A few years ago, in those heady days before the children came along, I used to travel a lot for work. I never particularly enjoyed being away from home for more than a day or two, so to cheer me up on longer trips I would refer to a little Excel spreadsheet on my laptop that told me, in percentage terms, how far I was through the trip. It was comforting to see that each time I checked the spreadsheet it had notched up another percent or two, and that my flight home was indeed getting closer.
Although I didn’t make a spreadsheet for my shared parental leave I often found myself doing the same calculation in my head, only this time I was dismayed rather than elated to learn how far the percentage count had moved on. New Years Eve was still early days at 25%, but by my birthday at the start of March it was at 60%. The anniversary of shared parental leave in early April was the 80% point.
Now, with the help of a calculator, I’ve worked out that my leave is 98.9% complete. In a Grand Prix I’d be well into my final lap. In a marathon I’d be turning onto the finishing straight. It’s the closing seconds of a movie before the credits roll; the last thirty minutes of a Premiership season.
It’s hard not to be sentimental when thinking about it that way. I’ve had a wonderful opportunity to spend a big chunk of time with my children, and as I reach the end of that time it doesn’t feel like an exaggeration to say it’s the end of an era. It’s been like nothing I’ve ever done before, and probably nothing I’ll ever do again. I will miss both of them enormously when I’m sitting at my desk on a sunny day, wishing I was with them at the children’s zoo or in the playground.
Sentimentalism can sometimes cloud reality though. Juggling a baby and a toddler is not easy, and it’s true to say there were some hellish days. Equally frustrating was the immense pressure of self-judgment: my annoyance when I catch myself looking at my phone for a few minutes rather than playing with the baby, or for failing to do any laundry, or running out of milk, or not having the energy to write another blog post. Those things and many more have dominated my thoughts throughout these six months. It has not been a stress-free time.
So would I really want to do it again?
The answer is a resounding yes. The frustrating days have been overwhelmingly outnumbered by the wonderful ones. I’ve got to know baby Max in a way I would never have done if I hadn’t had this time with him. I’ve cared for him as he’s grown from a four-month-old who could do nothing more than lay on his back and cry to a ten-month-old who can laugh, crawl and is not far from being able to stand. I’ve had some precious moments with both children, as well as with my own parents, sisters and niece. We’ve had many days out in some wonderful places across the south-east of England.
And my shared parental leave has also brought a few unique thrills that I can now tick off my bucket list. I had my shot at being famous for fifteen minutes with three TV appearances and a radio interview in one day. I’ve had a blog post ‘go viral’ – well at least within the health visitor community.
But above all that, I’d like to think that my children have benefitted from spending a few months with their dad. I hope this time together will be the foundation of a strong bond that will last for many years to come. This is still only really the beginning; there are many more memories to come.
So farewell to shared parental leave, but hopefully not farewell to this blog. I do hope to keep it going, but I’m realistic enough to know that if I didn’t have time to write while looking after kids then adding a job back into the mix is not likely to make it any easier. Much like my approach to childcare: I’ll take it as it comes.
Did you take any shared parental leave this year? If not, why not?
Perhaps it’s because your employer doesn’t enhance shared parental pay. Perhaps your wife or partner didn’t want to give up her maternity leave. Perhaps you were concerned about the impact it might have on your career. Or perhaps you’re not eligible or have never even heard of it.
Or perhaps it’s just because you haven’t had a child in the last year.
That’s right: the much-quoted “only 1% of dads chose to take shared parental leave” headline doing the rounds over the last week is not quite what it seems. The figure, from a report by My Family Care, a consultancy, refers to all men, not just those who have had a child in the last year.
When the context of the statistic is considered, the uptake of SPL starts to look a bit more encouraging. If 1% of all men, whether they are eligible dads or not, took some shared parental leave in the last year, then that ought to be a fairly large number of people. As Tim Harford says in the Radio 4 More or Less episode on this subject, even if every eligible father in the UK had taken some shared parental leave, the statistic would still only be around 5%!
It’s a shame because this stat and the widespread misreporting of it could potentially discourage families from taking shared parental leave in reluctance to do something that appears to be highly unusual. It’s a shame that the media outlets who reported on this last week failed to pick up on this important bit of context. I’m not pointing fingers: I did a number of TV and radio interviews myself last week and also assumed the statistic referred to eligible fathers only. I have learned my lesson from that.
There is some room for optimism though. A different survey, conducted by recruiters Totaljobs, suggested that many people (whether parents or not) understand the benefits of sharing leave and would be keen to make use of SPL in the future. The My Family Care survey found similar results. Both surveys suggest that British families are open to the idea of sharing leave, and that the old-fashioned view that childcare is just for women is not so deeply entrenched as some had feared.
With fairer pay and some encouragement many more dads might still take on some of the childcare burden in the future.
“It’s not a holiday!”
So goes my standard response when someone asks me about my shared parental leave.
To be fair, nobody has suggested out loud that I’m spending my time with my feet up, watching Cash in the Attic on catch-up, munching Doritos and reading the papers. But the language people use suggests their thoughts are along those lines. “Enjoy your break!” was a popular phrase when I checked out of the office in November. “Make sure you don’t spend it all in the playground: get out there and achieve something with your time” another colleague told me. Continue reading
“Voicemail has 1 new message. Please dial 121”.
For some reason, probably lodged deep within my psyche, this innocuous text message never fails to fill me with dread. I’m usually getting on with my day quite happily and then… Someone needs to talk to me. I have no idea who it might be. They will probably want me to do something. Or at least need me to call them back. It could be urgent. Maybe it’s bad news.
In an instant my blissful, carefree world is punctured by a nagging doubt; a psychological stone in my shoe.
I avoid listening to the message for as long as a can, keeping my attention on the kids and pretending that I can get on with life for a few more hours as though nothing had changed. But I can’t help not knowing.
Inevitably I give in and listen. Continue reading
Yesterday Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, wrote an article for the Financial Times about how companies could do more to encourage men to take paternity leave.
Some of the reader comments at the bottom of the article really made my blood boil.
Many were along the lines of women being born to do childcare and men being born to provide. Some implied that men were unfit to do childcare, or shouldn’t have to. One even suggested that most childcarers are women because they are pre-programmed to choose partners that are superior to them, and that men’s dedication to work is what makes them attractive as a mate.
Needless to say, I don’t believe any of this.
I drafted my own comment in response, but it turns out you need to pay money to comment on FT articles. So I’ve posted it here instead. Continue reading
All about shared parental leave: how you can take it, why it’s important, and what the future holds
For simplicity this guide is written from the point of view of a dad who is living with their child’s mother. Shared parental leave is also available to mums, same-sex couples, adopters and step-parents. For complete details see the government’s official guide at https://www.gov.uk/shared-parental-leave-and-pay/overview.
Dads get to spend two weeks with their new baby before they have to go back to work, right?
Not any longer! Since April 2015 many dads in the UK have had the ability to take up to 50 weeks off work to look after a new baby.
It’s called shared parental leave, and in my opinion it’s a hugely positive move toward a modern and equal parenting culture, leaving behind the stone-age family model where women must do the childcare and housework and men must provide for the family.
Take up so far has been poor though – around 0.5% to 2% of those eligible according to one survey – and the change has not been without its critics.
In the hope of encouraging more men to take it, this is my guide to shared parental leave: what it is, why we need it, its strengths and drawbacks, and my hopes for the future. Continue reading
Back in November in my first blog post, why I’m taking six months off work to look after my kids, I talked about some of the reasons for me deciding to take shared parental leave. One of those reasons was that I hoped it would give me a chance to be an equal parent alongside my wife. Without wanting to sound too sanctimonious about it, the idea that I would head off to work every day while leaving all the childcare stuff to her never seemed quite right. I didn’t want my role to be a bit-part: I wanted to be in the thick of it, getting my hands dirty (often quite literally). Continue reading
Last week was my wife’s first full week at work since before Christmas. For me and the kids it meant a return to the stay-at-home dad routine that I had sort-of established back in early December but had since wholly forgotten in the frenzy of Christmas activities, enforced absences from home caused by plumbing and heating issues, and a much-needed family holiday. With the baby (and accordingly, me and my wife) now sleeping much better and our lives feeling more back to normal, I wasn’t too daunted by it.
It turned out to be a week of highs and lows. Continue reading
When I started my six months of shared parental leave in November I had grand plans to blog and tweet it throughout. After all, I was doing something relatively rare – there are not many men who work part time and take months away from their careers on multiple occasions to look after children – and I was sure that people would be interested in reading about it. The timing was perfect, with numerous mainstream and social media articles on flexible working for dads having appeared in recent weeks, culminating in Mark Zuckerberg’s announcement of his plans to take two months of paternity leave. It seemed like a great opportunity for me to talk publicly about something I feel strongly about, and a topic with a real groundswell of popular interest and enthusiasm. I was confident I would be able to find a few hours here and there to do some writing. Continue reading
Earlier this year my employer, a management consultancy, updated its maternity and paternity leave benefits to pay mums and dads equally for childcare leave. For me and my wife, not long after the birth of our second child, the decision that I and not her would take the bulk of the leave available to us didn’t need much thought: we would be better off financially, my wife was eager to get back to work, and I felt as though I hadn’t really had a chance to get to know the baby. Surely any man in those circumstances would feel the same? Continue reading