From April 2015, working couples will be able to share up to 50 weeks of parental leave after having a baby.
The new regulations will give families more choice about how they spend the first year of their child’s life. And choice is the key word here.
It’s about not forcing families to follow a particular model and giving parents the opportunity to find a way of life that works for them. Not all families are the same, so a one-size-fits-all policy doesn’t work.
Currently, I’m on maternity leave after having my second baby, now 10 months old, and I’m due to return to work in a couple of months. If these regulations were already in place, they wouldn’t affect us. Financially it wouldn’t make sense for my husband, who is the primary earner, to take time off while I return to work. Plus, I wouldn’t want to return to work any earlier if I really didn’t have to. I know that some mothers don’t take the full maternity leave because they have no choice financially, they are worried about it affecting their career or they want to return to work. And that’s fine if that’s what works for them. But for me, I had a choice and I chose to take as much time off as possible. These new regulations not only give mothers more choice over their home/work life, but fathers too, and that is what has been missing until now.
For me, this is a major step in recognising the rights of fathers. For too long, parenting has been deemed the responsibility of women. It is expected that men will work and have no interest in looking after children. Stay at home Dads get no recognition at all because it is seen as such a rarity. There is always a lot of discussion – and criticism – over the choices that Mums make. But the same people who criticise women for returning to work when their baby is 6 months old wouldn’t think of applying the same negativity to a father who returns to work when their baby is 6 days old. People will generally question a career-driven woman’s commitment to her family, but never a father in the same position. And I can’t see that changing any time soon.
I don’t think it is ever going to get to the stage where men staying at home looking after the kids while mothers go back to work will become the ‘norm’. But then, what is ‘normal’ anyway? The whole point of these regulations is that they recognise that there is no normal. Every family has different needs and wants, and exist within different circumstances.
The flexibility of the regulations means that parents can use the 50 weeks of leave as they see fit – splitting it equally, taking it at the same time or separately. I think the most popular use will be for men to take more time off immediately following the birth of their child. Now, they can only take up to 2 weeks of statutory paternity leave. For many families, it would be really helpful to have two parents home for the first month or two.
Of course, there are some issues with shared parental leave. Some men may really want to take more time off to spend with their children, but social stigma and pressures from employers may make it difficult for them to fully take advantage of these regulations. Some men will feel pressured by their employers not to take time off. They could experience discrimination, be passed up for promotions, and ultimately their career could take a hit. There may be legislation in place to protect them, but there is legislation in place to protect women and maternity discrimination does still happen.
While shared parental leave is a welcome change that will really benefit some families, I think society has some catching up to do before more fathers will feel like they really have the same opportunities and rights as mothers.
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