This is a guest post from @teadrinkingmom. Follow her on Twitter!
Earlier this month news quietly broke that the government is on the verge of shelving plans to reform maternity leave. What another Coalition u-turn? You’d be forgiven for yawning. But it’s more than the price of pasties at stake this time. If you’re a mum, a dad, a future parent, a feminist, a friend of men or simply someone who cares about families, this one is worth sitting up for.
In short, the government is threatening to kick into the long-grass its commitment to extend paternity leave and enable couples to share baby leave however they choose to after the first four months.
Why should a feminist care?
When the idea of shared baby leave was first suggested to me by a male friend a few years ago, I must confess my heart sank a little. Having slogged it out working silly hours for the best part of a decade, and with the prospect of nurturing a small human being in my womb for 9 months, not to mention that minor detail of getting the blighter out, I was rather looking forward to my 9 months paid leave. In fact I felt it was the least I should be entitled to. But five years, two wonderful kids and one feminist reawakening later, I have revised my view.
The first epiphany came when I realised that: Maternity leave ain’t no holiday. Of course, I “knew” this before. I’d seen friends weary with sleeplessness and detritus. I’d read all about the “motherhood penalty”. But there’s nothing like watching your career disappear into a nappy vortex, just as your partner’s takes off, to remind you that you really don’t “have it all”.
What took me by surprise about our new lives most was the fact that the very traditional gendered roles we’d suddenly taken on weren’t confined to office hours. It was the same evenings and weekends. As my partner began to get greater recognition in his professional field, my expertise in child rearing, managing the domestic budget, cleaning and cooking also developed. And the more time went on, the more I knew, the less he knew, the more entrenched the differences became.
How had we got ourselves into this? I didn’t suddenly choose to embrace my inner “domestic goddess” on returning from the labor ward. And fatherhood hadn’t transformed my enlightened feminist life partner into a Neanderthal (though it does happen – I’ve seen it with friends and it’s not pretty). Was the change a natural consequence of all that becoming a mother entails physically and emotionally, naturally pushing our lives apart? I don’t deny an aspect of that. But, in my final analysis, by far the greatest driving forces came from outside. And most of all the unquestioned assumption reinforced by ring-fenced maternity leave that I must be the one to stay at home in the early months, until well beyond my physical recovery.
So what am I asking for?
I’m a grown up and I’d simply like to be treated like one please. This means having the opportunity to discuss options and make a decision jointly with my partner about how we organise our lives. As Rebecca Asher puts it in her important book Shattered, the birth of a child is “a watershed moment, in which we examine our priorities, values and relationships with rare intensity. Terrifyingly yet thrillingly all our cards appear to be thrown up in the air. Society should not dictate how they fall”.
If the idea of maternity leave were invented today, it would never make it beyond the confines of a Mother’s Union branch meeting. Defining baby-leave as belonging to the mother, beyond what is absolutely necessary for health reasons (and no, I don’t count breastfeeding: that’s a right, not a duty) promotes a single, out-dated view of family life, and undermines prospects for equality even amongst the most progressive thinking couples. It’s the most pernicious bit of nanny-statism I’ve come across.
As set out above, the UK has come so close to achieving the kind of change needed. In spring 2011 the Coalition published plans to give couples the right to share paid leave after the first 18 weeks of maternity leave, rather than the current 26 weeks. This would mean that either parent could take leave after four months. It would be up to the family to decide. The plans, set out in detail in a consultation, also gave fathers six weeks of their own leave – four more than at present.
The proposed reforms were broadly welcomed, including by family groups and by business groups such as the CBI who specifically supported the move toward shareable leave. The legislation to enact the reforms was then included in the Queen’s Speech in May 2012.
But on July 1st the Sunday Times reported that the reforms were “in disarray” following a supposed backlash from some ”women’s groups” and employers. A Financial Times article the following day said proposals were being “watered down” and that nothing would be brought forward until after the next general election (2015) due to “coalition infighting”.
Rescuing shared parental leave
There are those, even in the feminist camp, who will be fearful of making the change. Relinquishing the protections currently afforded to maternity leave through the EU may take a deep breath or two. Politicians and campaigners will need to work to ensure that the full range of employment rights currently offered through maternity leave are properly extended in the new arrangement through strong legislation. If some unscrupulous bosses use the change as an excuse to pull back the additional benefits they offer during maternity leave they must be named and shamed. And every effort will need to be made to ensure that all new parents understand how their entitlements work and take them up.
Yet the prize would be so significant we cannot let it slip through our fingers for fear of failing. Through careful legislation and good communication I believe we can overcome these challenges. We must ensure that the government is left in absolutely no doubt that people want these reforms to go ahead. If they do, we will see a change which opens the door to greater gender equality more than any single reform has done for years.
- Sign the petition here calling for “No u-turn on proposals to introduce shared baby leave for parents”
- Tell your friends - forward this blogpost, share the petition link on Facebook and Tweet (hashtag #sharedbabyleavenow)