Shared parental leave, introduced in the UK in April 2015, still hasn’t really taken off. In fact, with a take up of only about 1%, you could say the policy has failed miserably.
This is a shame for all sorts of reasons, not least because it’s a vital next step towards gender equality. So says, the ever-wise Avivah Wittenberg-Cox (here) and speaking personally, I emphatically agree – when it comes to equality both in the workplace and at home.
On that note, did you see the depressing news that during lockdown, mums were only able to do one hour of uninterrupted work, for every three hours done by dads?
Anyway, I digress. What I wanted to do with this post is give my perspective on how I found shared parental leave. Everyone’s experience is different but I for one definitely recommend at least considering it.
I had my daughter in 2018 and decided to split parental leave equally between me and my husband. Roughly six months each. The paperwork was easy from my side, working for an SME. Less easy from his side – a big public sector organisation. Neither HR team had done the forms before, and the more ‘wing it and see what happens’ approach of an SME was definitely quicker and easier.
When the time came, I found it really hard going back to work after my six months were up. Pre-baby, I hadn’t expected to feel like that. But parenthood was a serious shock to the system with lots of bumps in the road. Then, just when I felt like I was starting to know what I was doing, my time was up. I didn’t feel ready to go back to work physically or mentally, but I’ve heard from other mums that’s often the case whether it’s after six months, nine, or twelve – so perhaps that’s just how it is.
The wing-it approach of an SME definitely didn’t go in my favour this time: there was no planning for my return to work, no induction process, no easing in. There’s no denying it was really, really tough. Maternity leave was tough and returning to work was tough.
In hindsight, I should have pushed for a phased return and reduced the number of days I worked. Although there was scope to do a lot of work from home, I was under considerable pressure from above to go back for four days a week. I think returning for two days at first, then extending to three would have helped.
My husband, meanwhile, was also having a tough time. The middle-of the night wakeup calls were now (mostly) his responsibility. He was adjusting to that weird feeling of achieving very, very little each day but having every minute consumed and being utterly exhausted by the evening. The loss of loo breaks when you want them and drinking tea while still hot hit him hard.
Our new motto, ‘the one with the baby does the real work’ was one I’d been keen on from the outset. Cartoon light-bulb style, it finally rang true for him too. I’d finish work to find him eyes drooping, complexion grey, desperate for ten minutes of sleep, while trying to entertain the baby, keep her safe, fed and clean (ish).
When it was his turn to return to work he experienced many of the anxieties I’d had. A lot can change in half a year, you have to re-find your place, remember who you are at work, and catch up. Stuff changes around you and you have very little say in it, you just have to fit back in. That’s hard whether you’re a mum or dad.
There are positives about being on parental leave – the memories, the precious chance to bond with your little human, watching them transform day by day. It’s so special, so valuable, so important. When we look back at old photos of us during this time, it’s almost possible to forget how hard it was.
Almost, but not quite.
When you’re in the thick of it it’s unforgiving. Adjusting to all the change in that short amount of time is hard, and shared parental leave adds to that. In some ways it makes things even more difficult.
But the thing it gives you, and the reason I’ll recommend it forever, is that until you’ve lived being off with a small child, really lived it day-in-day out, you don’t understand how hard it is. You don’t see what goes into it – the energy, the work, the mental fortitude. It’s a fulltime, unpaid, understaffed and extremely undervalued job.
Likewise, unless you’ve experienced that weird return to work first-hand, how can you properly understand it?
And until both parents know, how can we ever truly have equality?