Parental leave: what’s the deal?

// 14 May 2012

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Photo of a young baby being carried in a grey sling by her dadOne of the few positive things in last week’s Queen’s speech was the government’s promise to introduce new, flexible parental leave, in recognition of the fact that childcare should not be the sole responsibility of women. The specifics have yet to be set in stone, but one proposal – outlined on ConservativeHome – is for the £2 billion pot of maternity leave money to be split between all new parents, leaving couples to decide for themselves who will take time off from paid employment, how much and when.

The current system offers the birth mother up to 52 weeks’ maternity leave: 6 weeks at 90% pay (unless you’re self-employed), 33 weeks on statutory maternity pay (currently £135) or 90% pay, whichever is less, and the rest unpaid. Men or the mother’s partner are entitled to two weeks’ unpaid leave when the baby is born. Since 2011, partners can now also take up to 26 weeks of the birth mother’s leave (additional paternity leave) at any time between 20 weeks and the child’s first birthday. Only one partner is entitled to adoption leave (39 weeks at SMP), but this can also be transferred in the same way as maternity leave.

Rebecca Asher’s Shattered includes a useful overview of other parental leave systems worldwide, including Norway (54 weeks: nine for mothers, six for fathers, the rest flexible), Sweden (480 days: 60 for each parent, the rest flexible) and Iceland (nine months: three for each parent, the rest flexible, can be taken by both parents at the same time).

There are a number of issues to take into account when considering parental leave policy. First and foremost, birth mothers need time to recover from the birth and – if possible – breastfeed their child. The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and I personally think any parental leave policy must include six months provision for the birth mother as a minimum(whether she chooses to take it is up to her).

However, it’s not much use being entitled to six months if you can’t afford to take them, and we need to rethink how much money is made available to new parents, particularly those who don’t have a working partner with a decent salary. Iceland manages to provide between 75 and 80% of the individual’s earnings throughout the entire nine months, with a cap for high earners, so why can’t we?

Take-up of parental leave by men is another sticking point. With the continued existence of the gender pay gap and some way to go in cultural expectations around the division of childcare, women may continue to take the bulk of parental leave, even if they would prefer not to. In addition, due to societal attitudes around parenting, men may find it harder to raise the issue of parental leave with their employers, and come up against more resistance.

Should we follow the lead of the Nordics and adopt a “use it or lose it” approach for fathers? This would likely help us move much more quickly towards a more equitable division of childcare responsibilities (as in Iceland). It would also mean employers could no longer discriminate against women of childbearing age, as men would be just as likely to take time off following the birth of a child. But if it comes at the expense of the birth mother’s leave, it’s hardly ideal.

Personally I also think it’s important that couples can take leave at the same time if they wish, rather than just transferring it between them. I haven’t had a baby myself, but I imagine it would be a massive help to have your partner around in the first few weeks, and men/partners should get to experience this important time too.

Finally, we need to address the negative cultural narrative around parental leave, particularly from business. This is neatly summed up in one comment on the ConservativeHome post, which refers to having children as a “lifestyle choice”. Apparently the state and employers should not have to pay out or restructure their working practices to take new parents’ and babies’ needs into account.

Yet this is an incredibly blinkered argument. The state needs future generations of taxpayers, caregivers, workers. Businesses need a continual supply of employees and customers. Quite simply, we need people to have children. But if individuals receive no financial support or have to give up their jobs to do so, we’ll either see a continuing decline in birth rates or an increase in child poverty, neither of which will help business, the state or society as a whole. Check out Zoe Williams’ piece for more on the economic and demographic argument.

Forcing women into heterosexual marriage, required baby-making, confinement to the home and financial dependency – as some Tory policy-makers seem hell-bent on doing – isn’t a solution either, unless businesses are keen to lose half their workers and women our independence and rights (um, no).

So parental leave makes a massive amount of sense. And to me it makes even more sense to extend it to all new parents, regardless of gender. Women, men and children lose out when childcare is assumed to be a solely female responsibility. It’s high time we reformed the system, to everyone’s benefit.

Photo by HoboMama, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

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