Monday 26 March 2018

Excuses for not taking extended paternity leave

Men usually get 2 weeks of paternity leave in the UK. Most men I know have taken this leave when their child was born, and gone straight back to full time work following this. Perhaps they took holiday days following this when needed. This compares to women who are allowed up to 1 year of maternity leave (pay depends on your employer, but typically decreases over this time and the final 3 months are usually unpaid). Most women I know have taken somewhere between 6 months to 1 year, with 9 months being quite common. It goes without saying that this results in a big difference in parental roles in the first year of a child’s life in the UK, with a host of demonstrable knock-on effects in terms of career progression and pay that can last a lifetime.

There is provision for men to take off more time, through shared parental leave. This has been available since 2015, and allows the couple to share up to 50 weeks of leave in a relatively flexible manner. I am currently 1 month into a 3-month stint of parental leave (from 9 months to 1 year) and my wife went back to work at 9 months. However, I know few men who have committed to more paternity leave than the usual 2 weeks despite this legal entitlement.

Below is a list of a few “excuses” that I have heard in relation to this. A few caveats first though. First, I am assuming you are committed to equality between men and women. If you’re not, take a long walk off a short pier. Second, I am writing as someone in a heterosexual relationship, to other men in a similar relationship. This is because it is what I have experience with, and it’s probably where most change needs to occur in terms of questioning gender roles. Third, I am presuming you are eligible for shared parental leave in the UK. If you’re not, this is a pretty good excuse for not taking shared parental leave. Finally, this is not meant to be judgmental, or if it is I apply it equally to myself as well as others. I think I have probably used most of these excuses either implicitly or explicitly when making decisions about the length of my paternity leave for both my daughters (~2 months for the first on a relatively ad hoc basis, 3 months for the second). Finally, some of these excuses are legitimate in certain situations, which is perhaps why they are easy to use as a post hoc way of justifying your decision. The point of this list is to identify these common excuses so we can question them more thoroughly next time we’re making a decision.

1. I didn’t know I could
This one is easy to deal with. It isn’t an excuse. If you wanted to take extended paternity leave, you would have googled it. Ignorance isn’t an excuse.

2. It isn’t part of my work culture
You happen to be in a job where men don’t typically take long periods of paternity leave? What are the chances of that happening? Well, fairly high given that’s the current norm in UK society. I would ask yourself two questions though: (1) do I think this culture should change, and (2) have I previously pushed for change at work in other ways (not related to paternity leave)? If you answered yes to both of these questions, or just yes to the first one, then perhaps you’re realising this isn’t a great excuse either. You are legally entitled to shared parental leave. The only way it becomes part of work culture is for men to start taking advantage of this opportunity.

3. I earn more than my wife
So what? If anything, this is a reason to take more time off, so maternity leave has less of an effect on your wife’s pay packet. You taking time off might help to redress the balance, or at least not exacerbate it.

4. We can’t afford it
This may be a completely legitimate excuse. However, it’s still important to question this. For example, you are presumably already taking a financial hit with your wife being on maternity leave. Why did you decide this was affordable but you taking time off wasn’t? Did you sit down and carefully do the sums, or did you decide relatively quickly that whatever financial cost associated with your wife taking maternity leave was worth the sacrifice but somehow it wasn’t with you taking time off?

This obviously interacts with excuse 3. If you earn more, you will take more of a financial hit by taking time off. However, it might be worth asking why you are earning more. Did your wife not apply for that dream job during early pregnancy because she had better maternity cover at her current job? Did you move city for your job and not hers even before you were considering having children?

5. It would affect my career progression
Good. It’s about time men risked taking a hit, given the sacrifices women have been making in terms of career progression and pay. Ultimately though, I think it unlikely that (e.g.) 3 months away from work is really going to have a massive effect on your career. The mere fact that you are having a child is going to affect your career in some way, so taking a bit of time off isn’t going to make things much worse. A related excuse is "it's not a good time career-wise". It never is, get over it.

6. My wife wants to take the full year of maternity leave
This is a trickier one. I completely understand why someone might want to take a full year of maternity leave (leaving you with no “shared” time to take off). There are a few things to ask though. First, how much of this desire is based on societal expectations? I have seen pregnant women questioned when they say they’re planning on taking “only” 6 months off. Second, do you always acquiesce to your wife’s wishes, or do you typically talk things through and arrive at a mutual decision that takes into account both your wishes? I would hope that any equal partnership would be able to deal with this amicably, and your wife would be able to see the positives in you spending more time with your child.

7. I’m scared, and not very good at looking after my baby
It’s OK to be scared. I was terrified when I made the decision. You have to make it relatively early on though, and then by the time it comes around you’re already committed so can’t do anything about it. You will mess things up. You will find it hard. You will find it rewarding though, and you will enjoy yourself (at least some of the time).

I'll keep adding to the list based on suggestions from Twitter.

8. My wife is breastfeeding our baby
Thanks to Catherine Manning and Jenni Rodd for pointing this out. This is potentially a good excuse for not taking paternity leave early in the first year, but doesn't apply as much to taking time off later in the year. This can certainly make things logistically difficult if your wife is still breastfeeding when she goes back to work. There are ways around this though. I have talked to female colleagues who have gone back to work relatively early. They have got by through pumping as well as the man bringing the child to work once a day to be breastfed. As I said, logistically difficult but not necessarily a deal breaker. If this just isn't feasible, consider taking the final few months off, where your child is likely to be eating mostly solids and can much more easily be fed occasionally with a bottle.