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