Baby or big kid -- who needs a parent more?
Most women nowadays take an extended period of leave when their child is born so why do we then think twice about taking parental leave? Perhaps our children need us just as much as they get older, especially when facing into the daunting experience of starting school
Choosing how and when to take time off with young children can be tricky. When does a child need a parent more -- when they're tiny, or when they're a few years older and facing the daunting experience of starting school?
Parenting experts and child psychologists have us believe that the best time to spend with a child is before the age of two. According to research, this is when the real bonding between a parent and child happens.
Research by the Child Development Institute in California shows the key to healthy child development is the amount of time children spend with their parents, having fun and learning.
With maternity leave at 26 weeks, some parents may still feel that it isn't enough time to spend with a young baby, and mothers may opt to take the additional 16 weeks unpaid leave.
With all the four and five-year-olds starting school this month, parents working outside the home might also be thinking 'should I be there for my child when he or she starts school?'
Some may decide to use some or all of their 14 weeks parental leave entitlement when their child is starting school. Just remember that parental leave can only be taken at your employer's discretion. They can also decide when and how to give it to you.
Sara Hogan has two children, Laura (four) and Ronan (two). She took the full maternity leave with both of them, paid and unpaid. She had eight months off with Laura and 10 with Ronan.
"I loved being off with them," says Sara. "I'm delighted now that I took it, and I'd do the same all over again. I found it difficult going back to work, especially with Laura. It was the first time leaving her in childcare. We lived in Drogheda at the time, so I was commuting from Drogheda to Dublin. Thirty miles seemed such a long distance away from her."
Sara wouldn't have considered taking less time off then, as she only finished breast-feeding each child before she returned to work.
When Laura started school this month, Sara applied for 14 weeks' parental leave.
"I wanted to be the one who collected her from school each day. I didn't want her going from one school to another, ie, from big school to after-school creche, where she would have a different set of friends in each place. I thought it could be quite confusing for her initially."
For the last seven years, Sara worked as programme manager for the DIT's Hothouse Venture Programme for Entrepreneurs.
"I applied for my 14 weeks parental leave at the beginning of July. The DIT refused, and said I could have it in six months time," she says. However, six months time was too late for Sara and she decided to hand in her resignation.
"I will consider looking for something else part-time after Christmas, but it will be built around school hours," she says.
"We have walked to school every day. The pleasure on Laura's face when I collect her each day from school assures me that I have made the right decision."
Maria has three children, Grace (four) and twins, Kim and Paul (two).
Maria took the full amount of maternity leave, paid and unpaid, together with holidays, so she was off work for a year after her children were born.
"I really enjoyed it," says Maria, who is a senior manager with a large multi-national organisation. "Looking back, I wouldn't want to have taken less. I think I bonded with them during that time.
"I found it difficult going back to work. I found it emotionally difficult, because I got attached to them. But I liked being back to work," she says.
"It wouldn't have been any easier going back if I had taken less time off," says Maria. "You're still out of work for a considerable period.
"The full amount of maternity leave didn't affect my career at the time. The most important thing was taking time out with the children at that age," she says.
Grace has just started school, but Maria didn't feel the need to take any more than a few days off.
"I took a few days off the first week, and my husband took some days the second week. I don't know if that's enough. It depends on whether she settles or not -- only time will tell."
Although Maria still has parental leave for the three children, she didn't consider taking it at this time.
"I would prefer to take it during the summer when Grace is off school, when I'd have no one lined up to mind her. I think she needs to get into a routine and if I took longer off, it would let her believe that this is the new routine," she says.
It doesn't seem that long ago when I had my first two children, in 1998 and 2000. Back then maternity leave was just 14 weeks. Taking the extra four weeks unpaid wasn't an option as we couldn't afford it, and I was trying to build on my career. I certainly wasn't thinking of what I'd do about time off four or five years down the line when they started school.
As it happened, circumstances changed, and by the time I had my third child in 2003, I had given up full-time work. I set up my own business from home, where I got to spend more time with the children.
Looking back now, I don't feel that my older two girls were at a disadvantage because I went back to work so early.
I've been lucky to be around for all three of my children when they started school. Funnily enough, the only one who didn't settle well was my third child, with whom I had spent the most time. She cried going in most mornings for the first two years.
My eldest daughter is in sixth class now, and myself or my husband have dropped and collected her almost every day since she started school. From a communication perspective, I think this has been invaluable. Even today when I collected her, she was bursting to tell me something that had happened in the yard at lunchtime. If I hadn't been there to meet her, I'm sure it would have been forgotten by dinner-time.
I feel that if you can afford to and want to take additional time off with your kids when they're babies, then do it. You may not be able to afford to do it in four or five years time, or your circumstances may not allow it.
On the other hand, if you don't want to, or can't afford to take extra unpaid maternity leave or parental leave, then don't fret about it. Just do the best you can, by making the most of the time you have with your child.
Another valid point is that just because you're a parent, it doesn't mean you're suited to staying at home with either a young baby or a four-year-old, regardless of how supposedly good it is for the child.
If the parent is happier to be working outside the home, and the child is being well looked after with a good childcare, then so be it. I think it's better for the child in the long run if the parent is happy. As long as a child feels loved, that's the most important thing.
For more information on maternity or parental leave see:
- Department of Social Protection.
Tel: 01 4715898, Locall: 1890 690 690, www.welfare.ie