Sunday 23 October 2016

The paternity law is good news for Irish dads but does it go far enough?

From October, Irish dads will be entitled to two weeks' leave. It's good news for those who want to bond with their newborn, but does it go far enough

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

Parenting blogger: Darren Brooks with his sons Dylan and Liam.
Parenting blogger: Darren Brooks with his sons Dylan and Liam.

In the months leading up to the birth of his first son, Darren Brooks carefully amassed the holiday time he felt he would need in order to spend the first days and weeks with his newly expanded family. But there were grumblings of discontent from his then employer when it came time to take the leave.

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"As the birth time was passed due to illness and Dylan kept in the intensive care unit, my dates changed and it was deemed that it was no longer feasible to have flexible dates as his homecoming was unknown," Darren says. "I stood my ground but left six weeks later due to the issues raised and was unhappy at the treatment I received as a new father with a baby in ICU.

"Had paternity leave been available then," he adds, "everything would have been so much easier."

That was in 2002, and the attitude towards fathers taking time off work to be with their newborns has changed dramatically and now, the new Family Leave Bill, due to come into law on September 30, will make it obligatory for all employers to grant fathers two weeks' paternity leave.

New dads will receive €230 in state support per week, and they can take that fortnight's leave at any time in the first six months of their newborn's life. The new benefit is available to all dads, including adoptive parents and men in a same-sex relationship.

Self-employed dads will also be entitled to take the paid leave and there will be mechanisms in place to try to prevent people from claiming the payment without taking the time off.

The €230 amount is identical to the state maternity benefit and based on the same PRSI contribution requirements.

"It is long overdue, but it's an important step forward," Social Protection Minister Leo Varadkar said on Monday as he launched the bill. His department is responsible for the payment while the Department of Justice and Equality is ensuring that all employers allow new fathers the time off.

"It's been a long time coming, but it's good news from an equality point of view," agrees 42-year-old Darren, who works with Concern International and writes a blog, The Working Dad.

"It's a symbolic acceptance of the role of the father and hopefully it will encourage more men to take time off work to be there for their child's earliest days. From a bonding point of view, it's an extremely important time and all that pressure shouldn't be on the mum solely.

"My father's generation didn't get to have that opportunity to be with their newborns because there was an expectation that they would just continue to work, so I think it's great that there's been such a change in attitude where it's not seen at all strange that a father would want to take time off work to be with their children. Fathers are a lot more hands-on now. Traditional gender stereotypes have been well and truly broken down, certainly among people of my age and younger."

It's a sentiment echoed by 30-year-old Aidan Coughlan, editor of the online lifestyle magazine Lovin Dublin. The Co Wicklow native and his partner, Amy, are expecting their first child in late October and will be eligible for the guaranteed paternity leave and payment.

"It's definitely a step in the right direction," he says. "And it's saying, 'We're not in a society any more where mummy is the carer and dad is the one who goes out to work and puts bread on the table'. It's a recognition of gender equality." While Aidan says the law is to be welcomed, it still lags a long way behind the amount of paternity leave enjoyed by fathers in other parts of the EU.

"Two weeks will probably seem a little bit light at the time, especially when compared alongside maternity leave," he says. "But I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth and €460 [paid over the two weeks] is certainly not to be sniffed at, especially when you think about the sort of expense that comes with a new baby."

Up to now, there has been no compunction on an employer to grant paternity leave - making Ireland one of Europe's most backward countries from a father's recognition point of view. The decision to give time off has been solely at the employers' discretion. Best practice has seen some firms offer up to two weeks' paid leave, but it's not uncommon for others to allow just a day or two - unpaid.

While the response from agencies who have lobbied for fairer parental leave has been positive, others believe the new law doesn't go nearly far enough.

One soon-to-be-father who works in a middle-ranking banking role in Dublin's IFSC says it's only a "tiny step" towards full equality for dads.

"If you have lots of money put to one side, fine - but many professionals in Dublin are living from one week to the next, and from pay cheque to pay cheque, and €230 is a lot less than they would be getting per week, after tax has been deducted," he says.

"A female college will have her child around the same time and she will get close to 100pc of her salary for the first six months. That's a hell of a difference. So while I, of course, welcome anything that improves the situation for fathers, we shouldn't get too carried away just yet," he says.

"Mark Zuckerberg recently took two months off to be with his child and that's the sort of time that would really make you feel you had proper time off work to be with your child."

The Facebook founder claimed that such time away from the demands of work was ideal in helping him to bond with his daughter, Max.

The IFSC employee is not sure if he will avail of the leave.

"I'm definitely taking two weeks off, but the chances are I will use holiday time that's stored up as I'll receive full pay then. Let's face it: when you become a parent for the first time, you need all the money you can get. That said, the fact that this leave can be taken in the first six months of the birth means I'm not too restricted about when I can take it and it would be nice to receive state money that acknowledges my role as a father."

While the paternal leave may pale when compared to the 26 weeks mothers can avail of, the change is likely to bring extra challenges to small businesses, according to its representative body, the Small Firms Association.

"They will have to organise cover for that period," says Patricia Callan, "and sometimes it's easier to get cover for six months than two weeks.

"And it can be particularly hard for small firms because if you have four staff and one of them has to go, that's 25pc of your workforce down."

There will be no obligation on new dads to take the state paternity leave and some may opt to continue working. That has been the case across much of the EU, even in member states where paid paternity leave is the norm.

While it is common for men in the EU to take a few days of paternity leave right after the birth of a baby, only the most committed and bravest use their right to longer parental leave, says the OECD.

"In many countries, fathers account for less than one in five of those taking parental leave," says the organisation in a report published in April entitled Where are the Fathers? "The share of men among parental-leave users goes up to 40pc or more in some Nordic countries and in Portugal, but is as low as one in 50 in Austria, the Czech Republic and Poland.

Paternity leave uptake is growing fastest in countries such as Finland, where the male share of paid parental leave doubled between the 2006 and 2013, while in Belgium it grew by almost 10 percentage points over the same period.

The OECD, which is trying to persuade fathers to make more of their allowance, says men often fear the career implications of being away for too long. But the organisation argues that sharing leave can be more beneficial for the family as a whole, as it increases the employment prospects for the mother.

For those who long lobbied for Ireland to introduce paid paternity leave, Sweden represents the ideal. It was the first country in the world to introduce paid parental leave that could be used by either or both parents back in 1976, and its rights for fathers make it a global leader. Fathers there can take between 14 days and 10 weeks leave at up to 75pc of their earnings.

Ireland has a long way to go to match that, but Darren believe anything is possible after two or three generations. "The ball has started rolling now so as it becomes more normal for fathers to receive paid paternity leave, there's every chance the time period will increase. Dads today have a very different life with their children than my father's generation did."

Yet, some perceptions persist longer than others. While the internet is groaning with Irish mothers blogging about parenting, Darren is one of the very few dads putting his thoughts online.

"I still get slightly bemused reactions," he says, "from men and women, but more so men. They'd say, 'You're a dad and you're blogging about parenting'. They find it strange that a father would do it, but not a mother."

Despite this, he believes attitudes are changing fast.

Aidan says there's been a sea-change since the turn of the millennium.

"I think men of my generation are very enthusiastic about being fathers," he says. "They want to be involved in all aspects of it and we're not embarrassed to say how openly excited we are at the prospect of being parents. Nobody is sneering at us any more - dads are liberated and I think my generation is very lucky in that regard."

Ireland is becoming the sort of egalitarian society that previous generations could only have dreamed about, he adds.

"Last year's marriage-equality legislation was a big deal for everyone, and now the official recognition of paternity leave demonstrates that we're seeking a more equal society.

"And that, surely, is a good thing - something that benefits us all."

What are the entitlements?

For many years, Irish mothers have been able to avail of 26 weeks' paid paternity leave - either from their employer or as a state payment - plus the option for a further 26 weeks' unpaid leave, which has to be taken immediately after.

From October, Irish fathers will have two weeks' paid paternity leave enshrined in law. At present, in most cases, they have to save up holiday entitlements in order to take leave when their child is born, although more progressive employers have provided both paid and unpaid paternity leave for several years.

Furthermore, Irish parents can avail of up to 18 weeks of unpaid parental leave to be taken up to their child's eight birthday.

If the child has been adopted between the ages of six and eight, that leave period can be take up to their 10th birthday. In the case of a child with a long-term illness or disability, leave can be taken up to 16 years of age. Both parents have an equal, separate entitlement to parental leave.

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