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.