I remember a comedian on the news quiz quipping he was astounded to hear not more men had chosen to take up shared parental leave (SPL) and stay at home with a puking, shitting, screaming “goblin” rather than going to work or playing golf with their friends.
Goofing aside, a recent survey commissioned by a London-based arts organisation stated more than half the men who took SPL worried about being seen as “less of a man” and 40 percent of those who could take SPL, but did not, believed they would not be supported by their employer if they had.
It’s been two years since the SPL legislation in the UK was introduced shining a light on what it means to be a father. For maternal bonding and breast feeding purposes, many fathers taking leave are likely to do so at least six months post-birth and Duncan was no exception. Whereas most colleagues were supportive, some scoffed that his partner had him “under her thumb” for choosing to take leave.
The feeling of panic was compounded by the realisation that his daughter had produced an enormous poo and he had forgotten the wet wipes.
Duncan described the first month of being the main carer as a hall of mirrors of internal and external judgements. “Harrowing” would be too much to describe the feeling of walking into a community centre entirely full of mothers and babies to attend a baby sing along; but it was certainly not easy. Duncan became painfully aware that everyone else seemed to have established routines and intuitive understandings into the rhythms of their babies, whilst he had spent no more than three full days looking after his daughter. The feeling of panic was compounded by the realisation that his daughter had produced an enormous poo and he had forgotten the wet wipes.
Ant looked after his daughter from the age of six months to a year. His partner was the main bread winner and the rationale for sharing leave equitably was predominantly financial; but like all fathers interviewed, he also had a strong sense that sharing caring responsibilities was the right thing to do.
Ant found most people’s response to him taking leave full of contradictions and difficult to interpret. Many said “it’s amazing, you are doing something special,” but he could not understand why, as a father, he was given disproportionate credit.
“I felt like a unicorn at times, a magical animal that pissed breast milk and shat glorious nutritional lunches,” Ant said, “I think of myself as a parent, not a father. The child is 50 percent mine, so I should be expected to look after it.”
Most men would say “oh, that’s great” or “how amazing”, but he felt like they wanted to follow it up with, “I’d never do that” or “you are mad”. Ant reflected some men try to convince themselves it’s not a manly thing to do, but in reality he expected they just didn’t want to do it because it is hard, it’s a lot of responsibility and there are so many unknowns.
Meanwhile, most day-to-day interactions with mothers he felt were met with ambivalence and a sense that he was in “their” world but not seen as one of them. Fortunately, Ant knew another full-time dad in the area and hanging out with him, he thinks, helped maintain some perspective.
Iain looks after his four year old son three days a week and is now a self-employed gardener working the remaining four. Prior to being a father he was a city trader. He doesn’t talk fondly about the culture of working long hours in a competitive environment.
Whilst Iain acknowledges there is an element of uncertainty now he is self-employed, and his income is meagre compared to what it was, he feels it is something he had to do to spend more time with his son. Even if SPL had been available when he was a city trader, Iain does not think it would have been an option. He expects his contacts would have dried up and any contracts he had brokered would have been forgotten as soon as he left.
Taking SPL as a city trader would have been career suicide and it’s not related to gender. I knew a mother who came back to work a week after giving birth due to the pressures of the job.”
“It’s all about the context,” he says. “Now I don’t work in the city, everyone knows looking after my son is my priority and no one has a bad thing to say about it, including the friends I still meet from working in the city. Taking SPL as a city trader would have been career suicide and it’s not related to gender. I knew a mother who came back to work a week after giving birth due to the pressures of the job.”
Iain feels being a hands-on father is his biggest and most meaningful challenge. Attending the relentless succession of children’s birthday parties is the second biggest challenge, he jokes.
Evidence provided in a 2017 commons select committee by the CEO of Working Families (a charity aimed at helping working families and carers balance between responsibilities at home and work) indicates that despite legislation intended to support them, fathers did not feel protected by it, and the process for fathers taking flexible working with their partners was regarded as neither equitable nor flexible.
In order to be eligible for Parental leave (PL) and SPL, a father has to be an employee – and not only that, they have to been employed for at least 26 weeks. Then, fathers are obliged to commit to their plans 15 weeks before their child is born and in the unlikely event of a case going to tribunal, the tribunal will look at the process rather than if there is a business case why SPL should not be granted. If the outcome goes in the employee’s favour, the employer compensates with a maximum pay out of eight weeks pay. Arguably, this is not much of a deterrent for employers given the stress of having to go through the process for an employee.
Grimur is a Swedish National and father of two young children. In Sweden, parents are entitled to 480 days of paid parental leave when a child is born or adopted. 90 of those are reserved for the father. Throughout most of the leave both parents get roughly 80 percent of their normal pay. Grimur took 10 months leave for his first child whilst his wife took 12. For his second he took eight months and his wife took 10.
I ask him about the Swedish phenomenon of “Papa Lattes” – slang for dads who take SPL and frequent cafes with their kids talking to other dads about childcare. Is the term a generalisation loaded with prejudice, suggesting men should be drinking strong coffee at work rather than visiting cafes with their kids?
Grimur doesn’t think so, nor does he think drinking milky coffee infers being effeminate. I feel a bit silly having asked the question. “Papa Lattes,” he explains refers light-heartedly to a generation of style-conscious hipster fathers, and if it is prejudiced, it’s prejudiced against hipsters.
In Sweden, he tells me, fathers who don’t take their fair chunk of parental leave will be perceived as irresponsible and neglectful of their role as a father
Grimur acknowledges him and his partner both work in public sector organisations, are middle class and may exist in a privileged bubble. Maybe in smaller businesses he suspects some employers may pressurise fathers to take less shared leave than mothers but he did not feel this was the norm. In Sweden, he tells me, fathers who don’t take their fair chunk of parental leave will be perceived as irresponsible and neglectful of their role as a father, and this is the prevailing sentiment.
Despite problems with clunky SPL and PL legislation in the UK, and some unfair prejudice encountered from all sides, fathers who changed their routines to care for their children felt times were changing for the better; and having the opportunity to spend more time parenting was considered their best, most meaningful and most confusing time of their lives. Perhaps in the future we will have our very own Papa Lattes to look forward to?
Main image courtesy of The Swedish Dad – A Photo Book by Johanna Karlsson, Henrik Peterson and Tobias Bill.