My Shared Parental Leave experience
Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a geriatric trailer, or a ‘latte papa’ or a stay-at-home day, or Mr Mom… you pick the title, and I’m it. One of the lucky few who took advantage of Shared Parental Leave a year or so ago, and supported my family by taking 50 weeks from my job to help look after my daughter. On the anniversary of this marvellous legislation – one good thing to come from the coalition government of Clegg and Cameron – I’m writing to encourage more families to embrace this opportunity and change the very gender-divided culture of parenting that exists in the UK.
To put it into context, my wife is self-employed and earns more than my secondary school teacher salary. In financial terms, this makes me a ‘trailer’ – a delightfully negative term that I’ve become immensely proud of, as she is absolutely amazing at her job and deserves every penny she gets. Plus, her financial acumen, talent and patience allowed me to train as teacher – a 14 year career in a profession I adore. I’m a lucky hubby. That leads me to the geriatric part, we’re both over 40, and our had our first child when we were 39 – medically defined as geriatric parents to those in the know. So with these labels trailing behind me, why did we decide to become one of the 5% who take Shared Parental Leave?
SPL made sense for us, financially
Financially, it was a no-brainer, my job was the lesser of the two, but arguably the more flexible too. This is not always true for many couples, and typically, the gender gap in pay seems to be a large barrier for men taking up SPL. But my wife runs her own business, and that meant our choice for me to take the full leave was made. I was happy, she was happy, and my employer was great. I opened up the dialogue early, so my headteacher knew well in advance, the novelty of a male employee going through this process caused some excitement in HR, and all options were discussed professionally and without underlying pressures.
You can take Shared Parental Leave in chunks, and they don’t have to be equal for each parent, and at present, the father still gets two weeks of Paternity Leave as well, so use that as you will. The legislation is in place, the will and the desire is not. Only 8700 parents took advantage of SPL out of a 285,000 that were eligible. Maybe we’re not as liberal and broadminded as we might think.
Our SPL arrangement didn’t make sense to some other people
The reaction from friends, family and colleagues was predominantly a positive, but perplexed one. The novelty of our decision was replaced by questions and mostly acceptance of how our relationship worked as a couple, and how SPL just fitted who we were. Colleagues at work and wider family tended to flit between supportive noises of goodwill, and awkward questions. A few male colleagues admitted that they wish the legislation was around before 2015, as they would have loved to have had this time with their now-teenage children. And only one male colleague snarked about who the ‘breadwinner’ was in our relationship. I retorted “My wife!”, but I don’t think he got it.
The actual process of SPL is pretty normal. My wife went through the same pregnancy symptoms as other mothers, and we had the same midnight trawl to hospital to welcome our daughter into the world, as many others. However, looking back, the months that followed were a blurry wondrousness. We took turns with the pressure to return to work was postponed.
The hectic and chaotic learning process of being Mum and Dad was ours and shared and felt like this was the plan for the rest of our lives. We organised our weeks, who was where when, and more often than not, we could be a three. Much more than we expected, and absolutely the main reason for taking SPL. So why is it still seen as a novelty?
The parenting industry
The reality is that I think that all aspects of the parenting industry don’t favour mothers, and don’t really consider the fathers. From advertising, branding and product development, things we buy as parents are gender specific and directly aimed at women being at home and men being at work. Money is made creating a need for mothers to purchase products or services, and fathers aren’t the target market. Each family should make their own choices, and who am I to suggest otherwise, but in practical terms, after birth, much of the day-to-day looking after of the child can be carried out by both parents. The burden and joy should and could be shared. Typically it isn’t always, and the lack of uptake for SPL demonstrates this. In the short and long term, this creates an imbalance, in attitude, in psychology, in expectation.
The assumption is that Mum will do it all, and it becomes self-fulfilling prophesy for all involved. Feeding, sleeping, bathing, cuddling and comforting, can all be done by the Dad too. What’s the barrier? I’m not going to address the breastfeeding vs formula debate, because its your bloody choice, not mine. All I will say is this – a man or a woman can hold a baby bottle to a hungry baby’s mouth, and why does one of the parents have to be forced to spend all day physically tied to a space and time at the demands of the newborn. You make your own choices, but both parents can wake up in the middle of the night to sooth a hungry child. You will find your own way. Any disturbance before 4am was mine, anything after was hers – practical, stupid, arbitrary, but liberating.
Gender roles became even more apparent during my SPL
Gender roles have to be challenged. The cliche of a man heading off to work each morning and leaving his wife and newborn at home may have to change. It is absolutely why Shared Parental Leave is important – why should it always be the woman at home, and the man returning to work after a cursory two weeks of ‘helping out’. I’m not renowned for my feminism, but I have never understood how much we accept about gender roles and stereotypes until we had our first kid.
Who do doctors, midwives and health workers direct their questions to about the welfare of our child? Who do family and friends direct questions about day-to-day baby routines? It almost becomes an expectation that the father is a secondary player to parenting. (On another day, I’ll write about the awful gender stereotyping of children’s clothes, but I’ll need a few more pages).
There is a strange set of expectations around the role of both men and women in parenting, but for women the expectation and support is both all pervasive and over whelming. For men, it is a strange acceptance of the role of support worker. What are the expectations for men as parents, and do we recreate exactly the nuclear family gender behaviour that went before? The constant refrain I heard at the mother and baby groups was how the little one will only settle with the mum, not his daddy. “How do you do it? My little one just won’t settle with Daddy?” Bear in mind, this is said with a beatific look of a burning martyr, and not a sense of irony.
I am absolutely, the clumsiest, impractical man you are likely to meet. But in those first few months, when you change over 13 or 15 nappies a day – they don’t tell you that in the baby books! – I got better. I managed to avoid dropping my child (regularly), and we’re now working on not knocking her over – she’s toddling and tends to follow right behind me – so the battle is ongoing. We shared everything. Not because we are some new age pioneers of parenting – no book deal is forthcoming – but because we wanted to. We wanted to have our cake and eat it. We wanted to share our professional needs as a family with our personal needs as a family. We looked at the practicalities of our lives and decided to share what is a wonderful time in a parent and child’s life. We are very lucky, but we work at it.
It isn’t easy. Compromise is key. My life as a full-time teacher changed radically, but we’ve made it work. Strangely enough, the attitudes of those around us have been most depressing. The remark, “Oh you’re heading back to work so soon?” has never been so loaded, especially when it is one woman questioning another woman’s motives. Beyond that, the idea of a father looking after a child is always diminished.
What does it mean to be a man?
A man taking Parental Leave is ‘playing’ or ‘skiving’, not caring or looking after. And yes, this was said to me, without irony, on more than one occasion by mothers and grandmothers of varying ages. I understand it is a novelty, but would you say that about a woman looking after their child? I’m not a martyr to my child, but I attempt to look after my daughter in the same way as my wife. Food, drink, nappy changes, play and sleep.
Does being a man mean that I obviously sit back, crack open a beer, whilst my unchanged baby and I watch The Walking Dead on TV? It’s a complex set of value judgements placed on men and women looking after a child, but we’re not making it easy for fathers to step up, or mothers to share this important role. You don’t have to scratch very deep to find some very old fashioned views hidden below the liberal psychobabble of a modern parenting discussion.
One last caveat, these are my opinions and I’m no expert in anything. However, I’m happy to be a proud father and husband who took 50 weeks of leave from his 7 to 7 five day a week teaching role, to share the care of my baby daughter. It’s my proudest career choice to date. More families should consider how they could do it, more employers should discuss this as an option for their teams, and more men and women should address a few old-fashioned gender stereotypes that they probably didn’t think they had. Shared Parental Leave should be shared.
Written by Sam Draper