Work It Out

I feel it’s important to flag at the top of this post that none of the below is intended as a criticism of any parent’s personal choice regarding return to work; in particular, it’s not a criticism of any parent who has to return to work through economic or other necessity. This is meant as a general reflection on the systems and provisions we currently have in place for parental leave in the UK, and as we’re a mere two weeks in my thoughts on this may well develop in the future.

Reasons I am glad I am not returning to work today include: I’m still bleeding; my stitches have not yet healed; my abdominal muscles are not back to full strength (and don’t even ask about my pelvic floors, you don’t want to know); my boobs are spraying quite spectacular fountains everywhere; I haven’t slept for more than two hours in a row since last month; and there is in the house this entire human being to look after who absorbs quite a lot of time and energy. None of this is exceptional: I did not have a difficult labour or delivery by any means, and this is not a difficult recovery. This is just what an ordinary postpartum recovery looks like and feels like and I am very glad to be doing it at home and not sitting in an office on a bruised and leaky perineum.

Reasons I am glad Darien is not returning to work today: all of the above. And then some.

While I’ve been doing the bits of caring for Scarlett that Darien isn’t physically equipped to, Darien has been caring for me and making sure I get adequate rest, nutrition and hydration and also keeping the house from falling apart. Some things, like changing and getting Scarlett ready for trips to the health centre, are easier when there are four hands to manage them instead of two; some things (including some fairly fundamental things like feeding myself when there’s a baby in need to deal with) would be downright impossible without the extra assistance.

We know from friends who started families before us that the new shared parental leave laws are making a difference to our experience of parenthood. What’s been surprising to us is how few parents around us are taking advantage of the new options; a majority of people we’ve spoken to are expecting one parent (usually the father) to return to work after two weeks or even sooner. For all the reasons outlined above, this strikes us as surprising (and we have it on good authority that a couple of tough weeks await us around the corner, which I’m truly glad I won’t be dealing with single-handed).

The publishing company where my husband works has decided to treat SPL in the same way as maternity leave, and offer 90% of salary for the first six months, which is extremely forward-thinking and progressive and made our choice easy. Anecdotally, it seems that second caregivers around us are returning to work sooner because their companies are not offering more than the standard rate of £139.58 a week after the first two weeks; if this is the case it’s disappointing to hear that some employers don’t seem to be very encouraging of shared leave and are not incentivising the second parents to stay at home for longer. This is compounded if posts aren’t covered while a second parent is on leave, resulting in greater stress on return to work that some parents will naturally seek to avoid.

Shared parental leave is designed to stop one parent feeling isolated and resentful at home while the other feels overladen and under-involved at work. It’s designed to give dads an opportunity to spend more time developing a relationship with a new baby and to allow exhausted, recovering mums more of a helping hand in the early weeks. We know from studies in countries such as Sweden that have generous paternity leave allowances, or Germany where shared “Elternzeit” is already well-established, that outcomes for both children and parents are positive when time for extra support at home is enabled.

As the laws in the UK are so new there’s no published data on how many parents are using the shared leave system, and it will be interesting to see how this develops in the future. In the meantime, if you’re currently expecting and thinking about sharing some leave, my own personal recommendation would be for the second parent to stay at home for four weeks, ideally six, if at all possible to help mum through the early days and share valuable getting-to-know-you time with baby. What I would like to see is a greater number of employers in the UK making that possible, with intervention from the state to assist employersif necessary. Anyone pledging to make that posssible in the next five years will certainly have my vote.

More on paternity leave in Sweden from the NY Times. Excuse us while we relocate to Gothenburg.

9 thoughts on “Work It Out

  1. This is fascinating to me. I had an unorthodox set up – I (well, all three of us) had moved in with my parents because my husband was made redundant the day before our daughter was born. As a result I was able to take a year at the statutory rate (then 6 weeks at 90% followed by £124 a week to the 9 month mark and 3 unpaid). For the first 5 months as he freelanced and searched for jobs, my husband ended up accidentally being at home with me. I have, to this day, no idea how I would have coped if things had gone as they were supposed to and he’d had just two weeks at home, particularly as in that instance I’d have been alone in our flat, not with my family. (To clarify, though, my mother has considerably mobility difficulties and my father still works out of home, so physical assistance had to be limited; however, they did pitch in with watching R at night if we wanted to escape for a couple of hours). I, like you, had no specific circumstances to make it any harder – I had an easy home birth and basically contented baby. But I did feel quite lonely and isolated at times, very tired and emotionally hamstrung; I struggled to want to attend baby groups with strangers as I felt awkward and inexperienced, and yet very few of my friends had babies and I didn’t want to inflict my suddenly bizarre schedule on them. I’d do a lot of things differently if we did it again, but one thing I would definitely take advantage of is shared leave – especially as we’d have two children to wrangle.

    Loving reading your thoughts on this.

    • One thing I was additionally thinking about was the role (grand)parents may or may not have to play. If I think about my friends in India, it’s still completely common for the mother’s mother to come and stay for the lying-in period, and for the local community to pitch in much more with bringing food, helping with chores, generally looking after mum – and dad too. Here in the UK that’s much less common than it used to be, and I think can increase that sense of new-mum isolation, especially in larger cities where neighbours are less likely to look in on one another and help out with either practical or emotional support.

      So far I haven’t felt a desperate need to attend mum and baby groups, although I am interested in some of the practical courses we’ll be able to attend at our local children’s centre in a few weeks (swimming! Sing and sign! Baby massage and mum and baby yoga! It all sounds so heavenly, I can’t believe the under-5s have all this fun). I’m actually finding our ad-hoc Twitter support group very useful – it’s positive to be able to log in during the 5am feed and find I’m not the only one up and exhausted, and it’s nice to hear from other new parents a few weeks ahead of us that sleep does come to those who wait and smiles are on the way.

      Knowing what I know now, I would strongly counsel any expecting parent to sit down with a spreadsheet and budget if necessary to make the current shared parental system work for at least a few weeks. I recognise this can be hard, and our situation is lucky and fortunate and far too unusual; I really would like the UK to go a bit more Northern European and learn from our Nordic neighbours. I’d like us to be the norm and not the exception, but it looks like that may not happen for a while and perhaps a change of government. Still, at least we’re not the completely leave-free US, which is a small blessing to be counted.

      • One of our baby books was published fairly recently, but still says on week three that ‘your mother will have packed her bags and be leaving this week’. I think past legislation was based on this assumption of a wide and close family network who don’t work and can drop everything … But it’s just not realistic in this age of economic mobility, intergenerational independence and geriatic great health. Hopefully more people will take advantage of the new arrangements soon, as it’s clearly aimed at plugging this gap. We did 7 weeks of co-parenting and it was hard enough then, and I don’t even have sore perineum (at least, not more than usual). I can’t imagine going it alone and not being at least exhausted and depressed.

  2. I’m a bit of a believer that the only way to learn to look after a baby solo is to actually do it – the first few days are going to seem impossibly hard at whatever point it happens. but you learn. Nevertheless two weeks is far far too soon. Vast number of cultures have a 40 day postpartum rest/confinement period. I’m really glad that the paternity leave can be used earlier now when most people really need it (we were too early for that with our two but did use some annual leave instead to extend beyond the statutory two weeks). But as you say financial considerations come into play. As well as the fact that I got much better than statutory maternity pay, the fact that my husband earns much more than me became a factor for the first time in our lives. It was going to cost us thousands of pounds if we shared parental leave so we didn’t, especially as your expenses rocket with children (I presume you have investigated the cost of childcare!). Suddenly the fact that I had chosen to work in the public sector meant that it was almost inevitable I would be the one taking the time off, working part-time, taking the other type of parental leave etc. You also have to make a bit of a strategic decision to prioritise one person’s career so that you aren’t both messing up your career with taking time for off at short notice when children are ill or having to leave on the dot at five everyday.

    • Just want to say thanks for this – we are similar in that I work in the third sector and earn substantially less than Darien, so part of our decision takes our relative earnings into account (although in our case it’s meant maximising his more generous leave). Once we get to March we’ll have more decisions to make, but we’re both keen to investigate flexible working – another area where some employers are demonstrably more supportive than others.

      Childcare – a whole other discussion and potential can of worms! But for us at this point not a realistic full-time option fiscally so we’ll have to figure out the practical alternatives.

  3. Pingback: Dads will be dads | Baby plus two

  4. Youre so cool! I dont suppose Ive read anything like this before. So nice to find somebody with some original thoughts on this subject. realy thank you for starting this up. this website is something that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality. useful job for bringing something new to the internet!

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