Left holding the baby? Experiences of shared parental leave
In April 2016, while I was pregnant with my second child, a report was published by My Family Care asserting that only 1% of men are taking shared parental leave (“SPL”). While it was clear from a closer read that this was not entirely accurate, the 1% figure was widely reported, reinforcing the impression that SPL is strange and unusual; not widely used or even understood.
After experiencing the usual professional and personal challenges on returning from maternity leave after my first child (such as feeling out-of-touch after 12 months out of the office and finding that, by default, I was doing most of the childcare and domestic duties), I had been considering making use of SPL second time around. The reported lack of uptake made me more determined to do so. While by no means the complete solution, I believe that initiatives like SPL are an important weapon in addressing several of the challenges currently faced by businesses, including the gender pay gap, boardroom diversity and attrition of female talent. However, this will only be the case if employees take advantage of SPL and, in doing so, normalise the idea that both parents are responsible for childcare and can take time off to do so without jeopardising their careers.
One of the most innovative aspects of SPL is that both parents are able to take leave in discontinuous periods (up to three, in addition to a period of maternity or paternity leave). This was how my husband and I chose to take it. I took maternity leave until my daughter started solid foods, whereupon my husband took a period of SPL while I went back to work, leaving him in sole charge of a toddler and a baby. My husband then returned to work and I took the final few weeks of leave to spend some time with my children and settle them into nursery before diving headlong back into the world of employment law.
Having recently returned from SPL, how does the experience compare to returning from my first maternity leave? It has been significantly easier. For me, 12 months was too long to take off in one period, even with KIT days. Having some time back at work helped me to keep up with fast-moving employment law and enabled me to hit the ground running on my return. I have had numerous positive comments from both colleagues and clients, which has been very encouraging and hopefully a sign that both employees and employers are starting to recognise the benefits of alternative leave arrangements.
And what does Mr O’Malley, who works at a well-known bank, think of the experience?
“I was one of the first people in the bank to take SPL and most people I spoke to didn’t know much about it or how it works. However, my manager and colleagues were very positive and supportive. Looking after my daughters all day every day was a real eye-opener and, as well as improving my relationship with them, it has given me a much better understanding of the challenges working mothers can face and I hope it will make me a better manager going forwards. To anyone who can take SPL, my advice would be ‘do it’.”