Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

Can firms really afford to let new dads take 10 months paternity leave?

After my oldest son was born I held out for a whole six weeks on maternity leave. It was a deadline born of that most basic necessity.

We had no money whatsoever coming into the house.

My husband was on strike — so no pay there. And back in the day, maternity pay didn’t actually exist in any real sense.

That said, I don’t think my early return to work did either of us (myself or son) any lasting damage.

Some people seemed amazed however, and even a bit critical that I’d returned to the office fray quite so quickly. What sort of mother was I? What was wrong with me? They didn’t actually say so, in so many words. But if Mumsnet had been around back then I doubt I’d have been nominated for a Mother of the Year gong.

When my second son was born I thought I’d regroup in the maternal image department at least, by booking an entire three months off. I lasted two before I phoned the editor, pleading for an early recall.

In an era when extended maternity leave appears to be all but compulsory, I’m almost ashamed to admit this.

Almost.

But I suspect there are (even now) plenty more women like me. Are we freaks of nature? Yes, maybe.

But the truth is I found I managed to bond perfectly well with both my sons. And maternity leave — extended or abridged — is, of course, all about “bonding”.

Nick Clegg’s woolly new plans on maternity/paternity leave, which will amount to a sort of parental job-share allowing fathers to take up to 10 months at home is very much about bonding.

“More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children,” he says, “But too many feel that they can't.”

(Ummafter work perhaps? At the weekend?)

The problem with this sort of logic is, where do you draw the line?

If a father is “hands-on” with the baby-minding for the first 10 months of Junior’s life, mightn’t he wish to also hang on in there for, oh say, the next 17 years as well?

Mr Clegg says that the current maternity/paternity rules “patronise women and marginalise men”. But is this actually the case? If his new scheme merely leads to role reversal, isn’t that patronising men and marginalising women?

And let’s face it, we live in a world where the house husband who runs the home while his partner goes out to work is not really so unusual any more.

The crucial difference, of course, being that the house husband is not on extended paternity leave. He’s actually made a career choice.

Cleggy’s maternity/paternity share-the-leave scheme may look fine on paper. But where it comes apart is in the detail.

Or, to be blunt, the many complicated details.

He appears to be suggesting that the new paternity leave could be taken in blocks here and there.

That may work fine and dandy in the big corporations where finding (and funding) cover may be easier. But what of small businesses already being mercilessly buffeted by recession? How are they going to cope with employees flitting in and out of the workplace for burping and bonding?

I totally respect the views and rights of any parent (male or female) who wants to stay at home with their child.

But is there really such a raging demand from fathers (and mothers) for a complex leave-share system which is more about attracting votes than genuine, practical help for families?

Isn’t there more call, in these straitened times, for government “bonding” with the real world?

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