We were the last to join the group and I felt nervous. I had spent the last ten minutes trying to keep a three-month-old calm while preparing them for a swimming lesson, something I had never done before and which turned out to be far more complex and stressful than anticipated. Now changed into swimming costumes and finally out of the changing area, we approached the pool with my daughter appearing more ready for a nap than a plunge.
The swimming instructor gave a cheerful welcome, introduced herself and beckoned us into the water. As we eased our way in, she asked: “So, where is mum today?”
“She’s at work”, I responded bluntly.
“Oh, do you have a day off?” she retorted. Then followed the first of many occasions when I had to explain to a stranger, as briefly as I could manage, that the parenting they were witnessing was not a one-off or part-time. This was my current occupation, a primary caregiver.
Over the course of the first year of my daughter’s life, my partner and I both took six months off work each, split into six alternating chunks of shared parental leave.
The swimming instructor’s reaction to our plans was similar to most people I had this conversation with: surprised that I had both wanted and was able to take this amount of time off work to care for my infant child. Few seemed to realise that any couple who are both in full-time employment have the right – although not necessarily the resources – to share parental leave like this.
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It was very clear to me that I was an anomaly. Despite living in a London borough that those living in other areas of the UK might assume is drowning in house husbands, there were very few other dads at the various baby groups that filled my weekdays.
My anecdotal experience is borne out by the statistics. In February 2021, the UK government estimated that of the roughly 285,000 fathers or partners eligible to take shared parental leave each year, a meagre 2–8% do so. Maternity Action calculated the take-up rate to be as low as 3.6% in 2019/2020.
UK shared parental leave not fit for purpose
The UK’s shared parental leave scheme, first introduced by the coalition government in 2015, is clearly flawed. Any father or partner that works through an agency, under a zero-hour contract or is self-employed is not eligible. Even those who are eligible have to take the time off mostly unpaid, unless their employer offers an enhanced paternity package (which is very rare).
Government schemes in other countries that include equal financial support for mothers and partners have drastically higher adoption rates. An EU study from 2018 found that Iceland and Sweden, which offer non-transferable leave for fathers, saw take-up rates of over 90%, compared with just 24% in Denmark, which does not.
In the private sector too, the evidence is clear that equal parental pay leads to near universal adoption by new fathers. Insurance company Aviva is often held up as the gold standard in the UK, providing equal parental pay and seeing some 84% of new dads at the company taking at least six months off.
Yet simply blaming the inadequacies of the UK’s legislation is not enough to create change. Despite clear progress towards a more equitable split of parental responsibilities becoming the societal norm, it is my experience that many still see it as ‘natural’ that mothers bear much of the burden of infant care.
My colleague Marina Leiva is absolutely right to argue that equal parental leave pay could make a huge impact on reducing gender inequalities in the workplace, and that more companies must follow Aviva’s example.
However, this is something men need to be championing and campaigning for much more passionately. My experience during shared parental leave suggests men’s attitudes still need to change around the scope and limits of paternal responsibility.
Attitudes to paternity leave still need to change
Being a peculiarity, my extended time off has attracted plenty of comment from men and women. More than one father has told me, depressingly, that if they had been left alone with their infant for any extended period during its first year of life, they are not sure they would have known what to do.
A friend who works in the building industry has said that taking so much time off for childcare would likely see the work they were offered reduce. They would no longer be seen as reliable. Others have voiced concerns about how it might be perceived by colleagues.
One father who had to care for his daughter during her early months around 15 years ago claims he was treated with suspicion by mothers and said he thinks women are protective of their right to be a child’s primary caregiver. Maybe times have changed since then, because this has not been my experience. Mothers I have interacted with in the strange subculture that exists in church halls, playgrounds and soft play centres while everyone else is at work have been welcoming and supportive of me.
However, I have found some women are sceptical of how committed even the most ‘involved’ dads are to the harder parts of infant care. One mother highlighted how dads are much more visible during the summer months, and how leave seems to be timed at the most convenient time for them.
Women’s careers are at best interrupted and at worst damaged, either overtly or subtly, by taking 9–12 months off work to care for their babies. My partner and I split our shared parental leave 50:50 based on the principal that our careers were equally important, and we wanted to limit the disruption to both.
The longest either of us spent out of office in one stint was three months. We both felt keen to swap roles each time the latest period of leave ended, and we feel like we have avoided the worst of the burnout we have witnessed many others endure. We have had to make a financial sacrifice to make it work but feel the value of doing so is much greater than any salary we have missed out on.
My partner has been praised by her employer for her shared parental leave plan while she has watched a contemporary within the same industry come back to work after a year of maternity leave to find her role changed and her responsibilities reduced. A story sadly familiar to many women.
It is men’s responsibility to fight for equality
Child-rearing is still widely seen as a cost to business rather than the economic necessity it clearly is. Without a healthy birth rate there will be insufficient economic activity and tax receipts in the future to pay for public services and pensions. Finding ways for all parents to be as economically productive as possible should be an obvious objective of any government, and frankly, any business.
Men shouldn’t want to share early parenting duties because it is fun. There are aspects of it that are fun, like witnessing your child’s first words or steps, but much of it can feel like gentle torture. Looking after an infant is hard work, physically and mentally. Every day your little bundle of joy is learning new ways to test your patience and stamina. Men should want to take on more childcare first and foremost to reduce the burden on their partners, and truly feel like an equal partner in the upbringing of their children.
Aside from breastfeeding, there is nothing about caring for an infant that is beyond the capabilities of men. At least not in my experience. Yet a lingering perception that women are better at it allows men to delegate much of the tough stuff to them.
Any man reading this article can help change these outdated attitudes. Does your company have a shared parental leave policy? Does it offer enhanced paternity pay? If you don’t know, find out. If it doesn’t, ask your company why not. Become an advocate, an activist employee. Exert pressure however you can. Only when companies feel like it is a burning issue for employees will they amend their policies. It is particularly important for older generations, who hold more senior positions, to fight for these benefits for younger employees.
Under current legislation extended paternity leave is unavailable or unaffordable to most, but any prospective father who thinks they can make it work should do it. There may be financial sacrifices involved, but they need to weighed against the sacrifices that society expects your partner to make. Lead by example and help your company create a better template for supporting young families.
I can tell you from experience it is the best career decision I ever made.