If you’re a parent, or you’re thinking about becoming a parent any time soon, you’ve probably heard the talk of Shared Parental Leave recently. The concept makes me want to jump for joy. As both a feminist, and as someone who coped miserably during my first year as a mum, I’m giddy at the thought of this change in law.
In case you’ve missed it, Shared Parental Leave kicks in for anyone with a baby due on or after 5th April 2015. It will allow the mum and dad to share up to 50 weeks leave to look after the baby between its birth and first birthday. You can take it separately (mum takes first six months, dad takes second six months) or you can take it together and overlap leave. Unlike maternity leave, you don’t have to take it in one block – you can take up to three blocks of leave and return to work in between, as long as your employer agrees. You have to be eligible (and as Rachel from The Little Pip explains over on her blog, it’s tricky to work through all of this) and you have to apply in the right way but an employer can’t refuse your application – it’s your right.
The new legislation has its critics – in this thought-provoking post by Sarah Ockwell-Smith, the parenting expert says she thinks it devalues mothers if they sacrifice any of their time with their new baby, in order for the dad to spend time with the baby. She says she would like to see new fathers receive at least six weeks paid paternity leave and the option to take up to a whole year at reduced pay after this. “In addition to this they should be able to attend antenatal appointments and classes whilst still in receipt of full pay, as mothers currently do,” she says. “This leave should be completely independent of anything the mother receives.”
She has a point, of course, but any step towards equality is a step in the right direction.
As a new mum, I would have wept with joy at the thought of being able to share parental leave with my husband. On my last day of work before maternity leave, I cried in the office loos. I didn’t want to leave. Obviously I was excited about having my baby and meeting this new member of our family, but I didn’t want to leave work. I worked for a women’s magazine and I loved my job – properly loved it, skipping to work every morning and being a massive geek, working late and everything. I couldn’t imagine not doing that job for the next year. I realised that my job was a huge part of my identity. It was who I was. It was incredibly hard to step away from that for a year, and not really be able to admit this to the world, because as a woman who’s about to give birth, it would be wrong to be anything but filled with joy, right?
But more than that, I felt a bit pissed off, if I’m honest. Pissed off that society dictated that I should take a big chunk of time out of my career to look after our baby, while my husband would take two weeks of paternity leave and then head on back to work. It’s probably worth me noting here that I think it’s pretty tough on the dad too. To have to wrench yourself away from your partner and new baby after two weeks, and head back to work, leaving this fragile pair at home to cope alone, all whilst fighting sleep deprivation, must be seriously tough.
I know, right now, you’re probably shaking your head and thinking I’m a terrible mum for even thinking these things. Why become a mum if you’re not prepared to sacrifice things – things like your career, even for a year?
But my point is that as a couple, we both decided to bring a child into the world, so we should share the sacrifice. Unlike in the 50s when it was assumed that the dad would go out to work and provide for his family, while the mum stayed at home to cook, clean and look after the kids (ooh apart from my gran, who was a working mum in the 50s!). There are obvious reasons for a mum to be at home with her baby to start with – her recovery for example, after having just given birth to an actual human person, or if she’s breastfeeding her baby, something which sadly men can’t do (when will they invent that?). But after that – bring on the Shared Parental Leave, I say.
My feelings about parental leave don’t just stem from being a massive annoying feminist though. They also stem from the fact that if this legislation had been around five years ago, I probably would have stayed sane during the first year of my daughter’s life. Instead of sobbing quietly as my husband left for work every morning, staring ahead into the empty day before me, unsure how I was going to make it to 5pm when the Alan Titchmarsh Show would come on TV and signal that the day was nearly over (I will always have a special place in my heart for you, Alan), I might have enjoyed that year. If we’d had the option of sharing this time at home, navigating our way through early parenthood, things could have been so different.
So I’m THRILLED that this is happening (can you tell?) and if you want to find out more about it, head over to the Gov.uk website and also check out this video that my lovely friend Katie made with her husband for Tots100 where they discuss it. And if you do nothing else, read this Buzzfeed article and look at the amazing photographs of Swedish dads with their kids – part of a photo series by photographer Johan Bävman, which shows what the relationship between father and child can be like when they’re allowed to spend more time together.
What’s your view on Shared Parental Leave? Do you welcome the change, think it’s just a gesture or think it’s a mum’s natural place to be at home looking after her baby?