Only 1% of UK fathers are taking up shared parental leave, one year after it was introduced, according to news reports this week. Parents get 50 weeks between them, to share however they see fit, but the take-up by dads has been abysmally low.
There are no similar statistics here in Ireland (as far as I could find) but anecdotally, it does seem that women use far more parental leave than men. Perhaps both parents are taking block leave from time to time, for example during summer holidays, but particularly when it comes to using one day per week in order to work reduced hours, it seems to be mostly mothers who do this. In the UK, one of the reasons given for the low take-up is because women don’t want to share – they want the full 50 weeks for themselves. Here in Ireland, that’s not relevant, because each parent gets a full and separate 18 weeks per child up the age of eight. So why are dads not using it? I’ve been wondering about it for a while.
It can’t be the fact that it’s unpaid – this is a problem for all of us, not just men. If women can take unpaid leave, then in theory, men can too.
It may be because it’s more acceptable to employers for women to ask for parental leave – in a kind of vicious circle way. More women work part-time, so it has been normalised to an extent. Fewer men do, making it more difficult for those who’d like to. And as long as that goes on, nothing will change. Of course, arguably, men could just take the career risk and ask for parental leave anyway – like women do every day of the week. But rightly or wrongly, I can see how it’s difficult to put your head above the parapet – to be that first man in the organisation who asks for a four-day week.
It may be because women get used to being at home with children while on maternity leave, and find the idea of being away from the kids for fifty hours a week difficult – zero to fifty is a huge overnight jump when maternity leave comes to an end. Men don’t have maternity leave – and for now they still don’t have paternity leave – so being at work full-time is just normal, and without the taster that is maternity leave, perhaps part-time isn’t something they desperately wish for?
Or it might simply be because men are traditionally seen as breadwinners, and by extension, full-time working breadwinners?
My current working theory is that it’s because for women, working outside the home is still seen as a choice, whereas for men it’s seen as standard.
When I was going back to work after my second baby, to my full-time job, knowing the girls would be out of the house for eleven hours a day, five days a week, the guilt nearly tipped me over the edge. My husband was fine – working was normal for him, and for all of his friends, and for most of the men he’s ever known in his life.
But for me it was different. I knew I wanted to keep working, but I kept looking at friends who had gone to four- and three-day weeks, and wondering if I was doing the wrong thing by going back full-time. None of my friends were stay-at-home parents but of course, in the wider world, I knew people who were at home full-time, so that too was an option of sorts. Not in any real sense – it wasn’t financially possible for a start, and I also knew I wasn’t cut out for being at home all the time – but nevertheless, if some mothers were at home full-time looking after their children, it was enough to make me wonder if that’s what I should be doing too.
So was it that pull, that guilt, that worry, that caused me to ask for a four-day week a year later? Was it because I was looking at other women and wondering if I was getting it all wrong? Or was it what Aine Lawlor said at an event last year – she was talking about why there are fewer women in top jobs, and said:
“Women are more likely to step back and question if it’s really worth giving everything up, or if we should go and climb Everest.“
In this case, my Everest was every Friday off – and sometimes it really felt like climbing a mountain, but I don’t regret a thing. Maybe men just don’t know what they’re missing?
For tips on beating the fear when you’re going back to work after maternity leave, including expert advice from career coach Dearbhalla Baviera and wardrobe tips from Laura Nolan Horgan, have a look at Life After Maternity Leave