John Birrell talks about his experience of taking Shared Parental Leave at the same time as his wife, and how it was a really positive experience for them all.
John Birrell’s daughter was born in September 2016 and he took five months off for Shared Parental Leave – at the same time as his wife. Before he looked into SPL – which he didn’t know about until his wife got pregnant – John, who is Client Relationship Manager at law firm Berwin Leighton Paisner, was not aware that parents could take the time off together. “I thought it would be a nice thing to do, to spend time together as a family rather than one of us struggling for a while on our own followed by the other one struggling on their own,” he says.
That thought was to prove very prescient. Not only did his wife have an emergency Caesarean section, but she then got an infection and ended up being readmitted to hospital for a week. It knocked her out for the first six weeks after the birth. “If I had not been able to take time off she would have really struggled,” says John. “Two weeks’ paternity leave is not enough time to help out someone who has been through that.”
He is well aware of the impact struggling on your own in such circumstances could have on a mother’s mental health and feels there is not enough discussion of this.
John says it is vital that dads tell their employer when their partner gets pregnant. If he had not informed his employer, he says, he would not have got access to advice about SPL, but also to other support and to the firm’s celebration voucher for employees having a baby. “Men don’t tend to seek information about paternity issues and they should,” says John.
He is fortunate that his employer has award-winning policies and practice around supporting dads at work. Berwin Leighton Paisner won Workingmums.co.uk’s Best for Dads Award in 2017 and 35% of eligible dads have taken SPL, a high figure compared to the average of around 2%.
As a father of three himself, John’s manager was very supportive. John was a bit apprehensive telling him about taking SPL, but says his manager said it was a great opportunity to have quality family time. “He was very encouraging,” says John, “and said that I’d be stupid not to take it.”
He adds that the support of senior management for SPL cannot be underestimated. “In some companies you feel there is not the support of management to take time off and you feel your career will be adversely affected if you do. You’d think this would be even more the case in a law firm and yet to a person every partner was supportive.”
He was delighted at Berwin Leighton Paisner’s approach to encouraging men to take SPL in general. “They have not just kept to a narrow interpretation of the legislation, but have decided that the spirit of the law is to encourage men to take as much time off as they can to take the burden off the mum so they match the maternity pay benefits.”
That means dads on SPL get three months on full pay followed by three months on half pay. John’s wife didn’t get as good a deal as him so it made economic sense for him to take the time off. He thinks enhancing SPL is very important and knows many dads can’t afford to take it if it is just the statutory rate. “Many men look at the statutory pay and feel they cannot afford to take time off. Enhancing the pay takes that out of the equation,” he says.
In his own case, he says he would have taken the leave even if it wasn’t enhanced. “You can make the money back over time, but you cannot get that time back with the family. Even if it was statutory pay I would do it again in a heartbeat,” he states.
When John took SPL, there were not many dads taking it, but since he has come back from leave there are many more and he feels that having visible case studies like his around helps other dads. His own dad and grandfather couldn’t believe his firm would let him have the time off. “They couldn’t believe they wouldn’t fire me,” says John, remarking on how times are changing.
Of the process itself, John says he was helped a lot by the HR team, including an HR manager who was going through the SPL process herself. He thinks the form-filling is a bit more complicated that it needs to be, particularly given the coordination needed between the mum and dad’s employers. He feels his relationship with his daughter is much stronger as a result of taking the time off and adds that the couple share the childcare more than the average couple. He found it difficult to come back to work as he came back full time, although he can flex his hours and occasionally works from home. His wife works part time from home as a contractor and has adjusted their daughter’s routine so she is awake when he comes home at night.
He is much more aware now of what is involved in looking after a small baby. “I laughed beforehand asking what mums do all day, but it is really intense. It is a lot easier if there are two parents around so one can have a sleep or take a shower. You feel more human,” he says.
John also benefits from other BLP family friendly policies and initiatives. He goes to sessions organised by the parents network about all aspects of parenting and says there is a lot of benefit to be gained from the wealth of parenting experience in the firm. “Everyone’s experience is different and you have to learn your own child, but you can ask for advice about all the different stages and if you are finding something difficult, hearing about other people’s problems can help bring you down to earth,” he says.
John also enjoys the Family Festive Day, although he has not taken his daughter yet. “It’s really nice to see colleagues with their children,” he says. “It makes them more human. It gives you a warm, fuzzy family feeling.