The government has been running a big campaign to encourage for couples to consider Shared Parental Leave (SPL). SPL allows parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay. Parents can be off work together for up to 6 months, or stagger their leave and pay so that one of them is always at home with their baby in the first year.
Sounds great, right? Dads get to bond with their babies, mums have the option of returning to work earlier if they want, and the family gets to flex their leave based upon their needs. But take-up of SPL may be as low as 2% – hence the flashy government campaign.
There are a lot of complicated reasons why more men aren’t sharing leave with their partners – but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about sharing the story of one father who chose to take SPL, and what he’s gotten out of the experience.
“There’s very little said at our organisation about taking SPL”
Stephen is a 29-year-old to who lives in London and works in the finance/legal sector. His partner works for the same organisation – they met when they started there about five and a half years ago and have one daughter who is nearly 9 months old.
When Stephen expressed an interest in taking SPL, his line manager was very helpful – but the HR department was less so.
“My line manager was very supportive. I already had a good relationship with her and talked to her about lots of things in my life, so when I told her about our plans she was more than happy to help me put them in place. She didn’t know much about the policy, but she helped me to find pieces of information and agree with my application as long as it followed our general policy. I didn’t face any challenges from my manager,” he said.
“Our HR department were much less actively supportive. Me and my partner both met with them to discuss our plans and make sure we understood how it all worked. They didn’t really know themselves and had to check several things. We got some wrong information from them and the paperwork took a long time to get sorted out. They were neither positive or negative, and there’s very little said at our organisation about taking SPL. That said, I know there are quite a few men at my organisation who’ve taken SPL.”
“A lot of men say they’re envious of what I’ve done – but I’m not convinced they really mean it”
“With my friends and family there was very little reaction. My mum says that I’d already said I wanted to share the leave when the policy was first introduced. I don’t remember this, but I can see that I probably did. But I often found my friends forgot I was doing it – possibly because they reverted the expectation of my partner taking 12 months off work.
“Some of our friends have made positive comments about me having time off, and a lot of men say they’re envious of what I’ve done – but I’m not convinced they really mean it. Some of those men have had children recently too and they’re eligible for SPL, but they’ve chosen not to take it. They often say it’s for financial reasons or career reasons, but I don’t think that’s always true.
“I took five weeks leave when my daughter was born – two weeks statutory paternity leave, two weeks of SPL and one week of holiday. My partner then had eight months off, and I’m taking the last three months by myself. I’ve been off since the beginning of April and I go back to work in the middle of July.
“When we’re both back at work in July, we’re reducing our hours to work four days a week. Our daughter will go to nursery for three days, and we’ll each look after her for one day in the week.”
“I wanted to spend quality time with my daughter”
Stephen decided that he wanted to reduce his hours when he returned to work because he felt a bit strange about working to earn money, then using that money to pay someone to look after his child.
“I really wanted children so I could care for them and build a relationship with them. I felt that working full time wasn’t going to help me achieve that. I want to spend quality time with my daughter doing activities that we both enjoy now and really value this time, because we’re very unlikely to have this experience again.
“As with my SPL, my line manager was supportive. She directed me to the right paperwork and gave me advice about what they were looking to find out. There was already a good structure in place for my employer to consider flexible working requests, so I simply had to fill out the form outlining what I wanted to do, why I wanted to do it, and what I thought the impact on the organisation would be.
“Once I’d put my request in it was decided it was very straight forward, and within a few weeks I’d found out it had been approved. My partner’s experience was very similar.”
“There’s a lack of activities that are either aimed at dads or welcoming to dads”
Stephen feels like the biggest challenge that fathers who want to take SPL or work flexibly face is culture – both at work and in society.
“In general society, there is still the idea that women are naturally better at caring for children than men. I think this often leaves to myths being created around what a child needs. Breastfeeding is very important and obviously in the early days the mother needs to be around for that. But as time goes on, children feed less and men can more easily take over the caring role.
“There’s also a lack of activities that are either aimed at dads or welcoming to dads. I think this means some men find it hard to see how they fit into the role of full-time parent.
“But I think it’s still early days for SPL, and with time they’ll be more role models of dads who’ve taken leave and people will become more comfortable with the idea and see how it can be done. But in order for that to happen, there needs to be constant conversation about it and a spotlight on specific people. I’ve seen this happening a lot more recently.
“I often hear people say that it’s for financial reasons they don’t take SPL, but with a bit more questioning I find they haven’t looked into and understood how the policy works and what pay they’d be entitled to from their employer. To me, this shows that other barriers stand in the way.
“I’ve also noticed that many men seem to change jobs or look for promotions around the time of their child being born in an attempt to increase their income. I think this is because of an underlying expectation in society that the man must earn the money for the family, but also that men aren’t encouraged to form an emotional bond with their child. This effect means that men see it as more important to work, than spend time at home.”
“SPL has allowed us to see what the other person has been doing and appreciate their work”
So…what’s the biggest benefit to taking SPL?
“This is a very difficult question to answer, because I think there’s so many!” Stephen said.
“The main reason I wanted to do it was to bond with my child. Like I’ve said, I wanted to be a dad to have that emotional relationship, and I think it’s important to establish that as early as possible. I think this is a massive benefit which isn’t spoken about as much as it could be.
“There are also the benefits of equality in our household. We’re not perfect, but SPL has allowed us to see what the other person has been doing and appreciate their work. This means the jobs around the house are dealt with more fairly – for example, I can do the shopping, washing, cooking, cleaning, etc when it needs to be done, and so can my partner. So we can be flexible and support each other when we need to.
“I hope that this environment will have an impact on our daughter and she’ll see that women and men can be equal and do similar things. Society often doesn’t paint that picture, so I think our influence is going to be really important.
“I also think that knowing I was going to be spending time caring for my daughter alone meant that I was really engaged with the childcare from the start; taking time to look at the clothes and understanding our approach to care. I believe this has help with the relationship with me and my partner because we’re joined up in our thinking and we know the other one is there to support any decisions or actions we take.”
You can find out more about Stephen on his blog, Equal Parents.