In its first year of existence, Shared Parental Leave was accessed by less than 1% of families. An overnight success it was not. We were amongst the early adopters of the scheme and it was an absolute gift to our family. Long before the Government announced its new legislation, we had decided to share the childcare in the first year of our baby’s life, so, the announcement that we could, in effect, ‘share’ my maternity was absolutely timely – and welcome.
And for us, the process itself was relatively straightforward. We were the ‘guinea pigs’ in both our companies but this did not pose any issues with the actual procedure. Forms filled in, timescales agreed, maternity pay handover confirmed and we were on our way.
But whilst the law has changed, mindsets need to catch up. Our approach met with some surprised commentary from people we encountered, evidence then that societally, we still have some way to go before equality around parental leave becomes the norm.
And companies are in a great position to be able to help to normalise parental equity in their organisational culture and within their policies and procedures. The provision for women during maternity leave – such as Keeping In Touch days and regular communications – should also become the standard for fathers taking Shared Parental Leave. Businesses might also want to consider their processes for welcoming returning fathers; in the same way that companies may support a phased or flexible return for mothers, the same could apply for fathers. Consistency is the key so that whichever parent it is, they are treated equitably.
But it’s not just the practical steps which companies can take. There also needs to be an understanding and recognition of the emotional impact upon a father returning to work from parental leave. Just as it is widely understood and anticipated that mothers may feel conflicted and vulnerable during those first few days and weeks, the same might be true for the returning father. As such, we need to offer him just as much emotional support and care as we would a mother.
And this doesn’t just apply to fathers taking Shared Parental Leave. The whole process of having a child is mind-blowingly life-changing. It alters everything – our perceptions, our feelings, our concerns, our priorities. The same sensitivity we apply to new mothers should also be extended to new fathers. I have often wondered at how tough it must be for the father returning to work after the usual two weeks’ paternity leave to just ‘get back to normal.’ Because normal doesn’t exist anymore. And managers need to recognise this and pay consideration to this shift through caring inquiry and a focus on wellbeing.
Of course, we are all unique and becoming a parent will affect mothers and fathers differently. But by supporting parental parity through policies and management approaches, employers can help to empower their people to make the parental leave choices that are right for them and their families. And in doing so, increase employee satisfaction and impact positively upon wellbeing.