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What flexible paternity leave means for your family

Posted on 11th April, 2013 | filed under Featured, The Big Debate

Father feeding bottle to newborn baby

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


What flexible paternity leave means for your family was posted on 11th April, 2013 by Piers Townley under Featured, The Big Debate

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Piers Townley

About the author: Piers Townley

When Piers was 10, his dad asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up. He thought about it for three seconds and then stated categorically that I wanted to be a fighter pilot. Thirty one years later and he's been blessed with making journalism a career that has included writing about flying a fighter jet. He's travelled the world writing about ridiculous adventures and interviewing his heroes of cinema, music and popular culture for Loaded, Sorted magazine, teen lifestyle mag Flipside and a host of national publications and international websites. Children never crossed his mind. Then, with a few ‘worthier’ commissions under his belt, including childbirth fatalities in Africa and infant poverty and reportage stories from Nepal and Peru, he found himself in a long-term relationship. Fatherhood came with sheer joy, fear and daily trial by error when Jake was born. Now his younger sister Willow is approaching her second birthday, Jake’s just started school and suddenly his life is complete and full of daily learning. 'Fatherhood is the best experience,' says Piers, 'above and beyond flying the fighter jet.'
  • http://www.facebook.com/tammi.iley Tammi Iley

    Great article. The changes sound great and moving with modern times, however the biggest issue with people not taking more time off is because they cannot afford to. The current paternity law offers parents ‘unpaid leave’ but parents simply can’t afford to do this hopefully this is a step to making it more viable for parents.

    • http://www.facebook.com/piers.townley.1 Piers Townley

      Most of the new dads I’ve spoken to recently share the same concerns…it’s the economic and job security issues that always come to mind.

  • Joe Atwere

    Excellent Article. Informative and straight to the point. This is the type of clear information fathers need

    • http://twitter.com/StokeyDad StokeyDad

      Thanks Jo, I did find that many dads didn’t even know this was in the pipeline so hopefully they’ll be a groundswell of publicity as we go through the year

  • http://www.facebook.com/chris.bloxham.52 Chris Bloxham

    A healthy work life balance is the holy grail for working parents and the current set up just isn’t flexible enough for both parents and employers. This has to be a positive move. Great article.

  • Jen

    …and not just good for dads wanting to spend more time with their kids- I think this is the single most important move towards gender balancing in the workplace: equalizing the likelihood that a man or a woman will take maternity/paternity will reduce (conscious or otherwise) discrimination against employment of women of childbearing age to positions of responsibility. Encouraging a change in the cultural acceptability for a father to take the primary role in child upbringing (albeit probably at a glacial pace) will balance the choice for women to become the family bread winner and rise to senior positions.

    • http://www.pierstownley.com/ Piers Townley

      All of these are key points Jen, you’re right, and this can only lead to a more positive family future for the benefit of all communities and society as a whole.

  • charlie

    Really great article and a great debate. It perfectly highlights the extreme pressures we are all putting ourselves under in the modern world. It’s sad that things have become so competitive in the workplace that people feel they can’t take time off from work without it having a detrimental effect on their credibility. Even at such a milestone in their lives… I think this is a really welcome change and essential to adapt to modern parenting. It would be nice if we could think about setting out guidelines and changing managers attitudes towards taking time off from work… but unfortunately I think recession and competition for employment opportunities are driving things in the opposite direction at the moment.

  • Gary

    Great article

  • http://twitter.com/Jen_Watkiss Jen Watkiss

    This has been in practice for years now in Canada (where I’m originally from, and took my first maternity leave), and fathers still rarely take the time off. Mostly because of affordability issues.

    Besides the 12 weeks of Maternity leave (only available to the birth mother), Parents there are entitled to share the 35 weeks of parental leave at statutory pay between them as they wish, and may even take time concurrently (as long as it doesn’t exceed 35 person-weeks). Thing is, employers in Canada rarely top-up, and the statutory rate, similar to the UK, is laughably low. Most families could not afford to have their breadwinner (usually the father) take that time off. So they don’t.

    Except in the province of Quebec, where the provincial government is trying to encourage more dads to stay home, and will top up to 90% of the father’s wage for 17 (I think) of those 35 weeks. And, surprise surprise, more dads there are staying home.

    Similar programs exist in Sweden, where parents share leave, and most employers top up.

    It seems pretty obvious that this isn’t an issue of not wanting to take the time, it’s that families can’t afford it.

  • Theginz

    With my first born I needed my husband at the beginning more than I ever thought and could imagine. The 3 weeks prior to him going back to work went too fast and I can remember thinking how was I going to cope without him around, especially as i struggled with breast feeding. He felt the pressure from his office that he needed to go back to work. So yes i welcome any change like this, although in reality I think it will take years for dads and their companies to adapt to this offer.