One of my greatest regrets since becoming a father was not taking shared parental leave when I had the chance.
Like many new dads before me, not fully aware of what I was legally entitled to and worried about how a long stint off work might be perceived by my boss, I lumped for the standard two weeks paternity leave.
Two weeks to bond with our new baby and figure out what kind of dad I wanted to be (before returning to work and having to resort to phone calls, photos and FaceTime to keep abreast of my son’s first smile, first steps and all the other key milestones I was missing while stuck in the office).
Two weeks to care for and support my wife, who not only was getting to grips with newfound motherhood herself, but was also recovering from surgery and the immense impact that labour has on a mother’s physical and mental well-being.
Two weeks of sleepless nights, 3am nappy changes and breast pump battles…and yet, also unimaginable joy, staring at this perfect little human that we both just created.
Knowing what I know now, two weeks is nowhere near long enough.
And if I had my time over again, I wouldn’t just settle for the standard fortnight of paternity leave – AKA the path of least resistance. I would stand up, make my intentions clear to my friends and colleagues from the very beginning, and take what I’m entitled to, by sharing a year of parental leave with my other half.
For the good of our relationship. For the good of our baby. And, ultimately, for the good of our family.
‘We Can Do It’ – created especially for this campaign by my pal, the brilliant British illustrator Naomi Dawson from No-me Illustration and Design
Sadly, my situation is anything but unique. Despite around 285,000 couples being eligible every year for shared parental leave in the UK, it’s thought that take-up of the scheme could be as low as 2% so far. That’s well over half a million mums and dads every year who could benefit from sharing a whole year of leave between them…but aren’t.
From my own experience and from talking to countless mums and dads in the same boat, the same four reasons for not sharing the leave come up time and time again
But even though each and every one is entirely valid, they needn’t necessarily prevent you from taking the shared parental leave that (let’s not forget) is your right to take…
Reason 1 – I don’t really know what shared parental leave is or if I’m even eligible to take it!
Although the Government’s shared parental leave scheme was introduced nearly three years ago, the latest research shows that around half of the general public are still unaware that the option even exists. So, if you don’t feel like you know what your rights are, you’re not alone.
And even though I’d personally heard of the scheme, it wasn’t until recently that I really understood what was on offer (which I must admit, was significantly more than I initially thought).
In brief, the scheme allows parents (and we’re talking mums & dads, mums & mums, or dads & dads here, with the same rights for adoptive parents too) to share up to 50 weeks of parental leave and 37 weeks of pay between them after the arrival of their baby. Whether one partner chooses to take the majority, or you both decide to take the leave in chunks, parents can pick the option that best suits them, taking up to three blocks of leave per parent for flexibility.
Eligible parents can even be off work together for up to 6 months. Or you can stagger your leave and pay so that one of you is always at home with the baby for the first 12 months, allowing you to juggle work and childcare in a way that suits your family.
Reason 2 – A mother’s fear of missing out (i.e. mums not wanting to share their leave with their partner)
This was certainly the initial reaction from my wife when I first suggested we share her maternity leave. But after discussing the pros and cons of the scheme, she very quickly came around to the idea.
Because there’s so much more to consider than just sharing the physical time. It’s also about sharing the highs and lows of parenting, sharing the financial burden, and allowing both parents to properly bond with their new baby. All the while, not letting the pressure of keeping a tiny person alive rest on just one person’s shoulders (for five days of the week at least).
Reason 3 – A dad’s fear of negative perceptions in his workplace
Sadly, the misconception of parenting being mainly a mother’s job is still the norm, most of all in the workplace, with far too many employers still seeing parental leave as a mother’s priority and a ‘business inconvenience’. I’ve even heard some colleagues describing parental leave as a holiday, which as anyone who has had a baby can attest, couldn’t be further from reality!
I genuinely believe that our generation is the first to really appreciate the combined and vital role that both mums and dads play in raising children. But if employers aren’t recognising this, it’s up to us to change the narrative and alter perceptions by actually taking the shared parental leave that we’re entitled to.
To set the standard for future dads in the same position. And to show our employers and colleagues that being a father isn’t babysitting or a part time job. It’s a lifelong commitment and part of who we are, so should be respected as a legitimate reason for a brief career break.
Reason 4. Financial difficulties stemming from a cut in your monthly household income
This was by far the biggest deciding factor for me when it came to not taking up shared parental leave the first time around.
As the main breadwinner of the family, I knew that losing my portion of our household income would undoubtedly have stretched our family’s finances. Not helping matters were the outdated terms of my employment contract, which meant I could only continue receiving my full salary if I took over the leave (and my wife returned to work) during the first 12 weeks of our baby’s life. And that was never going to work for us…
Despite certain employers like Google and Facebook leading the way in terms of working parents’ rights and shared parental leave (with some offering full pay for more than six months of parental leave), to me it sometimes seems like too few companies fully appreciate the business benefits that flexible working for parents can bring them, in terms of increased efficiency, focus, productivity, morale and loyalty from their workforce.
Knowing what I know now, I wish I’d stood up for myself when discussing shared parental leave with my HR department and not just accepted the terms I was presented with. That I’d challenged their offer and explained why I and other working parents in the company deserved a better deal. Because, if we don’t like what we see, it’s up to us to try and improve it.
As you’ll have gathered, I’m a big advocate for shared parental leave and the benefits it provides to working families.
Not just from a dad’s perspective, giving us the chance to try out our parenting chops and properly bond with our kids during these formative early years.
But for our partners too, giving them the ability to go back to work earlier (with all the freedom that that brings) and continue the careers that they’ve spent years building. Rather than all too often being held back in terms of promotions and pay rises just for being a mother.
I really believe that today we’re at a turning point in history where fathers are more involved in their children’s upbringing than ever before. We attend NCT classes and breastfeeding clinics. We support our partners at every stage throughout pregnancy. We’re by their side, cheering them on at the birth. We combat baby blues, change countless nappies, do night feeds, prepare meals, ‘make house’ and – besides gestation and lactation – can do anything a mother can do.
We’re physically and mentally capable of being the primary care giver. And thanks to supportive government legislation on shared parental leave, we’re legally entitled to do it too.
Dads…WE CAN DO IT!
So, don’t make the same mistake I did and not be fully aware of the facts.
Or doubt your personal worth to your employer and your ability to change the status quo…
Don’t live to regret not taking shared parental leave when you had the chance…
Because at the end of the day, I love my job. But there’s no career on the planet more rewarding, more life-affirming and more important, than being a dad.
CALLING ALL DADS…WE WANT TO HEAR FROM YOU!
If we’re ever going to change outdated perceptions of fatherhood and get more dads taking up shared parental leave, we all need to start talking more openly about our experiences of fatherhood and the important role that us dads play in our children’s lives.
So, if you have a spare moment it would be absolutely amazing if you could share this article or the ‘We Can Do It’ image below on your Facebook, Instagram or Twitter accounts, with a few short words on what you love most about being a dad, and why you think more dads should consider taking shared parental leave in future.
And if you do, be sure to use the hashtag #sharetheleave so I can find you and say a big thank you for getting involved!
This sponsored post has been written in collaboration with Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and the Government Equalities Office, in support of their #sharetheleave campaign, which aims to get more UK dads talking about and taking up shared parental leave!