Father’s Day: Experiences of Paternity Leave
This Father’s Day, we shine the spotlight on Paternity leave. Since 2011, the government has challenged the myth that it is the mother’s role to stay at home and care for children but uptake so far- around 1 per cent- has been low compared to countries such as Norway where it is virtually mandatory. Caramel speaks to new fathers (mostly from the creative industries or who worked for themselves) about their paternity leave experiences. Tellingly, it was tricky to find anyone who worked in the financial sector.
“How terribly modern” is the standard refrain that Alex Olerenshaw , a journalist for the Guardian receives when he tells his parents’ generation or older colleagues that he has decided to take paternity leave. “Even though I’ve swept in when my daughter, Freda is 10 months old and it’s my wife who has done all the hard work with the routine and the feeding. There’s this sense of wonderment that it even exists, some are jealous that it is an option that is available to me while others have expressed, in not so many words, that it’s not the done thing. What has been interesting however is discovering that far more men have decided to work more flexibly –say a four day week or to take a couple of months off- but because no one talks about it, I had no idea before I’d asked.”
For Matt Shaw, an architect who runs a creative art and technology practise and is taking a 6 month paternity leave, the response was similar. “I think my parents were concerned that I would be leaving my job for a period and the implications it might have. It’s odd that it’s somehow accepted for my wife to leave her job but less so for me.” He’s right, it’s a moot point how society deems a tiny female mind is somehow better suited to domestic drudgery.
Thankfully, paternity leave is more the norm amongst Shaw’s circle of friends. “Several have been intrigued to know how I have found it because they are considering doing the same thing when their babies arrive shortly.”
Joe Whitaker, a policy analyst decided to reduce his hours at work after the birth of his daughter, Isla because he calculated he would only see her for an hour and a half each evening otherwise, and he was keen to develop a strong bond with her.
“I also think parental responsibilities should be shared and it is as much a paternal role as a maternal one. I also wanted to share the burden with (his partner) Dani who also has an important career she wanted to maintain.”
His employer was very supportive, agreeing his request almost immediately. “Flexible working is much easier to arrange in the public sector than the private one” reckons Whitaker, ” and is increasingly being seen as a positive approach to work in the civil service.”
Shaw was keen that taking paternity leave was also an accepted part of his work culture. “Our terms are at least double what the legal requirements are but he felt it was important to lead by example and not just create policies to cast the business in a favourable light. “I’d discussed it with my business partner at length but it also helps that we are married to Swedish women so we are aware of cultures that do things differently.” What about their paternity leaves has surprised them the most? For Olrenshaw it’s been “interesting to discover the number of activities that are available for free through the local council. It’s also more physically demanding that I ever expected, I don’t stop moving. But it’s great to spend the whole day with my daughter and consequently there is an intensity to our relationship which comes from caring for her, nappies, cooking everything. “ It’s certainly given me better empathy for my wife.”
The number of people leading different 9-5 existences in his local community has also been an eye opener for Shaw. “Having a child makes you have different interactions with everyone in your community. That time spent with Nola also means there’s a shift in our relationship. For now, it’s me who knows how big a bit of pasta she can eat this week (without choking) and how that will change from day to day. That really bonds you to a child. As to whether he understands better what his wife has experienced, Shaw smiles and assures me that so far they’ve tried to share everything as much as possible. Vive la revolution!
Photo by Anastasia Voutyropoulou