I had a pretty neat comeback when blokes chuckled at me pushing my baby daughter around during the three months of parental leave I took in 2016: One of the top five regrets of the dying is that many admitted they wished they’d spent less time in the office. And yet, as a committee of MPs has reported this week, men with babies at home can’t be dragged away from their desks to spend time with them, despite having been given the right to share parental leave three years ago.
I have no doubt those three wonderful months are the rock that my close relationship with my daughter was built on. She is now two and a half. We are more than father and daughter: we are buddies. I regularly take her to visit my parents in Scotland without my partner; indeed, I am writing this at my parents’ house, having just put my daughter to bed. My partner is back in London putting in, she assures me, some serious desk hours. My daughter is totally comfortable with this, and always has been. She asks for her mum when she is upset but my partner says she will also ask for me when they are alone together.
“Caring” would probably not be a word many people would use to describe me, but my relationship with my daughter is, I think, something special. I consider myself lucky. My partner thought my taking leave was a good idea; my line manager thought it was a “beautiful” idea, and I reckoned my solid but unspectacular career could probably take the hit.
To be fair, our situation was not typical when we were discussing whether I should take a chunk of the parental leave. My partner and I are both in our 40s and financially stable, so it wasn’t about money (anyway, she earns a lot more than me so we were better off with her going back to work after nine months). But, although neither of us have regrets, my partner admits that it hurt to hand over our daughter and schlep back to the daily grind – and that if it had been her first baby (she has a daughter from a previous relationship) she might well have “kept” the leave for herself.
And that’s really why the government’s good intentions have all come crashing down. For many reasons – from the fact that mothers are often encouraged to breastfeed for 12 months and beyond (something than can be difficult if they go back to work), to the cultural baggage of the whole concept of “maternity leave” – the leave is de facto the mother’s; essentially in her “gift” to offer to the father or not. I recently heard about a couple who do similar jobs in the same large organisation who have just had a baby together. He would love to take a piece of the action but his partner wants the full 12 months because, well, she’s loving it. And he doesn’t feel there’s much he can say. I have heard plenty of similar stories. Attitudes simply aren’t shifting, which is bad for everybody, as countries that have managed to improve the uptake of parental leave for dads have seen huge benefits, from a narrowing of the gender pay gap to increased overall happiness.
So we certainly have to abandon the ridiculous idea of “shared” leave, and adopt something much closer to the Swedish “daddy months” model: 90 days earmarked for men to take or lose – their decision, and nobody else’s. But we need more. Employers should, if a man says he is planning to skip his leave, be forced to meet him, ask him what his reservations are, respond in writing and be held to what they say.
Dictating whether or not babies have crucial formative experiences with their fathers is not the business of organisations – and everybody needs to know that.
I’ve heard people advocate making it easier to let men take, say, a day a week unpaid off to be with their kids, but that just runs into the same problems as the government’s 2015 initiative. It will still not appeal to men who think it might make them look uncommitted to the company, and will still be difficult for families with tight finances. Plus, I feel, there is no substitute for spending a lot of time really bonding with your child in its early months.
If we did go down the Swedish route, it would also be vital to give men active support in both making the initial decision and in managing their leave. Is there, for example, any measurable downside to stopping breastfeeding at nine months? Who can dads talk to if they do feel overwhelmed?
Once dads are pushing the pram, they run into the next problem. I went to a privately run “baby sensory” session every week and a council-run “busy babies” one, both of which gave babies and parents the chance to meet up, talk and share their burdens. Of the 20 or 30 adults at baby sensory, I was almost always the only father. At busy babies, I never recall seeing another man. It was lonely. So anybody who runs postnatal support sessions must be encouraged – even forced – to reach out to fathers, ideally with special dad-only introduction sessions. Coffee shops that have maternity meet-ups should encourage father-only sessions. Taking three months off with your child is never going to be wasted time, but it should be so much more than childcare. It should be a chance for both father and child to develop in ways that they hadn’t anticipated.
One of my fondest memories from my time off is taking my baby daughter round the British Museum and showing her the Rosetta Stone. If we find a way through the cultural misconceptions and misunderstandings around parental leave, I know other dads will have their own special moments to treasure – and society will be all the richer for it.
Maxton Walker is a Guardian features subeditor. See his full article HERE
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