The government plans to introduce radical new flexible-working and parental leave legislation from next year. What effect will this have on modern family life, and will it be good news for the economy? Piers Townley investigates
Two weeks go by in the blink of an eye. It’s quick enough when it’s your annual summer holiday but after the birth of your first child, for many new dads, it’s barely a heartbeat. Then it’s back to work, leaving mum and the new baby to get on with it. Surely we can think of a better system than this? The government thinks so and, over the course of next year, legislation will give new parents the opportunity to rethink their maternity leave.
A working mum will still have to take the legal minimum of the first two weeks off but, after that, working parents can opt to end the maternity leave and decide to share the remaining weeks as flexible parental leave, a kind of mix and match.
‘Our current system of maternity leave is antiquated and out of step with the wishes of modern parents,’ states Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. ‘They want much greater flexibility in how they look after their children. The changes will shatter the perception that women have to be the primary care-givers. This is good news not only for parents and parents-to-be, but for employers, who will benefit from a much more flexible and motivated workforce.’
This is all well and good on paper, but just how practical will it be?
‘It will take a huge shift in the country’s mentality, certainly for small businesses,’ says Sue Atkins, childcare author and regular parenting expert for ITV’s This Morning. ‘But, like everything, change has to happen. It will have a massively positive impact over time.
‘Dads today are more involved than previous generations. The dynamic has shifted and some dads choose to stay at home if mum earns more. These are employment shifts we’re seeing more of.’
“If more dads are able to get involved from the beginning then hopefully they’ll stay actively involve. The effects of this could be quite profound”
Helen Letchfield is co-founder of Parenting For Professionals, specialising in liaising with companies over parental rights. ‘The role of the dad in particular has changed tremendously,’ she says. ‘So many more dads are getting involved in active parenting – even if that means leaving work on time or early to do the nursery pick-up. The next generation will come to expect flexible working.’
That throws up a dilemma. A more flexible partnering approach from employers seems like a no-brainer, but putting it into practice is another matter.
‘The take-up of additional paternity leave has been surprisingly low,’ says Letchfield. ‘When I ask the parents we work with why this may be, many reply that they feel it’s not culturally acceptable to request extra time off to look after the family.
‘Many dads are concerned that a formally arranged, long period of leave would have negative implications for their career aspirations. But regardless of the choice each family makes, this legislation has opened the door for discussion about who will do what and when to benefit the family. Cultural change will take a long time, but many families now have options that we didn’t have five years ago.’
“There appears to be a general view, especially in senior management, that a dad taking six months off is a bit weird’
Atkins emphasises that these options are groundbreaking to a wider society. ‘We know that building bonds between parents and children early on is absolutely crucial,’ she says. ‘There has been study after study proving that those early weeks, months and years are so important. If more dads get involved from the beginning, hopefully they’ll stay involved. The effects of this could be quite profound.’
Change is on its way, but there are many examples of how tricky it will be practically to take advantage of this legislation, especially for new dads.
The legal professional
‘It was pretty straightforward for me to take the statutory two weeks’ unpaid leave,’ says Gary Smith, a patent attorney who’s due to become a dad for second time any day now. ‘But it was also made pretty clear that my employer wasn’t going to be open to anything more.
‘There was no overt pressure, but it was expected that I would be back after the two weeks and wouldn’t take any more time off unless there was an obvious need, for example my partner had a Caesarean. I’m lucky that I’m able to get home before 6pm and see my daughter for bathing and quality time most nights, which is pretty much an exception in the legal world. But there appears to be a general view, especially in senior management, that a dad taking six months off is a bit weird.’
The self-employed dad
‘I was going to take two weeks, but I’m only taking one,’ says journalist and dad of two Steve O’Rourke. ‘Within 48 hours of Eleanor being born a week ago, I was fretting about work. I was answering emails yesterday and invoicing, making sure the bills were paid. I’m now working at night – by which I mean late night – and still having to sort out Dylan and the nursery run.’
This seems to be the case for most self-employed parents; ‘work mode’ can’t be just switched off when the baby’s born.
‘When I go on holiday, I have to make sure there is broadband-quality internet access and a desk to work from,’ says O’Rourke. ‘Clients are all smiles about babies, but when it comes to deadlines they view me as a company – and I have to deliver. It’s naïve to think the world will slow down just because you need to.’
And this is the crux of the situation. There’s no doubt that this fundamental change in legislation will benefit families and society as whole. It’s just whether in the real world, it can work…
Sue Atkins is a parenting author and broadcaster, who appears regularly on a host of TV and radio programmes sueatkinsparentingcoach.com
Helen Letchfield’s company consults with many top companies and personnel departments about parenting rights and issues parentingforprofessionals.co.uk