Shared Parental Leave: why don’t more dads stay at home?

Ian Burge, pictured with his daughter Mina, questions why he is in the minority as a dad on Shared Parental Leave.

Whisper it, but looking after your kids isn’t that difficult. More dads need to know this.

Certainly that’s been my experience over the past couple of months since I took over from my wife as the main carer for our two daughters following the birth of our latest addition, Mina. The advent of Shared Parental Leave in April last year means that my wife cared for Mina (as well as her elder sister, Lola) for the first seven months of her life and now it’s my turn until she hits a year.

I never thought of myself as a pioneer, yet when I requested additional leave at work, it transpired that I’d be a guinea pig for the entire company. No other fathers had ever taken up the opportunity. Out of a company of over eight hundred people, not one. The policy existed on a piece of paper but had never been put to the test.

If the CEO of one of the leading tech companies on the planet can make it work, others can too

Why is this? And why did a recent survey from Working Families find that only between 0.5 and 2 per cent of eligible fathers had made use of the new rules six months after they came in? I suspect that there are several factors at play.

A lot of men – consciously or not – still subscribe to the idea that it is impossible to achieve your ambitions at work while leading a full and fulfilling family life. It’s a black and white decision: sacrifice your family life for your career or your career for your family life. You can’t have both. You have to choose.

I disagree. Mark Zuckerberg disagrees, hence his decision to take time away from Facebook HQ to care for his new daughter. Sure, having a few billion in your pocket eases most decisions but if the CEO of one of the leading tech companies on the planet can make it work, others can. Particularly since most dads probably have fewer demands on their time than Mr Zuckerberg.

For me, it was never a question of feeling I needed to save face at work.

I’m aware that there are those who view men that care for their children while their wives work as latter-day conscientious objectors, faint-hearted cowards left behind on the home front, digging cabbage patches with the land girls. I’ve never shared this view; even less so now that I understand the value of spending time at home with the kids.

For me, it was never a question of feeling I needed to save face at work. The whole alpha-male, master of the universe ethos that says a man must spend every waking hour maintaining the cash inflow while his wife tends to the household and his offspring seems outdated to me. I’m not a bushy-whiskered Victorian gent after all. Call me a feminist, but my view is that men and women should be on an equal footing in the workplace and the home. It’s what women have been demanding for over a century after all, so let them have it I say.

There’s no question in my mind that take-up of Shared Parental Leave would be greater if awareness was higher. Sure, it’s only a year old, but I’ve lost count of the number of people – of both sexes – to whom I’ve had to explain how the whole thing works. Deciding how to carve up the time off with your partner, applying for leave from two employers, calculating what you’ll be paid while on leave, none of this is straightforward. Consequently it’s still the case that many men do not fully understand the options available.

I appreciate that many fathers couldn’t think of anything worse than being a stay-at-home dad, but the sacrifices are invariably worth it

Then there’s the financial perspective. Men often still out-earn women – whether we’re worth it or not. I’m struck by the irony that this inequality is largely down to the fact that women have traditionally put their careers on hold to look after their children. It’s a vicious circle. Couples have to take the economically-rational decision when carving up parental leave and ultimately this often means the father shouldering the breadwinning burden.

I appreciate that many fathers couldn’t think of anything worse than being a stay-at-home dad, even for a few months, but I think others would be surprised how much they’d get out of the experience. I’m the first to admit that it requires sacrifices, but these are invariably worth it.

I never doubted that I’d relish my time at home with Lola and Mina; what I didn’t realise was how easy it would be. But then how could something so enjoyable and rewarding be difficult?

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