Spending time with a newborn child is usually a privilege and a pleasure for new parents. But it is also one of the most difficult and stressful times of their lives.
Mothers and fathers who take this time away from work to learn and grow with their children generally report that it has made them more confident — better parents and partners. And increasingly equal involvement for both parents is showing huge dividends in homes and workplaces.
Across the world, governments are waking up to these facts. But how exactly does equal parental leave benefit kids, and how can governments get both partners to take it up at wide scale?
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Time with Dad
Parental leave spreads both the joy and the burden of new parenthood equally between partners, creating a less stressful environment at a time which can be as difficult as it is wonderful.
It’s worth clarifying the distinction between “paternity leave”, taken when the baby is born, and further “shared parental leave”.
That latter category is key. According to figures from the Fatherhood Institute, a British think tank, each additional month of leave a father takes increases a mother’s earnings by 6.7%, while paternal support during this time also reduces her likelihood of depression and improves her health outcomes.
Figures from Sweden show a 30% reduction in separations if the father took more than four weeks paternity leave.
Josh, a charity worker whose partner had their first child in 2018 said: “We took the first two months off together to support each other, to learn how to be parents and to bond with our child.”
After that, they took turns going back to work, which means Josh took some time off while his partner was working. “It was really important for me. It was really special to have time to develop my own relationship [with my child],” he said.
As Jeremy Davies, a spokesperson for the Father Institute, said that paternity leave is “an important time – for the father to bond with the baby and support the mother”.
But he argues that without the father taking up his share of ongoing leave, this alone is not enough of a lever for change. “The father needs to have time where he’s looking after the baby on his own. That has far more social impact.”
Josh agrees: “I’m much more confident than Dads who didn’t take this time on their own. I’m less hesitant when it comes to comforting, for example,” he said
And while some of these benefits may atrophy over time, German Economist Marcus Tamm has found that fathers taking parental leave are likely to see significant benefits to their long term relationships with their children and their involvement in housework.
It also means their partners are able to participate significantly more in the labour force not just after returning to work, but throughout their lives.
Equal parental leave brings public health benefits to children, too: in terms of their physical, intellectual and emotional development.
According to the Fatherhood Institute, Swedish children whose fathers took parental leave are more likely to be breastfed, which means a lower risk of infections.
Australian children whose fathers took more leave than average performed better on IQ tests and in the UK, children whose fathers did not take leave were more likely to experience developmental problems.
The question governments face, then, is how to ensure that fathers take leave.
That means fighting considerable stigmas around the breaking of traditional gender roles, and the difficulty faced by couples earning unequal pay. As Jeremy Davies of the Fatherhood institute put it: “Our economy is still such that, in most households, it makes more sense for the woman to take the time off.”
Where these schemes consist of time that is wholly transferable between men and women — for example, they have 50 weeks to share between them however they choose — they have a less successful gender spread, such as in the UK where take up of shared parental leave was as low as 2% in 2018.
Flexible working policies are seen as gendered, being promoted more towards young mothers than young fathers. As a result, many new fathers do not see examples being set across companies and many report being instead stigmatised as “part timers” if they use flexible hours to manage childcare.
Also shared schemes that don’t recognise the wage differential in many couples and build in properly incentivising payments to men taking leave don’t work.
In Sweden, shared parental leave was first introduced in 1974 with a generous 480 days leave offered.
However, it wasn’t until a “use it or lose it” clause, alongside generous levels of financial support, were introduced to ensure that at least 90 of those days were only on offer to fathers that take up among men became more frequent.
It is now so commonplace, that these men even have an affectionate nickname as part of Swedish society ‘Latte Papas” – as Davies says, “If you build it, they will come!”
This is why in the UK, Parliament’s Women and Equalities Select Committee are now calling for elements of the UK scheme to match the Swedish offer and be in part exclusively available to men.
Meanwhile, some parts of the business community express concerns that shared parental leave could threaten their bottom lines.
But the Harvard Business Review found that any costs were at least balanced if not overwhelmed by employee retention rates and levels of staff satisfaction. Meanwhile when insurance employer Aviva started offering and encouraging take up of equal paternity leave, they found that the men who were returning to work did so with a changed approach.
It is clear from the evidence that there are a number of benefits to ensuring men are entitled to, and take up, greater paternal leave.
Children are shown to benefit developmentally and both partners find benefits in an out of the workplace. Progressive businesses who have taken the lead on changing workplace culture to further encourage this have also seen benefits in levels of staff engagement.
But culture is hard to shift without firm measures and it is becoming clearer from the difference in take up levels between those who adopt a specific “use it or lose it” approach, that this is a key part of ensuring these schemes deliver best for all parties. — Emma Burnell
Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that “Josh”‘s child was born in 2017, when the correct year was 2018. The article has been updated to reflect this.
(Picture credit: Maresa Smith/Deathtothestockphoto)