The politics of paternity leave

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

  • Published
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.

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."

Image caption,
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."

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.

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