Maybe mothers don’t want to share parental leave

Amidst all this talk of shared parental leave – low uptake for the men, the fault lying with outdated work cultures and sexist bosses – there’s an important voice missing: the mothers. Maybe 98 per cent of leave is taken by women because that’s what they’d prefer…

Since Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced in 2015, employed fathers have been entitled to share new baby duties with the mother for the first 52 weeks; a big improvement on the two weeks’ leave they were previously granted. But in the three years since it was introduced, there’s been a pitiful 2 per cent uptake.

Some blame an outdated work culture that expects men to graft outside of the home, while women rear babes. Others feel bosses frown on men taking paternity leave. But in terms of how women feel about splitting parental leave with their partners, there’s a worrying gap in the commentary.

One of the few articles I’ve come across is this infuriating comment piece in The Independent, headlined:

‘Why have so few men taken up shared parental leave? Perhaps it’s because mothers won’t hand over the baby.’

The writer, interesting, didn’t share her 10 months’ leave with her partner – she took it all herself, and enjoyed it. So it seems odd that she’s accusing other women who take maternity leave of ‘jealously’ guarding their babies, saying: ‘they simply don’t want to share.’ Since when has a mother choosing to spend the first months of her baby’s life with him been possessive?

But, as usual, this conversation has become all about the men: how they feel, how they’re affected, why it’s hard for them to take the leave. Even when, as noted above, it’s a woman writing the article. There hasn’t, however, been much talk about why a woman might actually want to take the maternity leave herself.

As a feminist, I agree with the SPL legislation and with men doing their bit. It’s a move in the right direction. But my reigning feminist beliefs surround choice and I don’t think women should be coerced into returning to work sooner than they would like by their partner, the Government or society.

Having a baby affects women and men in different ways. A father can feel emotionally attached to his baby and share the weight of the responsibility but he doesn’t go through the physical changes of pregnancy and birth. He can’t breastfeed. He doesn’t have the same hormonal changes as the mother.

I felt, in the first few months of both my children’s lives, as if the umbilical chord was still attached. The fourth trimester is thus named for this reason: it’s like the last stage of pregnancy, when the baby is still reliant on her birth-giver. During this period, and for a while after, I simply wasn’t ready to be separated from my baby for eight+ hours a day.

My husband did his bit: changed nappies, helped in the night when I asked, gave bottles when that was an option. More importantly, he cleaned and cooked while I rested and recovered from the mammoth, physically traumatic act of giving birth. And then when we needed to be earning money, after a few weeks, he returned to work so that I could continue to recover, while caring for our baby.

But he still did far more than half of the domestic duties for a few months, because I wasn’t physically able to even unload the dishwasher without feeling uncomfortable. He understood that caring for a newborn baby was incredibly tiring. His work, as a builder, is physically demanding but he can take breaks. When caring for a newborn baby, you don’t get any.

The physical recovery, following childbirth, is crucial when talking about SPL. It takes time to feel ‘normal’ again. If the mother does return to work and the father takes over childcare, or other childcare is arranged, she’ll still feel the physical sensations of birth-recovery: her pelvic floor will be strengthening, her ligaments will remain loose, her hair might be falling out, her breasts engorged.

Among the fathers I know, the return to work immediately after having a baby has been tiring because of the night-wakings but on the whole, they seem to be able to leave family life at home and get stuck into work. For mothers – the physical, hormonal and emotional changes make it harder to compartmentalise in this way until much later. Not impossible, but harder.

We know that 54,000 women in the UK lose their jobs each year during pregnancy and maternity leave. This is a frightening statistic. And so SPL looks as if it’s doing women a favour – it’s saying: you can return to work, and let your partner’s career suffer from the ‘time out’ instead. But this isn’t necessarily what women need or want.

What we need, in my opinion, is to be allowed to have this time with our babies. To work during maternity leave, or not, on our own terms and without our maternity pay being withdrawn. We don’t need men telling us to return to work. Or bosses firing us because we’ve had a baby. We need to continue taking maternity leave, or handing it over to our partners – if and when the time feels right. But ultimately, the decision needs to lie with the mother.

So much of pregnancy and birth is an open conversation. What you eat, the way you give birth and whether or not you’re breastfeeding all become common ground for discussion. This is a feminist issue; a patriarchal society encouraging everyone – women and men – to judge the new mother. The last thing we need is to then be forced back to work before we’re ready.

For some women, the return to a 9-5 after maternity leave can bring relief: a change of scene, some separation, a return of her identity. I fully understand these feelings, and have sometimes longed for this life. In fact, 10 months after my daughter’s birth, I took a part-time office-based job. But in the end, I decided to establish a more flexible freelance career, so that I could choose my own hours and spend time at home with my children.

Later, childcare became more shared. My husband has a wonderful relationship with both children. He’s a present father; he feeds them breakfast, plays with them, is home for early dinner, we bathe them together, read them books and take one child each to put them to bed. He looks after them when I need to work outside of our paid-for childcare hours.

I’m not saying the definitive answer to all childcare/work issues is freelancing. For some, it will work. For others, it won’t. It depends on the industry you’re in, whether you’re happy to spend time alone, if you like the idea of being at home rather than in an office, if you enjoy the commute or would rather not have to do it. These are all considerations. More stable employment will suit some mothers, as will giving up paid work for a while.

But in terms of SPL and whether that’s the answer to work/life balance, the jury’s out. Unless more men start taking it, we’ll never know. It works well in Sweden, and in theory it’s a great idea: it encourages the fathers to play a bigger role during the early months of their baby’s life. And it helps women to return to work. I just worry that new mothers – their physical and emotional attachment to the new baby, and their feelings – haven’t been fully considered.

It’s crucial that childcare and domestic duties are shared. That fathers feel important and involved. I’d love to see a culture shift, and for men to feel comfortable requesting SPL, and bosses to agree without question. Women keen to return to work straight after having a baby should be able to do that without judgement. But for those who’d like to be with their baby for a while, let’s give them the space and support they need.

The Freelance Mum by Annie Ridout will be published by 4th Estate in early 2019