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In the weeks leading up to sharing parental leave with my husband, I wondered whether I was making a terrible mistake — and not just because my baby son was refusing to take a bottle.
When I worked in the US, where paid maternity leave is not guaranteed, I was shocked to see new mothers back in the office soon after the birth, slinking off to a private room to pump breast milk.
Women in the UK, however, can take a year’s maternity leave, some of it paid. Maybe it was too soon for me to start work again when my son was just four months old? Other doubts crept in, too. With sleep deprivation making it hard to string a sentence together, how would I manage to write an article? Would I be up to speed with current affairs when I had been reading We’re Going on a Bear Hunt rather than the news?
My husband and I had decided halfway through my pregnancy to take advantage of the UK’s shared parental leave, or SPL. Introduced in 2015, it is designed to improve women’s career opportunities by making it easier to share responsibility for raising children. Parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of statutory pay after the birth. As a self-employed journalist, I hoped to avoid a long and potentially detrimental career break. (We also thought it would be a great shared experience.)
When my husband, a journalist for the Financial Times, wrote in September about our experience of planning how we would divide up the time, he highlighted the obstacles we had already encountered because of certain rules surrounding the leave.
Take-up of shared parental leave in the UK
One of the main reasons the take-up of SPL has been low — around 2 per cent, according to the government — is that it is unaffordable for most couples if the father is self-employed or earns more than the mother.
Since my husband earns more than me, and I was claiming the maternity allowance benefit of £140.98 a week, it would have been financially unfeasible for us too, if his employer had not offered him full pay for up to 20 weeks. While this enhanced benefit looked great on paper, we soon discovered a flaw: he would be entitled to full pay for only the 20 weeks after the birth. This was because the shared-leave benefits mirror those for maternity leave.
It seemed unlikely at that point that I would want to work straight after the birth, so how did shared parental leave work out in practice?
During the first few months, I was exclusively breastfeeding my son, so it would have been impossible for my husband to be the primary carer. (I work from home, so we decided I would take breaks from work to feed the baby throughout the day.)
It would have been easier if my husband had been able to take the leave later, but doing so would have meant sacrificing his full salary. That is why when the baby was four months old, my husband took four weeks of SPL and I curtailed my benefit by a month. He also added on three weeks’ holiday.
On the first day of my husband’s leave, as he strapped our son into a sling and trundled off to a baby massage class, leaving me alone with my laptop, I was surprised at how easily I slipped back into work. Tackling an overloaded inbox was Zen-like compared with keeping a young baby fed and happy all day. I was secretly pleased when my husband admitted childcare was harder than he expected, however enjoyable.
In addition to completing assignments, I had as many meetings as possible to line up work for when I returned full time. The feeds meant I could not spend more than two hours away from my son, so my husband would accompany us into central London and sit in a nearby café with the baby. This arrangement would have been less feasible if I had been permanently office-based.
We had initially envisaged I would make up for the sacrificed benefit by working. It did work out financially, and maintaining my contacts was worth it.
Now I am making new childcare arrangements so I can return to work. Having shared my leave, I feel more confident doing so; my son is content to be with other people, which I put down to the time he spent with his father.
Despite the hassle, it was an experience I would repeat. If I were not self-employed, however, I would have struggled to make SPL work because of the practicalities.