On Monday morning I will go back to work. That’s nothing special, you think, but it will be for me. My 6 months of maternity leave have come to an end and I will step back into my career after caring for my children. Their father will be looking after them for the coming 6 months whilst I’ll be taking on the role of main breadwinner. We’re parents of the 21st century and have excitedly taken up the offer of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). Is time up for traditional gender roles? Are we slowly heading towards a truly equal society?
In recent months the news have been filled with articles about gender inequality, gender pay gaps, women’s marches and everybody who is somebody declaring that they are a feminist and support women’s rights and equal rights for both, women and men in every aspect of life. #TimesUp is trending strong, asking for equity and parity and inclusion for women and marginalised people. First of all, let me be clear that I am fully supporting this movement, which, in my eyes, has long been overdue. I’m a stickler for equal rights. I also believe in doing what you say and leading by example. So, when I was pregnant with my second child, my partner and I talked about leave from work and how I would love for him to experience what I did during maternity leave with our first (good and bad, believe me, I want him to experience it all). And suddenly we realised that, in fact, this was possible. SPL, which has been introduced in April 2015, became a realistic option for us. I could still breastfeed exclusively at the start but once the baby starts weaning at 6 months, and becomes less reliant on my boobs, my partner could take over. I asked myself: Is there a shift in how we divide parental responsibility and care for a family or are we still a marginalised exception in the UK? An article from The Independent provided sobering answers. It highlights that, one year after SPL became an option, only 1% of fathers have taken the opportunity to split care with the mother. What’s even more surprising is that a survey found 55% of women would not be prepared to give up part of their maternity leave (The Independent, 5th April 2016). So I started thinking of the reasons as to why this would be and whether SPL will have a future and become a normal part of a gender equal society or if it is a half-hearted attempt and empty symbolic offer to modern families in Britain.
The first thing that came to my mind was to ask if it’s natural to assume that the woman automatically assumes the role of the main caregiver for the foreseeable future and the man carries on as the breadwinner. I have to admit that there are certain limitations when it comes to gender equality concerning maternity or parental leave. A woman has to carry the child, give birth and breastfeed (if she chooses to). That’s how nature designed us and there’s not much we can do about that. And the sensible choice really is for new mothers to stay at home for the first few months, to regain their strength after birth, to breastfeed, to bond with the baby and, as I also found out, to talk to other new mothers. Motherhood with a newborn is truly stressful, not just on our bodies but also our minds and we definitely need time at home. Believe me, there is no way I would have felt ready, physically and mentally, to go back to work straight after I had given birth. Sore boobs, sore lady parts, raging hormones, severe sleep-deprivation and a tiny human permanently attached to my nipples would have made it impossible. Maternity leave is hard work, at every stage, no matter how long you take.
But there are just as many wonderful, magical bits in this first year and I loved getting to know my little baby. My partner missed some of these because he was at work and he was genuinely gutted.
At this point I started thinking about why fathers should have some more involvement and have the right to spend some time with their babies, too. Straight away, I stumbled across another obstacle, one that probably dictates to a lot of families who stays at home and gives up part of their career: money. Maybe the mother works for a generous employer and gets full pay during maternity leave. Then it wouldn’t make much sense for the father to give up work for £140.98 a week. Most likely though the father is in a well-paid job and earns more than the woman already. Sadly, unequal pay for men and women and SPL are strongly linked and, as I had already suspected, a huge problem. It was also seen as the main stumbling point by Caroline Davies as she writes in an article in The Guardian: “For those mothers whose partner earns more, without an enhanced SPL allowance it makes little financial sense for them to sacrifice the more generous wage. Critics say this is where the UK has not been bold enough.” (5th April, 2015). Fact is, the financial situation will always dictate who stays at home and, potentially, who gives up their fulltime job to look after the kids. And in most cases, unless you’re really lucky and have grandparents looking after the children or can afford fulltime childcare, the mother will give up her career, at least for part of her life.
Now, before I carry on, please let me also say that I would never impose my own life choices onto anyone and claim they are the absolute right thing to do. But having talked to a lot of women and my female friends I was surprised to find that most would love to share some of the childcare with the father and get back into their career.
So let’s forget the monetary side for a moment. If a future system actively supported a greater involvement of fathers and encouraged mothers to go back to work and pursue a career, would we as mothers support this, too? Or would we try and keep the traditional maternity leave all to ourselves? “Of course, we deserve it!” I hear some of you cry! “We have done the hard work, sacrificed our bodies, our bodily functions, our sanity and then gone through excruciating labour, lost some more of our bodily functions and our dignity with it, then we breastfed and dealt with raw nipples and saggy belly, raging hormones and anxiety or postnatal depression and now someone is taking maternity leave away?” As mentioned before, maternity leave is very important, for mothers to recover and to bond with the babies; I’d always want to have some time with mine. However, when you look at it from a less emotional point of view, it’s not really the fathers’ fault that they can’t carry or birth their offspring. That’s nature. What, dare I claim, is against nature, is to assume that all fathers just want to be the main breadwinner because they are so historically. Well, history changes. Gay marriage was a big taboo and look where we are now. Thank goodness times are changing and maybe we should consider a change in caring for our babies and children if we have the opportunity and give fathers a chance. I’ve read lots of articles and reports in the last few months which highlight the importance of fathers and their input in their children’s lives, especially at a very young age. In Sweden, for example, where the government implemented a ‘use it or lose it’ structure, encouraging fathers to take their allocated parental leave time, “their parental leave resulted in “a closer relationship to their child”, and, according to Chronholm, it has also had “a positive effect on their partner’s possibilities for work or study”. One other benefit, it transpired, was that “it opened their eyes to how much time is actually needed to do daily housework”. As a result, 44% found it led to a more equal distribution of housework.” (The Guardian, 5th April 2015). I’d like to add that SPL could also eliminate the perception that maternity leave is one big holiday, having brushed off such comments many of times. Most importantly though, from personal experience, I have always found that a lot of 21st century fathers are and want to be actively involved in their children’s lives and will blissfully devote all their spare time to their children. Just because society and government tells them that the role of main caregiver is not theirs does not mean that they don’t want to be the main caregiver. Give them the chance and many will grab it with both hands. Many would love to spend half a year or even just a few weeks with their new baby and support their partner. If you had the chance, would you deny it to your partner? Think about it, after all the equal opportunities and rights talk, doesn’t this also apply to men and fathers? I believe that, if we truly want to live in a society thriving on equality we need to lead by example if we can, and that is exactly what I am doing, because it works for us as a family.
It’s not just that I feel the fathers and children are losing out. What about us women, our ambitions, developments and careers? All my female friends are super-intelligent powerhouses and I would despair if they weren’t able to contribute to the labour market anymore to their full potential, just because they have become mothers. Moreover, what kind of example does this set for our daughters? Forget a career if you want to be a mother? How discouraging and bleak.
Without gender equality on every scale, SPL will never be able to take off the way the government has possibly wanted. More has to be done to encourage women to go back to work, so we really can speak of an equal society, for both, women and men. The Guardian underlines this, pointing out the weaknesses of SPL: “The British government’s failure to propose a more forceful ‘use it or lose it’ structure, designed to create incentives and not just rights, means this well-intentioned effort to de-gender childcare rings hollow.”(5th April 2015).
Both, mothers and fathers are fabulous parents, each in their own right, both needed equally by their offspring. I fear, unless the financial discrepancies between men and women are fixed, SPL will remain a marginalised and half-hearted offer that only very few families can benefit from. We must ask societies and governments alike to acknowledge and support this sooner rather than later by implementing systems for all-round equal opportunities so SPL can become a more realistic option for lots of families. After all, we’re in the 21st century now. #TimesUp for these obsolete rules which were imposed on us a long time ago. Here’s hoping that one day soon I am not a minority, and that my daughter will follow into my footsteps as a fully equal citizen of society.