How Covid-19 has stressed the importance of shared parental leave

Living through the Covid-19 pandemic has caused us to reassess what we want from both family and working life. Here, one mother looks at how we’ve seen a change in attitudes towards shared parental leave, and how crucial the continued fight for this really is.

Groups of mums having picnics with their marshmallow-cheeked babies and catching up in cafés were always familiar scenes on my lunch break strolls (or, rather, stress-filled stomps) on working days.

As much as I knew this idyllic snapshot wasn’t exactly representative of life as a parent, it painted a pretty attractive picture of maternity leave. Yet, when faced with two red lines and the prospect of a year out of work, a jolt of panic had me broaching the subject of sharing that leave with my boyfriend.

I lost my job as a magazine editor last year, courtesy of the pandemic. Nudged into the world of freelance, I loved the new rhythm that being self-employed brought, but had only just started to build up a stable income and client base when I took that test in December. 

The idea of taking so much time off and having to start from scratch again – not to mention go without any kind of company maternity package – left me with a shudder.

Mat leave suddenly lost the carefree appeal it had when I was employed. But, surprisingly, my boyfriend didn’t exactly bite my hand off at the suggestion that he take a few months away from the office, too.

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His reluctance became marginally less of a shocker when I found out that there’s only a 2% uptake of shared parental leave (SLP). In 2020, a study found that 650,000 women claimed maternity pay over the course of the previous year, yet only 13,100 couples used the shared scheme.

Introduced in 2015 by the government, SPL lets parents split 50 weeks of leave between them to care for a newborn, 37 of which are paid (at £151.97 a week or 90% of usual earnings, whichever is lower).

Safe to say though, it’s not been a huge hit. One reason is – predictably – the money, says Victoria Horner, a solicitor and employment law specialist who works with HR professionals.

“Where the father is the primary earner of the family, most couples will be reluctant or unable to afford for his income to reduce to just over £600 per month,” she says. “As a result of the gender pay gap, women earn less than men so this often leads to the mother taking on the childcare responsibilities.”

The lack of SPL uptake and the gender pay gap both self-perpetuate then, with women taking career breaks while men make their way up that ladder. 

We deserve to have as much control over our lives, careers and parenting options as our partners.

Although SLP was designed in part to help close the gender pay gap, ONS figures showed in 2020 that the difference in men and women’s pay was still significant, at 15.5%, and experts predict the gap will be sticking around for a century yet.

As it turned out, the company my boyfriend works for has a pretty solid SPL policy, promising to top-up statutory payments to his full wage for up to six months – the dream. So, I’d assumed he’d be chomping at the bit to take off as much time as possible.

But it wasn’t as simple as that.

He was concerned that being absent for so long would bring a precariousness to his job that we couldn’t afford to risk inviting – especially with a brand new human to look after. He envisioned his work relationships suffering and, in these (famously) economically uncertain times, ultimately being punished for taking leave. 

To be fair, while being ousted from a job for taking parental leave is very much illegal, that’s not to say I’ve not seen it happen, tactfully and covertly, to friends. 

But that’s a risk that women simply have to live with, in addition to all the expectations on us surrounding care duties.

We, on average, spend more than twice as much of our time on unpaid work – think childcare, cooking and housework – than men. This is a huge factor at play in the game that is gender inequality, which the pandemic has exacerbated. (In case the fact had escaped you, women have experienced the worst of the economic fallout.)

That said, lots of new mothers actively want to swap the office for parental duties and forget about work for a year, which is great. But either way, it should be a choice – and not one made under the pressure or influence of outdated and preassigned expectations. We deserve to have as much control over our lives, careers and parenting options as our partners.

“Expectations of myself and from my family and friends never allowed [shared parental leave] to even be a consideration,” says Louisa Herridge, a former teacher and now a reinvention and empowerment coach for mothers.

“I remember about six weeks into my leave reading my work emails with the longing to be ‘me’ again. No one prepared me for how hard it would be to give up my identity and what made me tick. In hindsight and with what I know now, I would act differently.”

I approached the subject with my boyfriend from all angles – the extra income, the rare opportunity to take a break from work, the change of pace, being able to witness all those firsts that babies rack up in their initial months in the wild. But nothing could shift that belief that he’d be jeopardising his job and our financial stability.

I was frustrated that, ultimately, the choice was with him. I felt like my autonomy, independence and, to a certain extent, my career was in his control. The more I thought about this situation and the wider issues at play, the more I felt disadvantaged by my gender. Although I’ve always been aware of the tangible inequality women face, I’d never tasted it so undiluted before.

He decided to talk to his HR department, friends who are parents, and his own family – anyone he knew who had juggled work with parenting. And it wasn’t long before his views started to shift.

Not only were the conversations about job security, but the ways that priorities shuffle when you become a parent and the time he’d be glad to have spent with his newborn. One friend who’d taken SLP told him, “Just do it. Take as much time off as you can and don’t look back.”

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After a lot of talking, we’ve decided to split the nine months of paid leave down the middle – and we’re both pretty pumped about it. I’ll eventually go back part-time, but will have leeway while he’s off on full pay to build my work back up again and contribute meaningfully to our finances as a family.

The pandemic has added great depth and necessity to the conversation around SLP. Having delayed the journey to gender equality and, experts say, widened the gender pay gap, it’s also forced us to look at work and family life differently, reconsidering what we previously thought was an optimum balance between the two.

“We have seen a big surge in the number of men calling our helpline to ask for advice on how to take shared parental leave over this last lockdown,” says Jane van Zyl, chief executive of charity Working Families. It’s a hopeful sign that something positive is coming out of an extremely difficult year.”

“If we get it right, shared parental leave has the power to make a huge difference to women’s career prospects in the future. And we know that partners sharing care in the first year is key to them being more deeply involved in their children’s lives as they grow up. It can be transformational for everyone in the family.”

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