When I had my four babies my husband and I were both self-employed working mostly from a home office so we had the perfect situation for sharing childcare (bar his frequent trips away). We were both able to spend time with the children while they were little and we could both escape to the office (mutually acknowledged as the easier job).
When I had to go to outside meetings I would take the latest breast-feeding baby along in a sling. I was once in a meeting of all men, my baby was slurping very noisily on the breast and every so often he would pull away startled, causing my breast to spring out still spraying milk. I remember thinking I had to be ten times as professional to get away with that.
So it wasn’t easy but I think I was very lucky to have the flexibility I did. I wanted to spend every minute of the day with my babies at the same time as being desperate to get away from them and have some adult space, stimulation, and a life of my own. I’m sure I’m not the only mother to experience childcare as both the most beautiful rewarding gift in the world AND the most boring tedious drudgery.
Working parents will now have more flexibility in sharing childcare as new government regulation comes into force from April 5th and couples will be able to share 50 weeks of leave (37 of those paid) on top of the mother’s statutory two weeks maternity leave after the birth of a baby. This looks good on paper, it allows for more equality in childcare and more flexibility for couples, but I’m not convinced it will have any real impact on most people’s lives.
I wonder if my daughter, when she grows up, will still be the one having to make the choice between children and a career in a way that my sons won’t. I wonder if she will be the one who stalls mid-career and never reaches her potential while my sons fly higher and still get to have a family.
Because according to the government’s own predictions, only around 5,700 fathers are expected to apply for the new parental leave over the next year. 50% of dads don’t take their full entitlement to statutory paternity leave of two weeks anyway – a figure that rises to 75% of those on low incomes. 40% of new dads with partners who are not in employment won’t even qualify.
Take-up will not be great even amongst couples who are equally committed to sharing child-care as long as the macho work culture we have in the U.K. remains unchallenged. Working life in this country is still heavily skewed towards men who are assumed to have a wife at home looking after everything else. We have the longest working hours in Europe, increasing pressure to do overtime, attend that important meeting scheduled for 7pm, or take part in after-hours networking – and if you don’t do it, someone else will. Asking for shared parental leave in this culture will be seen as a lack of commitment and ambition, and not many men will risk that, no matter how much they want to.
Add to that the low pay for traditional ‘women’s work,’ the socialization of girls to be too nice to push themselves forward in their careers, the gender pay gap (where even female graduates will start out on a lower pay level than their male equivalents) and the British sexist work culture and it’s clear that when couples take a look at the financial implications of which career to risk, all factors are weighed heavily against the mother.
When Sweden and Norway implemented a similar shared parental leave policy back in the Seventies, take-up was very low (7% in Sweden and 4% in Norway). Today, both countries have a ‘use it or lose it’ policy whereby a section of shared leave is ring-fenced for fathers – if they don’t take it nobody can – and the take-up rate is 90% in Norway and 80% in Sweden. Sweden introduced an ‘equality bonus’ tax credit in 2008 to further encourage dads to take parental leave, and the system is underpinned by high levels of wage replacement (in Denmark, Norway and Portugal it’s 100%) whereas U.K. parents get 90% but only up to £138.18 a week.
The other building block in place in these and other countries (France for example) is excellent and affordable (or free) child-care, whereas here in the U.K. child-care is limited, low paid, under-funded and of varying quality.
In 2010 the Fatherhood Institute published an international Fairness in Families Index which placed the U.K. at number nineteen out of twenty-one nations on issues including parental leave, time spent caring for children and the gender pay gap. We are not doing too well.
The new shared parental leave is a step forward, and I’m very happy for the families who will benefit, but the real test will come when the results are assessed. Will a low take-up lead to greater political motivation to take further steps to create a fairer society for our girls, or will the government sit back and take it as evidence that women really would prefer to be at home and men are just not cut out to be child-carers?