“It’s not often that government legislation kick-starts a revolution,” Nick Clegg, the then deputy prime minister, wrote in 2014. “Yet our Children and Families Act . . . does just that.” The act’s most significant policy was shared parental leave (SPL), which allows parents to divide a 50-week allocation of leave however they choose. Finally, here was a system no longer built “on the 1950s assumption that when a child is born, Mum stays home while Dad goes out to work”.
Yet it turns out that the revolution wasn’t kick-started: it was given a very gentle nudge instead. In August, HM Revenue & Customs said in response to a Freedom of Information request that only 3,000 new parents – roughly 4 per cent of eligible couples – were claiming SPL in the first quarter of 2016. The government, despite Clegg’s fanfare, had predicted an equally modest take-up of between 2 and 8 per cent.
Why are the overwhelming majority of dads still choosing to go back to work after one or two weeks and leave mums holding the baby? I puzzled over this during the three months I took off this year to look after our son, John, who was then seven months old, and our daughter, Verette, then two. It was an opportunity to redress the imbalance of responsibility at home; to bond with my baby son; to give my wife, Claire, a chance to get back into her career. There was no reason not to do it.
Yet as I chatted to other new or expectant mothers, my contribution – minor, in the scheme of things: I did not have to put my body through hell, or cope alone with the hardest, early months of babyhood – was often met with amazement and admiration, to Claire’s annoyance (that I should be treated as some paragon of virtue) and my embarrassment. The mums would round on their partners – “What do you think about that?” – who would hem and haw and say it sounded like a great idea and they would definitely consider it next time, depending on various variables, and did you hear that the guy who played R2-D2 just died, and can I get anyone a drink?
A survey commissioned by the Southbank Centre for its Being a Man festival in November suggested some reasons why this might be. Of the fathers who chose not to take SPL, 68 per cent did so for financial reasons and 40 per cent felt that their employer wouldn’t support their request for time off. And many of those who took SPL still feared some negative associations: 51 per cent said that they risked being viewed as “less of a man”.
The financial worries are understandable. SPL includes nine months of statutory pay (£139.58 a week) and while most employers have a maternity package, many give fathers nothing at all on top. So checking your bank account becomes a progressively dispiriting and, I admit, emasculating experience – and in relationships in which the man is the primary breadwinner (I’m not), there’s a disincentive for him to take unpaid, or poorly paid, leave.
However – as pointed out by the Conservative MP Maria Miller at the Being a Man festival – a third of British working mothers are the main breadwinner in their family. “What I find surprising,” she said, “is that you haven’t seen their partners taking parental leave when the financial repercussions won’t have been so acute. It really is down to social pressures.”
Those pressures, I think, manifest themselves not in the pub (masculinity and hands-on fatherhood are no longer seen as mutually exclusive) but in the workplace, where concerns about being considered “less of a man” bleed into worries about career prospects.
I spoke to a father (he did not want to be named) who “had conversations with people in the company that you wouldn’t dream of having with a woman about to go on maternity leave. To have a chat with someone a lot more senior than you who’s saying, ‘You know what, it’s difficult. Maybe you could consider not doing this’ – the power imbalance is very awkward and it makes you feel extremely insecure.”
The situation isn’t helped by the way many people still believe that shared parental leave is a request that can be turned down. It is, in fact, a legal right. Employers are reluctant to advertise the SPL scheme but the convenient excuse that they “haven’t got to grips with it yet” won’t wash for much longer. The odd thing about all this is that the scheme did not alter the maximum length of time a couple can take between them – a year – so there is no net loss of working hours. Businesses are used to women disappearing and returning. Why is it so much harder to make the same arrangements for men?
The highs of my time at home (developing elaborate peekaboo routines with John) were obvious. But the lows were just as valuable: the slow-release panic of a day with a toddler, a baby and no plans; the emotional trauma of “settling” your child in nursery; the pressure of organising meals and keeping on top of endlessly self-generating laundry. I understood some of what Claire had gone through and the scales of our relationship gradually tipped back towards equilibrium.
So how do we speed up the glacial rate of change? “There might be a benefit of having a period of shared parental leave which is solely and exclusively for dads to take,” Miller said. Sweden, for instance, offers 16 months of paid parental leave with a three-month “use it or lose it” quota for fathers. If we are serious about “kick-starting a revolution” and pushing gender equality forward in both the home and the workplace, men need leave that is theirs and theirs alone.