Friday 19 January 2018

Being a parent is for life, it's not just the first year

One-year parental leave is a nice idea but who holds the baby when we all go back to work? (Picture posed)
One-year parental leave is a nice idea but who holds the baby when we all go back to work? (Picture posed)

Sarah Caden

There's no more stark signal that you've become a mammy than when, after the birth of your first child, your child's father goes back to work. It's a shock, because as they walk out the door, washed and dressed and looking like their old selves, you are left at home a changed person.

It's not just that you're probably unwashed, and dressed in clothes that you would not leave the house in (but they fit you), it's more than that. Thanks to the mini-dictator in the Moses basket, resumption of your old routine is not an option. Their needs are your job and, to a great extent, your old life is over.

This can rankle. This can lead to resentment. This can make the idea of a parental leave shared by both mother and father seem like a fantastic idea. In reality, however, it could turn out to be a dramatic gesture that distracts from the fact that parenthood is more about the drip-drip of ongoing responsibility than the drama of the big moments.

Last week, it was reported that the group charged with looking into childcare by Minister for Children Dr James Reilly is considering a package of parental leave of one year after a baby's birth, to be shared between the parents at their discretion.

Symbolically, it says a lot. It says that they recognise the value of a child being at home with their parent, rather than in childcare, for the first year of their life. And it says that if one parent has to take time out from work, then it doesn't absolutely have to be the mother. And, even if it might seem to some mothers that their partners skip out the door to the adult world of work, it recognises that men miss out on a lot in that first year.

In practical terms, however, this seems like a broad sweep that does nothing to benefit parents or babies after that first year is over. Because, if you think it's a shock to the system to be left alone, solely responsible for baby after the song-and-dance of their arrival, that's nothing to the shock of having to return to full-time work after giving them 100pc of your attention for a year.

A year of parental leave is a great idea, but not in isolation. It doesn't work unless it's made easier for women to return to work, if that's what they want to do. As it stands, most employers don't or can't top up the social welfare maternity payment, which isn't enough for anyone with average outgoings, so they're hardly going to cough up for extra months if a woman decides she'll take the full whack of the 12 months herself. And, let's face it, this is most likely what will happen.

Because if a woman finds it hard to tell an employer that she won't be back for six months, then imagine how it would be for a man. In many Irish workplaces, he'd be laughed out the door.

Even the blessed Swedes haven't got that one sorted. Yes, they have paid paternity leave, but even threatening that you use or lose it hasn't improved take-up levels there.

We all know that women are stymied in the workplace once they become mothers, partly because they are viewed as the ones who no longer have their mind solely on the job. They are the ones who are seen to be watching the clock for creche pick-up time and taking days off to mind sick kids. And we do. Because someone has to do it. And, as things stand, most men could not admit at work that their child is a commitment on a par with their career.

To their credit, Dr Reilly's working group have said that the idea of a one-year parental leave will be part of the second phase of their considerations. Phase one, they say, will be childcare and measures to make it easier and more cost-effective for parents to work outside the home. One has to hope, however, that this isn't just a way of getting us all out to work, without any consideration for how we work or how much we work.

The reason the one year of leave sounds wonderfully attractive is it sounds so long and leisurely. It dangles the promise of time to spend with your child and that's something of which most parents have precious little.

Working mothers get their six months' paid maternity leave and then, for the most part, return to the nine-to-five, five-day week slog. They go from full-time with their kids to full-time at work, wondering as they go what the point of all that nurturing was if they never see them anymore.

Further, while it's obviously crucial to put in the quality time in the child's first year, some attention needs to be paid to the later years first. Because, as most parents know, their needs grow as they get older. They need more of your brain, your attention, your focus. They get to school and they'd like to see you at the school gate and they'd like to see you during the school holidays.

Currently, working parents feel compelled to operate as if the school holidays don't exist, or as if they're a drag that needs to be dealt with. But these are the precious times, the stuff of memories, the stuff we'll regret missing because we didn't have time.

If the Government are really thinking about giving people time to be parents, then they need to take a view of parenting as a long haul, which is what it is. Traditionally, on the surface, it seems that only women's lives are changed utterly and immediately by parenthood, but that's not the case. Men and women work differently once they make a family, and not just for one year, but for life.

Sunday Independent

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