A version of this article first appeared on Mumfidential.com.
‘Sharing is caring’ is a refrain we hear frequently from Lola. Apparently it’s something that her teacher says to the class and having seen Lola play with Mina and allow her baby sister a solitary Stickle Brick to keep herself amused, I can well believe this.
The reason for me mentioning it is that these paragraphs contain my thoughts on Shared Parental Leave, something which I am currently benefitting from as I get to spend several months looking after two of the three most important girls in my life (the other, my wife, will gladly tell you how she has to look after all three of us, all of the time, but that’s another blog post entirely).
I never thought of myself as a pioneer, yet when I requested additional parental leave at work, it transpired that I’d be a guinea pig for the entire company. No other fathers had ever taken up the opportunity. Out of a company of over eight hundred people, not one. The policy existed on a piece of paper but had never been put to the test.
Why is this? And why did a recent survey from Working Families find that only between 0.5 and 2 per cent of eligible fathers had made use of the new rules six months after they came in? I suspect that there are several factors at play.
A lot of men – consciously or not – still subscribe to the idea that it is impossible to achieve your professional ambitions while leading a full and fulfilling family life. It’s a black and white decision: sacrifice your family life for your career or your career for your family life. You can’t have both. You have to choose.
I disagree. Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, hence his decision to take time away from Facebook HQ to care for his new daughter. Sure, having a few billion dollars in your pocket eases most decisions but if the CEO of one of the world’s leading tech companies and, to all intents and purposes, leader of the free world can make it work, others can. Particularly since most dads probably have fewer demands on their time than Mr Zuckerberg.
I’m aware that there are those who view men that care for their children while their wives work as latter-day conscientious objectors, faint-hearted cowards left behind on the home front, digging cabbage patches with the land girls. I’ve never shared this view; even less so now that I understand the value of spending time at home with the kids.
For me, it was never a question of feeling I needed to save face at work. The whole alpha-male, master of the universe ethos that says a man must spend every waking hour maintaining the cash inflow while his wife tends to the household and his offspring seems outdated to me. I’m not a bushy-whiskered Victorian gent after all. Call me a feminist, but my view is that men and women should be on an equal footing in the workplace and the home. It’s what women have been demanding for over a century after all, so let them have it I say.
There’s no question in my mind that take-up of Shared Parental Leave would be greater if awareness was higher. Sure, it’s only a year old, but I’ve lost count of the number of people – of both sexes – to whom I’ve had to explain how the whole thing works. Deciding how to carve up the time off with your partner, applying for leave from two employers, calculating what you’ll be paid while on leave, none of this is straightforward. Consequently it’s still the case that many men do not fully understand the options available.
Then there’s the financial perspective. Men often still out-earn women – whether we’re worth it or not. I’m struck by the irony that this inequality is largely down to the fact that women have traditionally put their careers on hold to look after their children. It’s a vicious circle. Couples have to take the economically-rational decision when carving up parental leave and ultimately this often means the father shouldering the breadwinning burden.
I appreciate that many fathers couldn’t think of anything worse than being a stay-at-home dad, even for a few months, but I think others would be surprised how much they’d get out of the experience. I’m the first to admit that it requires sacrifices, but these are invariably worth it.
And after all, as Lola so often reminds me: sharing is caring.