I never thought that holding down a full time job and dealing with the twins morning and night would somehow mean I had less time to write than when I had two newborns. For some reason I thought that when I was back at work, in front of a computer for (say) eight hours a day that I would find more time to write.
So naïve. Doing the dailyish updates (on my phone, on the bus) was about all I could manage…
My husband, Patrick, and I have officially traded places. He is now half way through his six months of the shared parental leave. We decided to do six months and six months back when I was pregnant, and having signed the paperwork it would have taken an incredible act of bureaucracy to change it.
Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was heralded as a massive step forward for gender equality in both the home and in the office. But one year in and apparently it’s not really ‘taking off’. As two card-carrying feminists it seemed like a no brainer that we SHOULD take SPL, because if people like us didn’t do it, then frankly, who would. But this had all the hallmarks of one of those things that seems like a GREAT idea when you’re pregnant and still relatively sane (hey at least you’re sleeping), but that in the cold light of hormone laden sleep deprivation could go horribly wrong.
Three months in and it’s fair to say that this is probably one of the best things we’ve ever done, for ourselves as individuals, as a couple, and also in terms of our relationship with the babies. Patrick agrees, and has been recommending it to all of our expectant dad friends. But in many ways it’s not straightforward. Anything unexpected is, by definition, without an established route map. I also think that there are several policy changes that would make SPL a ‘better’ deal for couples, and therefore would increase its appeal and potentially uptake.
Making it work for you:
- Be brutal with your time. Look at every meeting or piece of work and ask if it’s necessary either to your job now, or indeed where you want your job to go in future. If the answer is ummm maybe…. Then look at whether you can delegate it as a development opportunity to one of your colleagues. I am officially contracted to work 35 hours, and have been known to do double that (not including totally unpaid but career building networking, speaking events etc). I am now restricting myself to 40 hours. That’s it.
- When you are at home, be at home. Easier said than done in the age of Twitter and work emails on my phone, but at least while the babies are awake I am not on my phone, I am ‘with’ them. In the moment as they said in acting school. One of the hardest things is only having maybe two hours with them a day (first thing in the morning and just before bed) but I want to make these nice hours.
- Have a routine and stick to it – but also know when that’s just not possible. I’ve been able to get home for the evening feed (c 6pm) almost all nights (see above). However, there have been a couple of evenings when I absolutely couldn’t make it home and Patrick coped. He fed the babes, put them to bed, and while I missed them (and let’s be honest there was a moment when I was giving evidence to a Parliamentary Select Committee when I thought I was genuinely going to lactate on the spot…) it was ok. We all coped.
Making it work for your partner:
- Back off. No he’s not going to do things the way you would. Of course he’s not. He’s a different person. But he’s still their parent. Different isn’t necessarily wrong. As a control freak this was a toughy – but one that I know is vitally important for empowering your partner to make his own decisions and have confidence in them. As Patrick reflected to me there now isn’t a domain in child rearing where he thinks ‘ah that’s exclusively Rachel’s’. Indeed there are a number of areas in which I totally defer to him. (n.b. I’m using he here as typically partners doing SPL are straight cis couples – however, I’m aware that this would apply equally to other parental partnerships).
- Give him time off. No matter how hard your day has been, it’s nothing compared to being screamed at continuously by someone you love. Remember that. One evening I got home a little early, Patrick arrived, late, having driven back from his mother’s house. He’d been caught in traffic and both babes screamed for two hours. When he walked in the door I took the babies off him and sent him to bed. I did the end of the evening, feeding and putting them to bed by myself. Similarly there will be nights when he needs to go out with his friends. Or just have quiet time alone. That’s fine, and to be expected and encouraged.
- Be flexible. Yes, it bears repeating. Babies are constantly changing. It’s incredibly challenging just keeping up with where they are, if you try and keep them in a routine that worked for a 6 month old, and they’re now 9 months… this won’t go so well. But on the flip side one of the greatest things is their ability to surprise (and yes delight) you.
Making it work for more couples:
- Give more parental leave to parents of multiples. Yes this isn’t a strictly shared parental leave thing, but I think that it is vitally important. I was incredibly lucky not to be left alone with the twins until they were 12 weeks old. This was entirely down to the timing of their birth in mid-June and the fact that my husband is a school teacher. If we had had these babies consecutively then we would have been able to have 104 weeks between us. As it was we had 52. How is that ‘fair’? Particularly given that it is, in many ways, more than twice the work, particularly in the early days. So if you were given (say) 18 months parental leave you could theoretically take the first six months together, then each get six months on your own.
- Allow fathers (or other partner) the ability to take his company’s full ‘maternity’ pay, irrespective of when he takes the leave. So for example, my company pays 6 months full pay, then statutory for the next 3, then nothing for the final 3. This is incredibly generous. A male colleague of mine has recently had a son. He wanted to take SPL, but was financially penalised because he and his wife would lose money if he took the second six months. This is crazy. I don’t see what the downside is from employers – assuming that both partners don’t work for the same company.
- Incentivise fathers (or other partner) to take time off on their own with the children. While it is absolutely true that it’s important for partners to be together in the early days (see my point above about the importance of more leave for multiples) I think that having time on your own with the children (and indeed just away from work) is really good for you as a person and as a parent. Until my maternity leave I’d never taken any real time off work, nor had my husband. We’d both gone from high school, to university, to first jobs, to subsequent jobs and the longest we’d ever really been ‘off’ was about three weeks. But, having this six months has been revelatory and life changing. To the point where I think that child-free people should probably be given the opportunity to take this kind of leave as well. One way of doing this is giving all couples (multiples or not) 12 months of shared parental leave with a bonus six months for the father to take off on his own. This needs to be paid time off, it’s no good offering it as unpaid leave as it’s unlikely to be taken up.
So that’s it. A few thoughts on our experience of SPL. Full disclosure, I know how lucky I am to even have this as an option. As an American I am all too aware of the ‘choices’ facing my friends and family back on the other side of the pond. Funnily enough one of the reasons suggested for low SPL take up in the UK is women not wanting to ‘give up’ their maternity leave. Perhaps one of the reasons it felt like such an obvious choice to me was that I never felt entitled to take a whole year out of the office. I’m thrilled to have had the six months I had with them, but equally thrilled that Patrick has the same opportunity. This, surely, is a small step towards the kind of equality we need for men and women in the workplace and importantly in the home.