Parental leave – as opposed to a short period of maternity leave that is linked explicitly to recovery from the birth – should be identical to mothers and fathers at the point of delivery, argues Duncan Fisher.
We know that good leave entitlement systems result in a big increase in sharing of care between men and women. Good leave systems enable wider choices for families and allow diversity. In UK we have consistently failed to deliver these: the last three major changes in leave entitlements since 1996 have failed to enable sharing. We remain with extremely low rates of uptake of parental leave by fathers compared to similar economies.
The key problem is not in the workplace but in the legislature. Having been involved in the debate three times already, I have been able to discern the underlying political reasons, as opposed to practical ones such as affordability.
Whenever “Daddy months” are proposed (leave for the father that cannot be given to the mother), an objection is raised: this is social engineering.
But the existence of “Mummy months” on exactly the same basis is not considered social engineering.
Why is one social engineering and the other not?
The answer is “biological determinism”. Deep down there is a belief that mothers’ time with children is “natural” and fathers’ time with children is a social innovation available should mothers need to share their caring role. This view is embodied in the current leave arrangements: mothers are given all the leave and they can share it with the father. The mother is the responsible “essential” lead, the father is the optional helper. If the same principle were applied the other way round to the boardroom and the workplace, there would be mayhem, and yet the two phenomena are two sides of the same coin.
An enterprising young researcher in USA recently proved that biological determinism influences our views about leave entitlements for fathers. She divided people into two groups. She explained the biology of fatherhood to the first group, but not the other. Then she asked them both about their opinions on leave entitlements. The informed group was more supportive of shared leave arrangements than the uninformed group.
Here is a very brief summary of the biology of fatherhood as we know it, bearing in mind that new research is being published all the time on this topic.
So the father-child bond is biological, just like the mother-child bond is; and it needs time to form. This is as “natural” as motherhood.
Another argument always advanced during leave entitlement debates in favour of keeping fathers at work and women at home is breastfeeding. Actively encouraging unequal leave entitlements by breastfeeding advocates is a key reason why we have the extreme differences we see in UK today.
The evidence is unequivocal that a mother returning early to full-time long-hours work reduces breastfeeding. But this would not be a consequence of a system of shareable leave entitlements.
I am an advocate of breastfeeding and I speak internationally on the issue. With researchers from around Canada and Viet Nam, I recently published a briefing for a World Health Organisation review of breastfeeding support, Breastfeeding as Family Teamwork.
I believe that manipulating leave entitlements to engineer mothers and fathers onto different tracks is a poor strategy to promote breastfeeding compared to other evaluated approaches. One of the most effective ways to increase breastfeeding is the active engagement of fathers in support for breastfeeding and the support of their active role in caring for the baby. Close relatives have more influence than any other factor on breastfeeding. So equal leave entitlements, insomuch as they support co-parenting, will improve breastfeeding, particularly if breastfeeding educators work harder to engage with and inform fathers.
Parental leave – as opposed to a short period of maternity leave that is linked explicitly to recovery from the birth – should be identical to mothers and fathers at the point of delivery. This allows parents to make their own choices. In no country has this ever led to a 50:50 split of care, but it does lead to a radically different distribution of choices compared to the extremely unequal situation we have in UK today.
*Duncan Fisher is founder of The Family Initiative, a new UK charity, set up to develop maternal, newborn and youth programmes internationally, with the aim of strengthening co-parenting and inspiring young people. He also runs three research reporting websites: ChildandFamilyBlog.com (a project of Cambridge and Princeton Universities), Fatherhood Global (the “science of fatherhood”) and FamilyIncluded.com (maternal and newborn health). This is an edited version of his submission to the Women & Equalities Committee inquiry into support for fathers at work.