Paternity Leave: What’s SPL Like for the Dads?

Two dads on paternity leave, taking advantage of the new shared parental leave law, are hounded by an over-excited Annie Ridout who asks whether they like it, if it’s helped them bond with the babies and what other men think…

Two men were jiggling babies on their knees in my local coffee shop. It was 3pm on a Wednesday afternoon. I don’t often see dads and babies together in that coffee shop except on Saturday mornings, which appear to be for daddy-and-child time. And I don’t witness that very often, because my child is with her daddy on Saturday mornings while I go for an extra long run.

So I asked the men if they were full time dads, to which they answered both answered: yes. And I got a bit over-excited because they were the first dads I’ve met who have taken advantage of the new shared parental leave, which came in to play last April. The idea is that one parent takes the early days off work, looking after the child full time, then the other takes over and the first parent returns to full time work.

The two babies being jiggled were eight months old. The mothers had taken the initial six months of leave and the fathers had been doing full time childcare for the past two months. I asked how they were finding it and they both poured with positivity for the new scheme. Tiredness is hard, they said, but getting to bond with their babies makes it all worthwhile.

What do dads do while on paternity leave?

They told me that parenting groups – often inflexibly referred to as ‘mum and baby’ groups – aren’t dad-friendly zones. They feel ostracised and think the mums look at them strangely so end up leaving and either watching films, going to the park or meeting up with the few other dads in a similar situation.

They explained that it’s hard taking the second half of the leave, as their partners had spent the first six months meeting other new parents at groups and around the area. They didn’t meet these new ‘daytime friends’ and so felt left out when six months in, they attended playgroups and tried, unsuccessfully, to penetrate friendship circles that had been established during the early days.

Together, we questioned how relaxed women and men are about mixed sex friendships and noted that it definitely feels easier to approach someone of the same sex to strike up a conversation while your kids bounce off the walls. There can be an underlying question about intentions when it comes to approaching the opposite sex – even if it is a totally innocent attempt to unite with a fellow parent. As parenting becomes more equal, this will hopefully change.

Of the fathers in their NCT (antenatal) group, they are the only two taking advantage of SPL (shared parental leave), as the others are freelance, or in creative jobs, and work from home – so are able to share childcare more easily without committing to a set block of time. They, however, work in full time, office-based jobs.

How do employers feel about shared parental leave?

Both men said that while their bosses were ok with them taking the leave, other dads have been asked if they’re joking when enquiring about extended paternity leave. So will dads now be at risk of demotion and losing their jobs when they return to work, like so any mums are, I asked. They both said yes, they will. And this is one of the reasons the uptake has been so low.

Research carried out by My Family Care cites that for over 40% the biggest barrier, when it comes to SPL, is the fear that it will be ‘frowned upon or career limiting’. But as long as there are enough fathers willing to take that risk, in the same way that mothers do, it won’t matter – some will take the hit initially but in time it will become the norm for parents to share the leave.

These two mid-late 30s dads had spoken to other, older men in the workplace before taking time off. They asked whether these dads would have taken six months of paternity leave when their children were babies, if it had been an option. And every single one had said yes; that more time to bond with their babies would have been a wonderful option.

What will the new paternity leave laws change?

Most poignant during that conversation, however, was when both those full time dads talked about going back to work. One is wondering whether he wants to go back to his civil servant role at all, is there something he could do from home that would protect his cherished mornings and evenings with his son? The other is looking into flexi-working – possibly four extended days at work, one weekday with his baby.

And this is when I felt warm inside; and excited for the future of parenting. Because although some dads will be messed around by their employers, some will lose jobs, some won’t take leave in the first place – there will be others who do take that time, and end up totally reassessing the traditional role as the father as the sole breadwinner – working full time and lucky to see the kids before bedtime.

The more involved fathers are in raising children, the more space there is for mothers to work – if they want to – and the greater the likelihood of sexual equality becomes. After all, equality means both the mum and dad feeling all options are open: staying at home with kids, going to work full time or part time, working from home. And that looks like a happy future to me.