Shared Parental Leave – what is it really all about?

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by Marie Peacock

MAHM celebrates the choice that Shared Parental Leave signals….it can allow more flexibility, and it also helps families in balancing the family budget.  However we wonder about timing…is the first twelve months after birth really the only focus here?

For some couples sharing leave in the first year might be ideal, meeting their individual preferences and circumstances, most particularly if the mother is the main breadwinner supporting the family and genuinely wants to focus on building her career, providing security for the family knowing that her partner is able and happy to take on the caregiving role.  In any case both roles  – caregiving and paid work  –  are 100% equal and should be equally valued, including when the mother is at home full time and the father is in work.

However, it’s claimed in the media that the take up by fathers is far too low  (at just 1% of fathers sharing leave in the first 12 months according to one survey making headlines this week).  At MAHM we believe that choice must be respected, plus we suspect that not all families are eligible anyway – for example one parent (usually the mother) might already be caring for other children full time at home and the employment criteria might not be met by both parents in order to qualify.   It’s perhaps worth pointing out that we’re not clear whether the 1% figure is a percentage of all parents, or a percentage of ‘eligible’  parents (when those who do not even qualify have already been taken out of the equation).

Even more important than the percentage of mothers versus fathers as primary caregivers, many parents writing to MAHM remain concerned about the incredibly short time of two weeks protected leave for all mothers after birth.  We understand that in some countries this period of post-birth recuperation is longer. We would suggest three months minimum, in line with the ‘fourth trimester’  but we’re a long way from that at just two weeks according to current guidelines!  It’s concerning that that some mothers may feel pressurised by changing legislation into separating from their infants far too early, long before the time feels right for mother or child.

Raising a family takes many years  -two decades and more – and there are many changes over the years, so it’s important that fathers and mothers can be involved in different ways at different stages (and workplace legislation should allow that flexibility especially when children have additional needs, are sick or other issues arise, or some unexpected period of time off is required to deal with a family situation). 

The MAHM perspective focuses (as we always do) on the policies, rather than individual choices,  which are often complex and constrained by many factors.  MAHM respects family choice and respects all caregiving work as being ‘equal’ work (albeit invisible).  Our concern is for the complete lack of respect in the policy arena vis a vis families where one parent cares and one parent is the main breadwinner.  We argue that this model of work and care is as modern as any other and should not be penalised.   Paid work and invisible care work are different ways of contributing and both are necessary for society (and economies) to function well. 

It’s time for the debate to focus more on supporting families with children rather than dividing opinion (around shared parental leave) by  being judgemental about what families ‘should’  or ‘should not’  do.  We need an inclusive approach that accepts all patterns of work and care equally.

We need policies that recognise the extra responsibilities that parenthood brings, through challenging current anti-family policies in tax, employment and welfare net.  We need to work together to build a family friendly culture in the UK and to have a mature and considered debate that celebrates the work of parenting and which seeks to inform people about childhood developmental needs.  Perhaps the UK could be innovative in properly valuing the work of motherhood and fatherhood and challenge what is too often assumed to be a progressive policy   (read ‘getting more mothers into work’!)  when it’s clear that today’s systems and ‘new norms’  (more childcare,  more parents in paid employment working longer hours than ever, less time for caregiving….)  aren’t working for anyone.  

The media tactic of dividing opinion on matters such as shared parental leave is surely just a distraction from the wider and more important matter of how family life is being undermined for everybody – and that includes our adult children.  Our children will find out that in the future, when they start their own families, only the top earning families will be able to afford the time they need to provide care themselves at home.   Care will become a luxury for the privileged few,   when actually it’s a necessity for all and an essential part of a civilised, caring and progressive society.

Finally it’s worth pointing out that the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘More or Less’  has now pointed out that the figure of 1 % of fathers taking Shared Parents Leave was, as we suspected,  very misleading.   That’s because it was 1% of *all men*, rather than *new fathers*, and some respondents were probably not even fathers yet!  It’s a misleading figure because it’s not true and it’s also misleading because it will inevitably lead to a doubling up of efforts by the government to ‘improve’ on this low figure by any means available, regardless of the truth of people’s preferences and actual circumstances.  

Could this be part of a wider plan to ‘engineer’ people’s behaviour by manipulating the facts?

Our advice to new parents would be to follow your hearts, put your children’s needs first, do what feels right for YOU and ignore what you read ( especially if it’s a story built around a  snapshot survey which is often unrepresentative and not large enough to be statistically meaningful).   And if you have any energy left, then challenge government policies which fail to support family life and fail to allow people the right to conduct their private lives the way that works best for them – and them alone.  Everyone’s circumstances are different and when raising a family there’s plenty of work to go round,  whether it’s the first twelve months or alternatively the toddler years, middle years and teenage years!

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