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November 23, 2022

Why Is Taking Paternity Leave So Hard?

Alice Gledhill

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In a previous blog post, I spoke with two mums at Mind Tools, about their experiences returning from maternity leave. We explored the difficulties that they faced, and how managers can support them before, during and after their transition back into the workplace.

But what can fathers and same-sex partners do to help new mothers and fathers who are returning to work? And what support should their employers offer?

To Share or Not to Share?

One option in the U.K. is Shared Parental Leave. Different to paternity leave, it allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave, and up to 37 weeks of pay between them in the first year after their child is born. This is available to same-sex couples, too.

Mind Tools’ B2C director Mel Dowding and her partner took advantage of Shared Parental Leave, but found that the initiative still needs some fine-tuning.

Mel said, "In a way, we did this on principle because we feel strongly about the opportunity for both parents to have time with their baby, but it was so complicated to set up. And, the same result would have been achieved by my husband taking unpaid leave. It's definitely something that needs reviewing to make it more accessible and meaningful (unsurprisingly there is a low takeup)."

Senior Content Editor Lucy Bishop took maternity leave because her husband was the highest earner in her family. She explained, “My husband would have actually loved to have taken Shared Parental Leave, but, for us, it just didn’t make financial sense, unfortunately. This meant he could only take the basic paternity leave available, which was two weeks at the time we had our first child.

“Luckily, his company increased paternity leave to four weeks (though statutory leave is still two weeks) by the time we had our second child, which, honestly, I still don’t think is enough.

“As any new mum who’s just given birth will tell you, those first few weeks are so tricky to navigate, not just because you are looking after a new baby, but because you’re also physically and emotionally recovering from giving birth yourself.

“I have to admit, even when those four weeks were up, and my husband had to go back to work, there was this impending sense of, 'OK, what do I do now? Now it’s just me and the baby? How am I going to do this all by myself?' The good news is you do (eventually) figure it out.”

Paternity Leave: What the Dads Say

Head of Marketing: Nick Payne
Head of Marketing: Nick Payne

So now we’ve heard from the mums, what do dads think about paternity leave? Is it really enough? I spoke to two fathers at Mind Tools to investigate further.

Nick Payne, Head of Marketing, recalled, "The first three weeks, as first-time parents, were chaos. It felt like you were stuck in a washing machine trying to work out which way was up! You're dealing with a completely life-changing event, learning completely new skills, all on zero hours' sleep.

“Having those three weeks off gave us the opportunity to try and establish a base way of doing things, learn new skills, and, more importantly, enjoy bonding as a family without the pressures of work. I don't understand how people manage without those initial few weeks!"

Head of Research: Gent Ahmetaj
Head of Research: Gent Ahmetaj

Head of Research, Gent Ahmetaj, pointed out that "early childhood development is critical, so having both parents there makes a huge difference."

He also said that those first weeks are "…a chance to help your spouse as much as you possibly can. They have been doing the heavy lifting so far – give them a break!"

Two Weeks' Paternity Leave Is Not Enough!

Clearly, paternity leave is key to ensuring a smooth start for new parents (or as smooth as possible given that there’s now a new baby in the house).

Both Nick and Gent took three weeks of paternity leave under Emerald's current leave policy. Gent explained, "Initially I thought I could only take two weeks, but our People team highlighted that the company provides three – I was super happy to hear that! I didn't extend it, but, looking back, I wish I took a further week or so to help my wife.”

Both Nick and Gent said that paternity leave should be longer. "I think a month would be fantastic," Nick told me. Gent was a little more ambitious: "If there is a chance to increase paternity leave from three weeks to something more like three months, that would just change everything!"

Paternity Leave Is Falling

Despite most agreeing that paternity leave is crucial bonding time, the number of eligible fathers who took it fell to less than a third in 2021. However, steady numbers in previous years suggest this may have been down to the pandemic.

Nick agrees with this assumption. He said, "The main benefit of paternity leave is to be at home and be able to help at a very stressful and busy time. If someone is already at home working, new parents may feel that they don't need paternity leave. However, I would strongly argue against this, as it's also a time to be bonding as a family."

Gent also pointed out that "the pandemic brought on an economic crisis, so men might have thought they are at risk of redundancy if they took paternity leave."

Similarly, Nick identified an inequality in pay. He said, "Shared paternity/maternity leave is something that is becoming more common and popular, allowing fathers to take additional paternity leave to allow the mother to return to work earlier, but this is often not paid the same as maternity leave, so ensuring these are treated equally would be fantastic to see."

John Taylor, of EMW Law, puts the poor take-up of paternity leave down to "the extremely low level of pay available under the scheme." And, Professor of Sociology at Oxford Brookes University, Tina Miller, found that "society isn't built for men to lead in care" because many fathers "can't afford to not work while [they're] having [their] first child."

The Stigma of Paternity Leave

Tina Miller's interviewee points out that, in most cases, men are still the breadwinners, so when one parent needs to return to work, it will most likely be the father. However, this often perpetuates the image of women as the "natural caregivers." And, assuming they don't get regular childcare from family, it also means that mothers must take a longer period of time away from work to raise their child. As a result, we see fewer men as primary caregivers than we do women, and so the cycle continues.

Nick also highlighted that there is still a stigma around men taking paternity leave, "especially amongst older generations.” He said, "It's seen as normal 'time off' and there's a misconception that you're not really doing anything to help anyway. But this view feels extremely outdated now, as parents share responsibilities much more than previously."

Nick's beliefs are loudly echoed by a recent CIPD report. Out of 631 working fathers, 73 percent felt that "there's a stigma attached to taking extended paternity leave." Almost all respondents felt that "workplace culture needs to be transformed to normalize men taking extended paternity leave."

What's the Solution?

It's likely that if paternity and/or shared parental leave offered better pay, more men would be inclined to take it. They wouldn't feel financial pressure to return to work so quickly after the birth of their baby, and this would make it easier for their partners to return to work sooner as well (if they wished to). Naturally, this would help them to feel more confident during the transition.

Some companies already offer equal parental leave. Natwest, for example, announced that, from 2023, all parents – irrespective of gender – will be able to take a whole year off to raise their child. Half of this time would be fully paid.

So, while there is still a way to go to perfect paternity leave, clearly it is possible.

Are you a working father who took paternity leave? What changes to your company's policy would you like to see? Let us know in the comments below!

© Original artwork from Anna Montgomery.

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