Paternity leave: reflections

Paternity leave: reflections 19 April 2018

[I wrote most of this post two years ago, at the end of my six months' paternity leave with K      . Here I am, nearly two years later, finally polishing it up and posting it towards the end of my six months' paternity leave with E      and K      ! I've left my thoughts from two years ago as I wrote them then. Maybe in another two years' time I'll post a follow-up reflecting on what was different about the experience the second time around.]

When K      was still at the theory stage, S      and I spent inordinate amounts of time discussing how we wanted to organise things once she arrived. One of the few things we spent almost no time discussing was what to do about parental leave. It just seemed obvious that we'd split it 50/50, and each take 6 months.It didn't occur to us we were doing anything unusual. If we thought about it at all, I guess it just seemed fair to give each of us an equal share of time with K      , and also to tryto share any career impact it might have.

Once I started my six months leave, I didn't need to look up the statistics to quickly realise how few men were taking any parental leave at all. It was a rare baby singing, music, swimming or soft-play class where I wasn't the only man present. I never found that an issue. To their credit, all the mothers I met made me feel as accepted and welcome as any other parent of a young baby, and I made some really good friends. There's honour among thieves…and solidarity amongst sleep-deprived parents of any gender!

So how do I feel about it having done it? Two things struck me particularly forcefully over the six months.

I didn't understand how hard it was until I was doing it myself

I wasn't /

Paternity leave: statistics

Lies, damn lies, and…

A couple of months ago, the statistic that only 1% of men had taken up shared parental leave was splashed all over the British media. (Shared Parental Leave was introduced in the UK in 2015, and essentially allows parents to share 12 months of leave however they like. Taking it consecutively, simultaneously, alternating blocks of leave between both parents, or a mixture of the above are all permitted.)

My Family Care, the company that carried out the survey on which this statistic was based, apparetly asked Human Resources directors at 200 businesses what percentage of men in their company had taken shared parental leave in the year since it was introduced. But, as Radio's 4's excellent More or Less programme pointed out, they forgot to ask what percentage of those men were actually elligible for parental leave in the first place! Most of them won't have had children at all in the last year. Some of them won't even have any children!! Ooops.

Clearly, the fact that 1% of all men (fathers or otherwise) have taken up shared parental leave tells us next to nothing about the take up of shared parental leave. We can try to extract from this a very crude estimate of the percentage of eligible new fathers taking it up, using average birth rate figures. We definitely shouldn't be doing this, for all kinds of reasons. For one thing, applying the average birth rate to the demographic of employed men is so dubious it's almost certainly plain wrong. The birth rate amongst employed men will differ substantially from the overall birth rate per head of population - the latter figure includes retired men, for example. (This will skew the estimate far more than the points My Family Care later raised: that adoptive parents and same-sex parents are also eligible, and some fathers won't have worked long enough to qualify.) More heinous still, we're ignoring all the uncertainties in the data. With such small samples and small percentages,

Paternity leave: reactions

Paternity leave: reactions 27 May 2016 I've been on paternity leave since January, taking care of K      full time. The reactions I've had from people when they discover I'm on paternity leave for half a year have been entirely positive. But some of the comments I've had in response have been interesting. I've collected the ones that stuck in my mind, together with my thoughts on them.

(If you know me personally, and think you recognise something you've said, you don't! These aren't direct quotes. I've paraphrased things that have been said to me multiple times by many different people.)

"I wish I could have taken paternity leave, but I can't really do that in my job."

My first instinct is to reply: actually, you can do this, in any job! You have a legal entitlement to shared parental leave in the UK, so if you want to take it your employer can't refuse. (Even the rules on qualifying periods are surprisingly lenient.)

Of course, this isn't what they mean. I think what people mean by this comment is some combination of:

  1. "My employer would find it difficult to get someone to cover my job for six months";
  2. "Taking six months off might negatively impact my career";
  3. "The culture in my workplace wouldn't be supportive";
  4. "No one has ever taken paternity leave before in my company";
  5. "I'm subconciously using my job as a reason to avoid seriously contemplating taking paternity leave".

It's revealing (but not very surprising) that this comment has only ever been said to me by men, never by women. Yet at least 1. and 2. apply just as much to women taking maternity leave. (No doubt 3. too in some workplaces.)

I'm sure the people who've said this to me didn't intend it, and wouldn't defend it. But implicit in what they said is the view that it's acceptable or inevitable that women will take a career hit when they have children. Whereas for men this is reason enough not to take paternity leave.

It shouldn't be acceptable or inevitable, for either gender.[fn::To be