As a growing number of dads take up the opportunity to spend more time at home with their baby, Rob Kemp meets three fathers who’ve done just that…
Shared Parental Leave (SPL) became law in the UK in April 2015. The idea behind it, based upon similar schemes in Scandinavia, is to enable parents to share the workload of childcare. Instead of working mums being allocated 52 weeks, and dads getting only a fortnight of official, paid leave, now both parents can pool their parental leave and split it more evenly.
“I took two weeks’ paternity leave when our son Louis was born in July 2015. I went back to work for six weeks before taking 30 weeks’ SPL from September to April,” says Mark Smith, from Richmond. “For my wife Emma and I, it felt right that we were able to decide between us how we wanted to share the first year of childcare. I was lucky also, as within one month of SPL becoming law, my firm implemented an enhanced SPL programme.
“Emma has run her own business for the past 10 years and it was important that she wasn’t on leave for too long,” adds Mark. “As one of the first people to take SPL, I got a mix of reactions. I think most respect the choice, but it will definitely take a societal shift.”
For Geraint Davies, a military policeman at RAF Northolt in Ruislip, the introduction of SPL came as perfect timing. “I’d heard of SPL, but wasn’t sure I could take it while serving in the military. We investigated it and decided I would take four months off work to look after my son, Evan, due to my wife being promoted and needing to return to work before the year was up. She had always been supportive of me in my career, it was time to return the favour.
“I spoke to my employers who were supportive, and was one of the first members of the military to take SPL. It was a learning curve for everyone, but the military police points out that it is committed to allowing service families the opportunity to adapt to changing dynamics. Despite the Forces having a reputation of being a macho organisation, everyone showed admiration for what I was doing. There was no stigma attached.”
Geraint says the experience is one he feels he’s benefitted from. “Due to my son’s sleeping habits, I only saw him briefly in the evenings after work. But with SPL we got time to bond,” he explains. “It also brought me and my wife closer; I saw things from her perspective and, similarly, it showed her life from my perspective. It made us more rounded parents.”
The change from full-time work to full-time fatherhood can come as a shock to the system though, as William Bartholomew from Hertfordshire, who works at a city finance firm, discovered. “I took six months SPL from July 2015 to January 2016 to look after our son, Barnaby. I wanted to share in the challenges and fun times that come with having a baby.
“SPL gave us memories we will never forget – but it wasn’t without its difficulties and the sudden change of pace from my day job to full-time parenthood was a challenge.
“I was taking time off immediately after the birth, so the uncertainty which comes with starting a long period of leave without a fixed start date made the last weeks of work tricky. Thankfully, Barnaby arrived on his due date!”
All three fathers insist the overall experience is one that they would relish retaking – both Geraint and Mark have become fathers again and are in the process of arranging further SPL.
“This time it will be through choice rather than necessity,” says Geraint. “The only pitfall I ever found was that some mothers themselves weren’t ready for the changes! I had a lot of support from some mothers in groups I attended, but others would make comments like, ‘I bet the wife will have to do all the cleaning when she gets home’, or ‘You’ll have to learn to change a nappy now’ – things I obviously already did and took pride in.”
William also counts the blessings that taking SPL brought him. “Taking our first family holiday was amazing. Everyone was supportive, and a common reaction was, ‘I wish this was around when I had my children’.”
Mark is certainly glad it’s around for him and his children: “Once you find your feet, the fun is immeasurable. As I developed the confidence to spend more time out of the house with Louis, it became easier. Being the primary carer is challenging, tiring, and at times overwhelming. But I loved the fact that Louis sees me as an ‘equal’ parent, so when he is down or wants a cuddle, he comes to me just as much as he does to Emma.”
Tips for fathers
- “Know your rights,” suggests Mark. “SPL is still in its infancy and both the government and employers are finding their feet, so it’s often not advocated as much as it could be.”
- “If your company doesn’t have a SPL programme in place, see what you can do through your HR to get one in place – in effect, just extending the maternity policy.”
- “Build a network of other dads in the area who are the primary carer. I found this important, as many of the existing family activities are targeted (sometimes exclusively) at women.”