As the news of the new royal baby was announced this month, I was taken back to the birth of my second son last summer after which I took five weeks off work.
It saddened me to learn that Prince Harry will not be embracing the full paternity leave available to British fathers, flying off for an overseas engagement just three days after the birth of his son.
Whilst the royal couple don’t have the pressure of the traditional 9-5 job and no-doubt, have a small army of staff to support with childcare, not enough men are taking advantage of paternity leave and shared parental leave which is such an important time to form bond with their baby and be a support for new mothers.
Male role models should be breaking the stigma and setting examples, proving that it’s ok to prioritise family over work. Would anyone at Invictus Games (a wonderful event by the way – and the engagement in the Netherlands he flew to) have begrudged Harry if he’d sent a video message instead? It’s the birth of his first child!
My experience of taking shared parental leave was a totally brilliant if exhausting time, not just bonding with my new son, but sharing the pressures of looking after a newborn baby and our three year old with my wife. It was a bonus that the World Cup was on, so I could watch matches while feeding my baby boy, as my wife took well-earned naps and had precious recovery time.
I took two weeks’ statutory paternity and three weeks’ shared parental leave, the legal allowance that came into force in April 2015, which aims to give parents more flexibility in sharing leave during a child’s first year and to give fathers the chance of having a more active role in the care of their newborns. Instead of the traditional 52 weeks maternity leave and two weeks paternity leave, new parents can now share up to 50 weeks and 37 weeks’ pay between them, taking time off separately, or together for up to six months.
What’s not to love, right?
Yet I am massively in the minority for taking shared parental leave - with a government study revelaing that as little as 2% of eligible parents have taken up the option so far.
Well, according to a survey published last year (17 July 2018), 50% of the UK workforce don’t know they can take it, and almost half of HR departments don’t promote it.
Then there are the cultural prejudices surrounding parenthood.
Men worry that taking time off will be career limiting or at the very least frowned upon, with a survey last year saying that one in five dads were worried they’d lose their jobs if they took advantage of the leave they were entitled to.
And of course, it’s not lost on me that women experience this tenfold. It should go without saying that I have the utmost respect for working women who quite rightly, take up to a year off after giving birth.
But with parental leave, negative perceptions mean that even though it’s the law, I still felt guilty about asking for it.
Then there’s the fact, as 2018’s gender pay gap figures showed, men still earn more than women, so there can often be financial considerations. It’s around £150 a week to take shared parental leave, so it may be too much of a financial hit in the family’s budget once you’ve done your sums (though for example, I saved £230 a month by not using my travel card).
But I’d rather have a tight few months and be able to spend time with my newborn.
The Metro also revealed last month that a third of Brits think all mums should take on the majority of the responsibility for parenting in their child’s early years, with the inherent prejudice you’re not a good mother if you go back to work when your child’s still an infant.
It’s a cultural hangover from our parents’ time, when mums put careers on hold as soon as they had children and until they flew the nest.
But taking up shared parental leave is not just about improving gender equality at home or in the workplace, or the fact that flexibility in work is proven to create happier, more loyal and more productive workforces.
It’s because it’s scientifically proven that fathers make better dads if they spend quality time interacting with their new-borns.
When parents of either sex spend quality time with their babies, they see a spike in the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin which has a long-established role in parent-infant bonding, particularly in the days following birth. This has lasting benefits, according to child psychotherapist Margot Sunderland, which are carried right through to adulthood including making us more able to deal with stress and anxiety.
Plus, having a nurturing father in the early days has a long-lasting beneficial effect on the physical and behavioural health of kids, as well as how well they will do educationally, (Smithsonian).
In men, their testosterone levels drop, which increases uptake of oxytocin, as well as the feel-good hormone dopamine. These hormones help them bond better with their babies, affirms Science Daily.
It doesn’t even matter if the father is biologically related to the child either - if you’re there from the start, these chemical and hormonal changes will take place anyway, according to The i.
Obviously, happy parents mean happy babies. On top of all this, if a parent of a baby is stressed because their partner is at work all the time or not pulling their weight with the newborn, it can have a hugely negative impact on baby’s development, (Zero to Three).
Based on what my friends say, I believe men nowadays do want to play more of a 50-50 parenting role - but yet it seems there is still stigma around taking shared parental leave.
So we need to have more men stepping up and setting examples. Where are the role models? Why hasn’t Prince Harry led the way, and why are no famous blokes or big business bosses making a stand and proudly taking it?
We’ve got to break this taboo surrounding shared parental leave and leave behind the parenting prejudices of the generations before us. It will not only benefit the current generation of parents, but their children will be better prepared to take on the world having had crucial support and a healthy dose of oxytocin during those vital early brain development stages.
Until men - and women - from all walks of life start asking for shared parental leave and shout about how brilliant it is, hundreds and thousands of new fathers are going to miss out on the crucial, demanding but hugely enjoyable first few weeks of really bonding with their babies - whether or not there’s a World Cup on.
So, come on soon-to-be dads - you’re entitled to shared parental leave, so take it and tell the world about it. You won’t regret it…