It’s happened just the way we expected it to. One year on from the introduction of shared parental leave (SPL), a study by the firm My Family Care has found that uptake among new fathers has been minimal. Of 200 employers interviewed, 40 per cent reported that not one single male employee had taken up the right to shared leave. Many will see this as depressing news, indicating that differences in male and female roles and expectations are far too entrenched to resolve.
I started out an SPL sceptic, not least because the whole process was so complicated I ended up assuming my partner and I wouldn’t even be eligible. It turns out I was wrong and I’m now back in the office while my partner’s at home with our seven-month-old son. Being one of life’s moaners, I’d love to tell you it’s been a nightmare, but I’ll be honest: so far, it’s been brilliant.
While it may not have been the primary purpose, SPL has given me one thing which, as a straight woman, I thought I’d never have: a wife. From now until June, I am getting to appreciate what it is like to be someone who goes to work without having to worry about who’ll pick up the kids, what we’ll have for dinner, whether the nursery fees are paid etc. Come the weekend, we no longer divide up childcare duties between me allowing him to plan lessons, him allowing me to write. If I’m with the children, he’s there, too. While I realise that many husbands today don’t have wives who stay at home, I find myself looking at those who do and thinking “you’ve got it made”.
But all good things must come to an end, and that end will come as soon as we stop receiving £139.58 a week (the statutory amount up to the 39th week). After that we’ll both be back in paid employment, rushing around, feeling tremendously guilty for not having that perfect “work-life balance” to which we’re all meant to aspire. I know that among some acquaintances and even family members, our decision to share leave has been seen as something of a novelty, a statement we’ve chosen to make rather than something “normal” people would ever want to do. For me, however, it’s changed the way I feel about motherhood, care and the family in a wholly positive way. At the same time, it’s highlighted just how much the belief that men don’t want to be carers is both a cause and a result of much deeper social and economic divisions.
SPL is a blunt tool and it clearly isn’t working for everyone. We therefore need a more nuanced understanding of what the first year of life requires in terms of care. What are the needs? Who can meet them? What are the costs and benefits of redistribution? Breastfeeding, for instance, can only be done by one particular person, whereas the broader emotional work of touching, comforting and socialising a baby can be done by many. Yet our current division between home and workplace makes it far simpler to load all the tasks onto one person’s shoulders and if one of the baby’s parents is the birth mother (usually the lower earner in a heterosexual couple), so much the better.
I don’t think there are easy ways around this. Whatever our good intentions as far as challenging gender stereotypes are concerned, these are not free-floating prejudices. They exist to support dominant power structures. The belief that women are “natural” carers whose work has no measurable economic value allows patriarchy to justify taking shared resources and making them the sole property of men. And sure, we can say “look, it’s not natural, care is learned, and we can all do it.” But the male appropriation of material resources already means that men tend to earn more than women, making their work outside the home more economically valuable to the family unit. This isn’t true in our particular case, but if it were, I’m not sure whether we’d have put shared parenting ideals before cold, hard cash.
Counting the cost of work that pays and work that doesn’t is then further complicated by an issue such as breastfeeding. Going back to paid work while expressing means I have to take frequent breaks, only they’re not really breaks – it’s simply work of a different sort. But it is work that is of no value to my employer and not recognised at large, no matter how much new mothers are guilt-tripped into doing it by the very establishment which also shames people for not earning. Which then leads me to ask how the idea of shared care work can accommodate the specific reproductive labour of females, both before and after birth. At present the accommodations made for pregnant employees and new mothers are seen as acts of generosity, ways of making space for the messy, inconvenient female body in the world of “normal” male-bodied people. It shouldn’t have to be this way.
The problem is patriarchy (and yes, I cringe whenever I use that word, so ideological, so suggestive of conspiracy theories, so distant from the hands-on work of changing nappies, wiping noses and drying tears). It’s a problem so huge, it’s impossible to take in, so we try to break it into manageable chunks: it’s not male supremacy, it’s just gender stereotyping; it’s not the assignment of a subordinate role to half the human race, it’s merely the wrong assignment of a totally neutral role to a small proportion of people. That way we can avoid confronting the fact that liberation will never mean complete liberation from having to do and be things we don’t always feel like doing or being. Achieving gender equality doesn’t mean changing pronouns, it means changing everything: how we work, how we care, how we distribute resources. It means recognising that processes – gestation, nurturance, socialisation – matter more than ownership. Otherwise those with the most to lose in terms of resources will find themselves unable to afford to care.
Shared parental leave has given me a partner whose entire focus is the family and the home. I don’t think this is necessarily sustainable in the long term. Given how work and care are currently valued, this would merely be reversing traditional power imbalances on a purely personal level. Even so, the change has given us a small taste of how different things could be if the division between home and workplace were to become more fluid. It is this – a fundamental shift in the very foundations of our world – that could narrow not just the gender pay gap, but the gap between male and female approaches to empathy, love and responsibility. There’s no way such a thing could ever have been achieved in the space of a year, but if it happens – when it happens – there will be no husbands or wives. We will each be each other’s carer.