The politics of paternity leave

Man with baby

The prime minister has put work on hold to be with his new daughter, but many new fathers can't afford the statutory time off. Is modern Britain coping with fatherhood?

It is those precious early moments with a new child that so many fathers treasure. A time to bond with their offspring and offer invaluable assistance to the mother.

After welcoming new daughter Florence into the world, Prime Minister David Cameron is taking his statutory paternity leave to be with his wife Samantha.

But it is an experience that not all his fellow fathers feel they can justify. Thanks to decades of shifting attitudes, their reluctance is not based chiefly on chauvinism or a belief that childcare is woman's work. The problem, instead, is money.

Some 45% of new fathers said they did not take paternity leave, according to a 2009 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Of those, 88% said they would have liked to have done so, and 49% said they could not afford it.

As it stands, new fathers with long enough service are entitled to £124.88 a week for two weeks, or 90% of their average weekly wage if that is lower. Assuming a 40-hour working week, it is a figure that comes in well below the minimum wage.

Why I didn't take paternity leave

When my daughter Iris was born two-and-a-half years ago, paternity leave was £109 a week.

There was no way I could afford take it - that wouldn't cover the mortgage, not without dipping into our savings. And savings are something you need when you've got a newborn.

I took two weeks annual leave instead and then it was back to work. Of course I've got 13 weeks unpaid annual leave I could take, but who can afford that?

In my case, I was lucky because I don't work crazy hours and my wife could ring me at work if she needed me. I don't think I missed out on anything, but who can tell?

If we had a system like in Scandinavia that would be different, but I have to make the best of what we've got.

My wife is expecting another in February and I'll do the same again.

Fathers can take an additional 13 weeks off, unpaid, before the child turns five and, from April 2011, new mothers will be able to transfer the second half of their year-long maternity leave to the father. But this too will be unpaid, thus, again, of little help to those without the necessary savings.

For many families, the situation reinforces the traditional norm that the father is the breadwinner and the mother the homemaker.

And yet this comes at a time when public attitudes appear to reject such gender roles. The EHRC study found that only 29% believed childcare was the mother's primary role.

The imbalance raises the question of what exactly paternity leave - and, indeed, modern fatherhood - is actually for.

Lancaster University's Dr Caroline Gatrell, an expert in work-life balance, says much of the pressure stems from competing - and contradictory - social pressures on modern men.

On the one hand, she believes, they are, unlike their own forebears, expected to live up to the idealised template of the "co-parent" or "flexible father" who takes an equal role in childcare and spends plenty of quality time with his children.

On the other hand, however, she says the same men are very often in workplaces with long-hours cultures, where asking for flexible working arrangements is frowned upon.

"There's this huge disparity between what is supposed to be put in place and what actually happens," she says.

"The way we do parenting has changed, but the rules haven't caught up. Men want to be hands-on parents, but among employers and those who make the rules there's an underlying expectation that women are the ones who take responsibility for parenting."

Samantha and David Cameron Samantha Cameron can expect a helping hand from her husband over the next fortnight

Dr Gatrell's depiction of men grappling with the ideal of having it all may provoke an ironic laugh from feminists. But she says this situation hardly benefits women either, and undermines many good intentions.

The father's paternity leave ends just as acquaintances' interest in the novelty of the new arrival wears off, meaning the mother is left alone. When the working father comes home for his "quality time" with the children, the mother is left to do the housework.

So what can be done to match wider expectations of co-parenting with reality - if anything?

Rob Williams, chief executive of the Fatherhood Institute, a think tank which lobbies for changes in the law to allow men more time with their children, believes the UK needs to restructure its system along the lines of Scandinavian countries, where paid time off can be shared between both parents.

"Modern British families have come a long way. According to some studies, fathers spend 800% more time with their children than they did in the early 1970s," he says.

"But among those who make the rules, there's still the assumption that father is a useful helper, but his real role is to be the breadwinner."

Who, when and how much?

  • Who? Those with 26 weeks of service, or those who will have responsibility for the child as the father or as the mother's partner
  • It applies to those in same-sex partnerships as well as heterosexual ones
  • When? One or two consecutive weeks within 56 days of the birth
  • How much? The Statutory Paternity Pay is £124.88 a week or 90% of average weekly earnings if lower

Source: TUC

However, what might be good for families' work-life balance may not be welcomed quite so fulsomely by their bosses. Employers warn of the extra burden they would face.

Commenting on the April 2011 changes when they were announced in January, Katja Hall of the CBI said British businesses did their best to support flexible working and recognised the need for greater gender equality in childcare responsibilities. But she also warned the government needed to be careful not to impose a "bureaucratic tangle".

Damion Queva, owner and publisher of the "dad's mag" FQ Magazine, says he can see both sides of the argument - as an advocate of greater recognition for fathers and as an employer.

"There are a lot of very good businesses that already allow paternity leave beyond the statutory minimum. They recognise that a happy employee with a good work-life balance will be a loyal employee," he says.

"At the same time, I think it's reasonable for workers to give plenty of notice, clear their desks before they go off, maybe come in a bit earlier and leave a bit later before their leave starts.

"Times have changed and so have our priorities. But that applies to employers as well as their employees."

Could this be the birth of a new era? In between changing nappies, two weeks will give David Cameron plenty of time to reflect.

Below is a selection of your comments.

When my wife fell pregnant with our first child, I tried to be responsible and find a higher paying job. But of course in doing so I had not worked there long enough to be entitled to a single hour of leave, paid or unpaid. When our second came along I was entitled but could only afford to take one week of the two. I'm bored of hearing politicians berate absent fathers on the one hand and then enact policy that is so clearly implying that fathers are not important on the other.

Ed, London

The whole maternity/paternity situation is a disgrace. Why are employers, tax payers and co-workers forced by law to pay for someone else's lifestyle choices? By all means encourage employers to offer three to six months' unpaid leave to one parent but doing any more than that is absurd and grossly irresponsible.

James, Cambs, UK

I work in an industry where taking more than three weeks a year holiday is frowned upon - we lose the other days. Taking paternity leave would be job suicide and as it's a fairly confined industry word would get around that I was a shirker not a worker so would find it hard to find a new position.

Jake, London

I think that benefits like paternity or even maternity leave are really only directed at the wealthy, as given the rate of payment received, most new parents have hefty mortgages and simply cannot afford to take the time off on such a reduced income. I think maternity and paternity remuneration should be based on a reasonable average wage for both parents. My children are now grown up. I had 18 weeks maternity leave for my first child and the same for my second child. My husband was allowed to take annual leave for a week each time so that he did not lose his pay. We both had to work to pay our mortgage. It was a very difficult time for us both and a real struggle. Things should change to help parents, especially working parents who contribute so much to the country.

Cheryl Saunders, Caerphilly County, United Kingdom

My husband would love to take two weeks' paternity leave but we can't afford it. I am the main breadwinner in our relationship and I've saved to enable me to take nine months off - and that is with pretty good occupational maternity pay of six weeks' 90% salary and 12 weeks' 50% (the remaining made up from savings). Paternity pay would mean my husband earning considerably less than he would in two normal working weeks and would not get the mortgage and bills paid. He is instead saving his annual leave so that he can take some time off with us in November because at least that's paid leave. He very much wants to be a "hands on" father and i think it's just as crucial for him to bond with the new baby as it is for me. Paternity leave and pay does not benefit us so he won't be claiming it.

Anna, Peterborough

My (now ex) husband took a week's paternity leave when our child was born. His was funded by his employer so he didn't lose any money. I was pleased to have some help after a very difficult birth, leaving me very weak and on medication. Instead he used it as a boy's holiday and spent nine days going out and doing exactly what he wanted!

Anonymous, Lincolnshire

The current paternity arrangements in this country are the last (formal) barrier to hinder equality of opportunity for women at work. Level (or share) these rights and finally women might get the same work opportunities as men. I've not yet heard a good argument against shared paternity rights. To me, it sounds like dusty old men trying to protect the next generation of dusty old men, from having to share their boardrooms with women. Come on, if women did actually have equal pay and opportunity at work, the cost and inconvenience of shared paternity rights would all balance out.

Mr R Westley, Cambridge

The entire state of family leave in many countries is absolutely deplorable. Having just had my first child, I read stories like this with great hope that when she has a child both she and her partner will have ample government and employer support upon having children. Of course, reading things such as this from European countries also makes me long to move out of the US, where most women are lucky to be able to take eight weeks unpaid leave, and fathers are lucky to take any.

Melissa, DC, USA

What about small firms that employ four or five people and each one is essential. To let one go off for three or four months on full pay will cripple many companies and possibly push them out of business. It is the employee's choice to have children so why should it be the employers who have to pay the cost?

Karen, Norfolk

Previously, feminists were moaning about men not having an interest in their children, whereas now they complain about men having an interest in their children, ie spending quality time with them, saying that they should be doing all the housework as well as their day jobs to bring home the bacon. I'm sorry, but if a man or woman is a stay-at-home parent and the other spouse does a full working day to provide for the family, then yes, division of household labour will be unequal - it simply isn't fair to expect the working spouse to do half under such circumstances. Also, I think it is good that the men being referred to spend some quality time with the children, so that the mothers can catch up on something, be it housework, sleep, leisure activities etc. Would feminists prefer us to stay at work or socialise with work colleagues until our wives and children are asleep?

Graeme Phillips, Northfleet, UK

As a non-parent, I have always objected to the way that fathers "must" have time off when little Johnny is born, cuts his first tooth, has his first day at school etc. I especially object when the general consensus is that the employer must turn a blind eye to these occasional days absent that the father takes - because it is the right thing to do. The father can and should be able to do all of these things but on his own time (using holiday allowance) and not because the vocal moral minority say he should be able to as a right.

Stuart Preston, Burton on Trent

The whole paternity thing has gone mad. What are you expected to do during this time exactly? In the early stages surely it's better to let the mother get on with it and establish her routine rather than be a pain hanging around like a spare part. I had a week off and quickly realised the best thing I could you was to go back to work! Second time around was a bit different perhaps - with another child there was useful role for me to play, but only for a few days.

Peter Holland, Yateley, Hampshire

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