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Parental Leave: Why Can’t the Roles Be Reversed?

CW: This article discusses topics of pregnancy and birth complications which could be distressing to some readers.

When you take time off because your partner’s having a baby […] you might be eligible for ….”

There you have it, the first few sentences that determine the male parents' allowances when sharing the experience of bringing a child into the world. By cleverly using the modal auxiliary “might”, GOV.UK is reiterating that these rights are a possibility and not a certainty. The verb itself addresses a request for permission, or rather the probability of what might occur. It denotes what might occur, a hypothetical scenario, or potential. When, in actuality, these “rights” may not be very likely.

What counts as Paternity Leave in the UK?

GOV.UK states that an individual requesting paternity leave might be eligible for:

- 1 or 2 weeks of paid Paternity Leave

- Paternity Pay

- Shared Parental Leave

NB only one can be granted - it should be noted from this brief selection that “you may not get both leave and pay, and there are rules on how to claim and when your leave can start”. Likewise, your ‘week’ or two weeks off will only equate to the same amount as your working week. For example, if you only work Mondays and Tuesdays, you will only get two days off.

How is Paternity Leave utilised in the UK?

In a survey conducted by campaign group @pregnantscrewed on Twitter, they found that:

- 25% of dads and non-primary carers will not use their full entitlement because of pressure from work and financial issues. And if they do, a quarter will continue working, despite being on leave, due to pressure from their employer.

- 80% of dads and non-primary carers don’t have enough time to bond with their baby. As a result, almost half say they experienced a new mental health issue.

The group started the thread by highlighting this heavily ignored social injustice by stating that those on Paternity Leave in the UK only receive a “measly” £318 for ten days. Furthermore, followers got in touch to add that many father figures often shy away from utilising their full Paternity Leave due to the stigma around having time off.

Arguing their case, PregnantThenScrewed listed the benefits of a longer-term Paternity Leave, stating that dads and non-primary carers staying home would help improve children's wellbeing and education attainment. They added that not only does it allow time for the child to bond with their father figure, but it ensures mental and physical stability for mothers. This egalitarian split of labouring is good for the economy and increases the chances of couples staying together in the long run.

Photo by Alex Bodini on Unsplash

What can change?

On the 20th of June this year, the team behind PregnantThenScrewed went to parliament to convince the House of Lords that father figures deserve six weeks of Paternity Leave paid at 90% of their salary. It is unknown what the outcome of the debate was, but the #LetsTalkAboutSix campaign still remains prevalent.

According to Pregnant Then Screwed’s website, we live in a country (a first-world country, no less) that has the 2nd most expensive childcare in the world. Furthermore, we are host to the 3rd worst ranking Maternity Pay and the least generous Paternity Leave in Europe. Not to mention, we work the longest hours in Europe.

Despite being in the top 3 for longest minimum Maternity Leaves, the UK pays just 29.80% of the mother figures salary, and the father receives just 19% putting us amongst the lowest of countries to offer financial support throughout parental leave.

Change is needed sooner rather than later. So many other countries have successfully managed for years to provide longer-term parental leaves, namely paternal, so why can’t we take after them? If our government allocated some time to research the benefits of Paternity Leave, we could have a much better starting point for new and improved rights. It would only require observing more generous Paternity Leave programmes worldwide to acknowledge what works. Nordic countries seem to do exceptionally well when it comes to paternal rights. Likewise, many countries have trialled combinations of shared leave that have greatly benefited new parents.

The road to equality

Simply put, two weeks is not enough time to bond with anyone, let alone a newborn. What’s worse is that the pressure is currently being put on mother figures to bear the weight of post-natal care, as well as mentally and physically recovering for themselves. In addition, mothers who undergo C-sections require a 6-week resting period before a doctor signs them off as medically fit. How is it feasible for a weak, sole caregiver to provide for a child without help from their partner? Likewise, many mothers have birth complications that cannot be immediately recovered just because they’ve been sent home from the hospital.

In a heterosexual couple, if a new mum decided to return to work, putting the father in the role of a stay-at-home parent, would the dad reap the benefits of maternity leave, or would he suffer from the poor standard of paternity leave offered by the government? Sadly, the answer is still unclear. Social injustices such as this require years of campaigning; they require “persistence, volume, organising and hope”.

Katie Mortimer


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