Life Family

Monday 21 October 2019

Why aren't dads taking paternity leave?

New fathers can now take an additional fortnight off work to spend time with their babies. But given the low uptake of existing leave entitlements, will they bother?

Luke Saunders with his son Alexander. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Luke Saunders with his son Alexander. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Happy out: Luke Saunders took two weeks’ paid leave when his son Alexander was born six weeks ago. Photo: Hany Marzouk
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The arrival of a newborn baby should be one of the most emotionally charged and fulfilling events in the life of any man. But the official statistics show that many Irish fathers don't bother to take paternity leave when their child is born.

Since 2016, the State has paid fathers two weeks of paternity benefit in the hope that it will encourage them to take time off to look after their babies. The benefit is currently paid at a rate of €245 per week.

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And this week, the Government announced that from November 2019, Irish parents will have access to an additional two weeks leave each - and this is expected to rise to seven weeks each over the next three years. Under the Parental Leave scheme, both parents will have access to a non-transferable, two-week each benefit for babies, which will be paid at the same rate as maternity benefit and paternity benefit.

So this would bring paternity benefit for fathers to four weeks. It's hoped that this new scheme - set to benefit up to 60,000 parents a year - will encourage new fathers to take more time off work and share parental responsibility with their partners.

Yet the latest figures for 2018 show that the number of dads claiming the existing benefit actually dropped by 10pc last year. According to figures released by the Department of Social Protection in January, fewer than half of fathers of newborns avail of it.

In an age when new dads are more actively involved in the upbringing of their kids and often share the childcare duties equally with mothers, how that can possibly be?

Are we still wedded to more traditional notions of parenthood than is frequently suggested?

When that idea of extending leave further was originally floated, an echo of the voice of dinosaur dads of previous generations could be heard at a government cabinet meeting.

An anonymous source revealed that it was suggested at the meeting that fathers were using the time off to play golf.

That view of paternity leave harked back to the days when men marked the birth of their infant by stationing themselves in a pub near the maternity hospital, brandished the odd cigar, and after greeting the new arrival with a pat on the head, quickly returned to work.

Christopher Paye, general manager of recruitment site jobs.ie and the father of a one-year-old girl, Daisy, says: "Stories of men off playing golf during their paternity leave are just not true at all in my experience.

"I am at an age where my friends are having kids and the vast majority of dads want to spend time with their babies. They want to be there to help."

Paye, who took his two weeks' paternity leave, does not put the low take-up down to old-fashioned values among new dads. He believes that the disparity is simply down to finances. Few dads, it seems, have the luxury of tycoons such as the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who was able to take two months off after the births of each of his daughters. And despite Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty's protests this week that the issue of income alone couldn't explain the low take-up of paternity leave, for many families clearly it is a major concern.

"For a lot of families, taking paternity leave is just not affordable," says Paye.

Two weeks of statutory paternity benefit is a flashy perk that looks good in any government prospectus, but in reality it means a severe drop in income for many families who are already struggling to make ends meet, according to Paye.

Employers are not required to top up the payment of €245 per week, and in many cases they do not make any additional payment. While State employees are set to benefit from full pay under the new scheme, there is no similar obligation on private employers. Figures compiled by CIPD Ireland show that overall, 47pc of employers top up maternity leave, while only 37pc top up paternity leave.

Paye says: "We have a rental crisis at the moment, where people can barely afford their accommodation and have very little money left over."

According to Paye, if a father is on paternity benefit of €245 per week, and a mother on maternity benefit of the same amount, the drop in income for average earners over a fortnight could be two months' rent.

Paye himself is glad that he took the two weeks' leave for the birth of his daughter.

"For me, it wasn't just about bonding with the new baby, it's about taking pressure off the new mum. My partner had a C-section - when she got home she couldn't be doing things like stretching up to cupboards. It was nice to get up in the morning and be able to make her breakfast."

While the fall in income may be deterring many fathers from taking the leave, it is not the only factor, according to the recruitment consultant Peter Cosgrove.

Cosgrove, the founder of the Future of Work Institute and father of two older children, said many men do not ask for paternity leave, because of the workplace culture in their company.

"In many organisations it will still be seen negatively if a man decides to take paternity leave, although the company will never say it.

"Culturally it is a big challenge because the oldest people in an organisation are often the most senior. Men have been seen as the main breadwinner for hundreds of years and the idea that they are taking time off to be with their kids is not always accepted."

Cosgrove says men have been allowed unpaid parental leave for many years now, but generally don't take it.

He believes men do not take their entitlement, because they see what happens to women in the workplace when they go on maternity leave.

"There are endless stories of women coming back, and ending up working for the person who used to work for them - or being made feel as though they are a burden," says Cosgrove.

Sligo father of three, Luke Saunders, was pleased to be able to take two weeks' paid leave for the recent birth of his son Alexander six weeks ago.

As a teacher, he had his full wages paid during the fortnight. When his two older children Eden and Christian were born before statutory paternity leave was introduced, he only had three days off.

Saunders, who founded the website Studyclix.ie, says: "When you are on your second or third child, the father's role is to look after the older children, so that the mother can look after the baby. The more children you have the more important those two weeks are."

The teacher says paternity benefit is particularly important in an era when the role of parents has changed so dramatically in the home and at work.

"I have friends where the wife works and the man would be the main minder. That is completely acceptable nowadays while in our parents' generation it would have been considered unusual."

With so many fathers declining to take their leave, Christopher Paye believes the Government should concentrate on improving the benefit rather than extending it.

"The payment should be closer to the average industrial wage," he says.

The suggestion that the current rate may be affecting the take-up is borne out by a recent report on paternity benefit by the European Commission.

The report found that low rates of benefit act as a "strong disincentive to take leave".

While many dads may shun paternity benefit because of the financial hit or fear repercussions at work, others work in occupations where it is not always possible to take time off, particularly if they are self-employed.

Baby or no baby, farmers still have to milk cows, plough fields and take in the harvest. Shopkeepers still have to open their shops. And frequently there is no one else to step in if you can't be there yourself.

Supermarket owner Colin Conway took two weeks' leave for his first child, Alfie, but only took three days for his second child, India, because he was so busy.

"I just had so many things happening at the one time coming on top of me that it was difficult to take time off," says Conway, whose wife Gráinne took a career break.

Conway may have been busy at that time, but he is still determined to spend more time with his children, especially when they are very young.

"Everybody told me that having young children happens so fast, so you have to slow down your life a wee bit."

Additional reporting by Tanya Sweeney

Irish Independent

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