of the tea round and an actual lunch break where nobody bothers you and you can actually eat food while it’s still hot. After just week of swapping roles, we each apologised to each other for our misconceptions about the past ten months. Some things you just can’t get until you actually live through it, and 24/7 caring for a baby is one of them.
It felt fairer
The expectations of new non-birthing parents have rocketed in the past few decades. Dads are expected to attend the birth, help with night wakings and – unless they’re a complete troglodyte – change their fair share of nappies. But dads aren’t necessarily getting the ‘benefits’ of being a more hands-on parent. It seemed fair to us that as a reward for being so present in Stanley’s life, Adam got a bit of time off work too. (Though as he did come to realise that it wasn’t exactly a holiday, which turned out to be its own kind of plus point too…)
Adam and Stanley got some great bonding time in
A ten month old baby is an absolute delight. Adam’s paternity leave kicked in at just the right time to experience the most giggly-wriggly period of Stanley’s life yet. When I asked Adam for this post what he liked best about his paternity leave he said “Without a doubt, getting to bond with Stan”. It’s hard to get to know someone when you only see them at evenings and weekends. While it was sometimes hard for me to hear about a new thing that Stanley had done from Adam rather than see it myself, it was totally worth it seeing them make each other laugh and bond.
We got to go on an epic holiday
It seems like once I became an adult, the main barrier to going on adventures stopped being money, and started actually being getting the time off work. How sad is that?! Shared parental leave offered an opportunity to get around that. When we got invited to a wedding in South Africa during my husband’s paternity leave, we jumped at the chance. I had been accruing annual leave while on maternity, and my husband was off work anyway, so the trip felt like an absolute bonus. We didn’t need to save up leave to have an adventure – we were RICH in holiday time for the first time in our working lives. We had an exceptional holiday halfway across the world, which we never would have done if I were just on maternity leave. Some of our friends even used the crossover of their shared parental leave to spend six weeks in Sri Lanka with their baby. Total adulting goals, right? (Obviously, it is not worth having a baby just for the time off, but you may as well use it to your advantage once you do have one.)
It eased me back in to being at work
Rather than having to leave Stanley at nursery straight away when I returned to work, I knew that he was still being loved by his Dad at home. I could video call the boys at home on my lunch break and have a chat, and I got lots of little updates on their days, which really helped me to feel happier about being away from my baby for the first time. If we had a bad night, it was easy to leave them both in their PJs at home. Now that we’re both at work, and we are frantically arranging nursery drop-offs and pick-ups, I appreciate that time all the more. I only had to deal with one big change at a time.
It helped even out the load going forward
For some families, extended maternity leave sets the stage for family dynamics for the rest of their children’s lives. This French cartoonist hit a nerve with her strip that described women as de facto ‘household managers’ for a reason. We had been fairly equal before baby, and we were hoping to keep it that way as much as possible afterwards.
During his paternity leave, Adam had months of being the parent who packed the nappy bag, and so doesn’t need reminding to pack a sippy cup, and he knows exactly what Stanley’s favourite foods are without asking. As my husband was on his paternity leave as we settled Stanley in to nursery, he is the main point of contact there. He is the person they call when Stanley needs Calpol, and he sorts out the paperwork. We’re equally likely to make a doctor’s appointment for him, as there isn’t an invisible rule that I’m the one in charge of the baby.
And as a bonus, parents who share care of the baby in the first year are far less likely to break up in the future. So we might even be in with a chance of trying out shared parental leave another time, with another baby.
What might encourage more parents to take Shared Parental Leave?
It’s a real pity that more parents don’t take up shared parental leave – I think it would benefit everyone in society, not just mums, if things were a bit more equal. There are a few things the government could do that might help encourage uptake. Firstly, it should be available to more people – Adam and I are lucky to both be employees of companies and so have our parental benefits enshrined in law, but not everyone is so fortunate. It would be great to have policies that reflected the changing face of employment from freelancers to zero-hours workers.
The biggest change though that would encourage more people to share the leave is cultural. We need to stop seeing women as the only person entitled to leave after that baby is born, and that sharing the leave is ‘giving up’ the mother’s entitlement.
I think to encourage this cultural change, it would be good to adopt a Swedish-style ‘use it or lose it’ system, where each parent has an allowance of a certain amount of leave, and if they don’t take it, it’s gone. It would become self-reinforcing – more men do take more leave when it makes financial sense for families to not miss out, so it would become more commonplace in the workplace to expect men to be taking time out with their children, and ta-da – the culture would change.
We’re profoundly lucky to have a healthy, happy, little boy who we’ve both spent lots of time this year getting to know. And that’s the real bonus of shared parental leave, and one I hope more parents get to experience in the future.