Shared parental leave: Is it really that hard?

Do you have one of those jobs that involves thinking outside the box? Do you indulge in blue-sky thinking on a daily, nay, hourly basis? Are you kicking those ideas around so hard that you’re wearing metaphorical football boots? If so, well done you. Perhaps you’re just the kind of person this country needs.

Of course, there are some who might feel “thinking outside the box” has become an excuse for people in senior positions to spout a succession of shit ideas without having to face the slightest consequence (It was just a bit of creative thinking. You didn’t think I meant it? Oh, and don’t forget your P45, which I’ve creatively tied to a purple balloon). Don’t believe the cynics, though. The UK needs its creatives. After all, we’ve got sod all proper industry left. Ours is meant to be a knowledge economy. We should all be sitting around having ideas (even if you’re getting minimum wage for cleaning toilets or  working on the checkout at Asda. There’s gotta be a better way of doing everything, even the most boring jobs in the world, and if you haven’t found it, well, you’re not just letting down Wal-Mart – you’re letting yourself down).

It’s funny, isn’t it, that while we’re all so busy being clever, we haven’t found a way to deal with the most basic things associated with work, such as allowing people to do it effectively while remaining human beings, with friends and families and lives and children. We can create new gadgets that no one knew they wanted before they existed (and by that I don’t mean iPads – I fucking hate iPads). But we can’t organise working patterns that allow men and women to have children and care for them in the way that best suits their relationships, aptitudes and needs. We might boast about how “responsive” we are to consumer desires (or about how we don’t give a shit but still “get it right”, if we are Apple – I admit, I have a bit of a thing about Apple). But we won’t lift a finger to revolutionise our understanding of how men and women can work together as equal partners. The concept of a “work-life balance” is used in marketing, but ignored by HR. Maternity leave, paternity leave, keep-in-touch days – nothing happens unless someone’s hand is forced. All these imaginative companies have sod all imagination when it comes to genuinely getting the best out of their employees.

A while ago I wrote a post about how I went totally mental while on maternity leave. I’m now back at work and still going totally mental, this time with the feeling of being stretched in too many directions (and if you say the “h***** i* a**” phrase I’ll be torn into a thousand furious pieces). But anyhow, back then I was reflecting on the value of shared parental leave as an alternative to maternity leave 18 weeks after the birth of a baby. I worried that while it might have worked for me, it could, in practice, be something of a lead balloon. I worried it would change nothing unless broader attitudes towards gender roles were transformed, and I couldn’t – still can’t – see what would really drive that (I mean, I try. But no bugger ever listens to me). Anyhow, all of this seems to have become a moot point. Plans for shared parental leave are likely to be shelved for the time being. In its place we’re going to have … fuck all change. Way-hey! Go us, with our radical ideas for transforming the way Britain goes to work!

To be honest, I was rather hoping that, if I were to have that third baby, those changes actually would be in place. It is, all things considered, at least a starting point. It might offer gender equality to the converted, but then why shouldn’t the converted lead the way? Businesses might grumble, but then so they should; they should feel a bit more pain because on this score, they’re totally fucking useless. “Oh, but what about the small businesses?” (yes, those businesses that are small out of the goodness of their hearts). Well, to be honest, a bit of me thinks “tough”. Kind of similar to how we’ve all been thinking “tough” whenever anyone mentions how discriminatory the system currently is.

A truly creative business would put its people first. If that sounds naff, it’s only because we’ve heard it so many times devoid of any meaning at all. We have spent decades chipping around the edges of the “man works 9-5, woman stays at home” model, knowing that this has little to do with how people actually live their lives. Women work 9-5; people work shifts; a mother might earn more than a father; a father might want to stay at home; a mother might be employed while a father is unemployed; a mother might go fucking mental after more than 18 weeks out of the workplace etc. etc. etc.  It’s about time we stopped making all of these pointless little tweaks which still leave us in roles which don’t necessarily fit. A change to parental leave laws is still a small step towards genuine transformation, but in the context of what we’ve had before, it’s still pretty radical.

What’s more, it is, quite frankly, none of the government’s business whether the person who is caring for a baby is male or female. It is in their interests that the carer is supported and has their job protected so that skills and expertise are not lost. It is in their interests that restrictions based on gender do not tie the hands of employers and employees, or parents and guardians – you know, the people who raise our young. Changes will of course involve organisational upheaval. But is this really more than we can cope with?

Sometimes I wonder whether this is the real issue at all. We have grown used to women taking time out of the workplace; perhaps women won’t really be missed. But take out a man – a man! – and one gets the impression that all hell will break lose. Add to that the possibility that while our useful man disappears, another workplace may have to welcome back a lactating porridge-brained woman… Well, obviously we’re doomed. But we’re doomed anyhow, so what have we got to lose? (If Bob Diamond had been at home wiping arses and warming bottles, perhaps we’d all be in a better place.)

Of course, I still have my misgivings. But obviously I have fewer misgivings than before, given that it now seems less likely that the government will go along with this. So please sign the petition against the shelving of these plans. So I can have my old misgivings back again. And so, at the very least, some parents can make their own choices about how they care.


5 thoughts on “Shared parental leave: Is it really that hard?

  1. Yes, yes, this.

    “it is, quite frankly, none of the government’s business whether the person who is caring for a baby is male or female”

    Maternity leave was the first time in my life I was told something had to be a certain way because I was the woman. And yes, at the time I was earning more than my husband. It was three years ago and I don’t want any more children, but I’m still incredibly bitter. *How dare* they tell me that I must stay at home while my husband goes to work, because he is a man?

  2. Totally with you and the above comment, Rhian. You want to do my job, a farmer – well, perhaps you don’t, but you know what I mean – as a male dominated occupation, I sometimes feel I could do with some fake nuts to make myself feel equal. But we all know that’ll never happen. Men; they do have it tough don’t they, letting us women interfere…

    CJ x

  3. This is an example of something that is as discriminatory to men as it is to women. Why should a man not be allowed to not work when he has a kid? Because women look down on a man who doesn’t work, that’s why. And that attitude against men is institutionalized.

    1. If that’s true – and I know it’s not true for all women (my partner has been the primary carer for our children in the past) – surely the only way to change it is to enable more men to do it.

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