Shared parental leave – can it be made normal?

By Paul Hodkinson

A year ago, I was beginning four months of what, at the time, was called ‘additional paternity leave’. I am hard pressed to remember a more distinctive, enjoyable or fulfilling period in my recent daily life and, as the spring weather has set in this year, have found myself wishing I could relive it all over again. It was a unique opportunity to develop my relationship with my 6 month old son, Asher, take primary responsibility for his well-being and break away from the pressures of paid work. My partner was able to return to work after what, for her, felt like a manageable period away, something that limited career disruption and enhanced enjoyment of her own leave. There were a variety of challenges along the way, of course, but in the end, the main problems were the rapidity with which my leave passed and the money it cost us. Two years earlier, such costs had persuaded us against a similar arrangement for our first child, something we now regret in light of its success this time – it felt, and feels, so obviously worth it. But that’s easy to say when you have sufficient money to be able to choose.

Encouraging fathers to take more time out to care for young infants now has reasonably broad support as a policy objective, it seems, and so it should. For, when fathers take time off work to care for babies and toddlers this can reduce career disruption for their partners and, on a larger scale, address long-term gender gaps in career earnings and status. Studies also indicate that adjusting their focus and time towards childcare can be good for new fathers themselves in terms of their work-life balance and general sense of well-being, and good for their children through helping establish relationships and roles that can sustain themselves thereafter (Kaufman 2013). In broader terms, greater male involvement in infant care has tremendous potential to contribute to the challenging of hegemonic masculinities and femininities.

From April 2015, UK couples have been afforded the right to share parental leave between them more flexibly than the ‘additional paternity leave’ scheme under which my time-off was taken. The new arrangement offers two weeks of paid leave for each partner immediately after the birth, followed by a possible 50 weeks of leave, 37 of which paid, that they can split between them as they choose. Where previously fathers could take extended leave only after 20 weeks and if their partner returned to work, couples now are afforded the option to divide up leave from 2 weeks, including short or longer blocks of time, and either together or separately.

Yet in spite of often having aspirations to play a substantial hands-on role (Miller 2011), and tending to have greater involvement, in practice, than their own fathers, few UK dads take extended periods of parental leave. Well-intentioned though it may be, it’s difficult to see how the new legislation will make much difference to this. Indeed the government’s own impact assessment for the policy estimates that just 2-8% of eligible fathers are likely to take up their right to shared parental leave – which may help explain why a conservative-led government was willing to introduce such legislation.

There are a variety of reasons for this lack of take-up. Some are practical. Existing financial disparities between men and women, for example, can reinforce themselves in decisions about parental leave, with men’s tendency to earn more than their partners sometimes contributing to the decision for them to permanently return to work soon after birth, something that can cement them the primary role of breadwinner from an early point (Almqvist 2008; Miller 2011). With shared parental leave pay under the new UK scheme remaining low – at £139.58 a week (or 90% of average weekly earnings if this is lower) – it is difficult to see much incentive for fathers to break the mould. Meanwhile, it remains to be seen whether employers who offer enhanced maternity leave packages will extend these to male employees – and whether contrasting employer approaches in this respect may create their own problems.

Important though such practical issues are, however, the biggest barriers to greater male take-up of extended parental leave probably are cultural ones. Deep-rooted beliefs about the nature of motherhood and fatherhood, which can be especially strong in the case of care for young infants, circulate throughout public life and are liable to pervade the attitudes and discourse of peers, family, employers and others. And, awkward though it may be, pressure on mothers to exclusively breast-feed over long periods of time, alongside the broader popularity of parenting manuals and approaches that stress the primary bond between mother and baby, have a tendency to reinforce understandings of fatherhood as a support role. For example, in their seminal attachment-parenting-oriented ‘Baby Book’, Sears and Sears’ (2003: 10) encouragement of fatherly involvement notes that: ‘while a preference for mother is natural for babies in the early years… father creates a supportive environment that allows mother to devote her energy to the baby’. The overt orientation to mothers of the range of products, media and services for new parents (from nappies to online communities) surely plays a similar reinforcing role.

Needless to say, dominant understandings of masculinity and femininity are not going to be instantly overturned through the tweaking of one policy or another. And equally, there might be tensions in negotiating the importance of breast-feeding with the benefits of extending fatherly involvement, or with challenging some aspects of the female-centric worlds of early parenthood. Nevertheless, there are a variety of things that might warrant attention. A government serious about normalising equal approaches to infant care might want to work closely with the range of organisations that provide support and advice to new parents – from the NHS, to children’s centres, NCT and beyond, to review what they are doing to make the taking on by fathers of equal or primary caring roles a more realistic, feasible, fulfilling and worthwhile prospect. This might include anything from the nature of activities or support services on offer to the everyday use of imagery or language. To take an obvious and simple example, would it be so difficult to specify and indicate ‘parent/s’ rather than ‘mother/s’ or ‘mums’ a bit more often?

Partly, all this is about making paternity leave seem like a realistic prospect – something that fathers, and their families become able to envisage. But it is also about alleviating some of the specific challenges of fulfilling such a role. Research in Canada by Andrea Doucet (2006) illustrates that stay-at-home fathers can face extensive social and institutional barriers, partly involving employers, colleagues and male peers but particularly in a range of female-dominated parenting community and support spaces, including those that tend to be so central to daily life on parental leave, from playgroups to informal mother and baby meet-ups. Not surprisingly, perhaps, when I took Asher to parent and baby events at our local children’s centre, library and swimming pool I was usually the only father present and always the only father alone with their baby. At no point was I made to feel unwelcome but, needless to say, such a situation creates potential barriers. It is perhaps not surprising that recent research by Katherine Twamley (forthcoming) indicates that loneliness might be a particular issue for fathers on paternity leave. Once again, such issues – which relate to the ongoing reinforcement of a long-standing gendered status quo – cannot be resolved by policy alone, either at an institutional or governmental level. But that does not prevent the taking of a range of baby steps (no pun intended) along the lines indicated.

And there are also more radical measures that may have greater potential to generate a decisive break from the self-reinforcing hegemony that predominates. Cross-European studies indicate two particularly effective policy levers. The first is offering substantially higher rates of parental leave compensation and the second is the allocation of a specific ‘daddy-quota’ of leave that can only be taken by the father and is otherwise lost to the family (Saraceno 2011). Pre-election proposals by the UK’s Labour party to extend the period of designated paternity leave directly after birth to four weeks would have represented a small step towards this but still far short of the 12 week father-only period in Norway, for example.

In the meantime, there is plenty of room for more sociological research on the issue. Here at Surrey, my colleague Rachel Brooks and I are developing plans to examine the set of circumstances that make it possible for a minority of men to take-on primary or equal caring roles for babies and young children and the various challenges that they and their families find themselves negotiating. Our hope is that such research will enable us to develop recommendations on how societies can make shared caring responsibility for young children work better and how we can make it normal.


Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies