Is Maternity Leave In Ireland Too Short? Our Readers Think So...
In our recent HerFamily.ie A Slice of Ireland survey, a whopping 82 per cent of our readers said women should be entitled to longer than six months with a new baby before returning to work.
Maternity leave duration is very much a relative thing, isn’t it? Our 26 weeks seems generous every time we read about US mothers going back to work just two weeks after giving birth. It seems a bit miserly on the other hand when we hear that German parents can take up three years at home with their children. Maybe falling in the middle of those two extremes isn’t so bad?
Not according to 82 per cent of our survey respondents, who feel that women should be entitled to longer than six months with a new baby before returning to work.
So how much maternity leave is just right? Of course in a world where we could wave a magic wand, the answer might be two, three or five years – if it were properly paid, many would take those early years off. That said, many of us wouldn’t – it’s a long time to be out of the work force, and careers can suffer. And a possible downside of very generous parental leave is discrimination - employers who are wary of facilitating three years leave may discriminate in their hiring decisions.
Stigmatisation of working mothers is a potential downside too, as seen in Germany where the word Rabenmutter has been historically used to refer to a woman who goes out to work instead of looking after her children. If the leave exists and a woman doesn’t take it, that’s a whole new kind of pressure. And as with everything in life, we all want different things and make different choices – even if it’s paid, not everyone wants to be at home for three years.
Twelve months, however, might be a good middle-ground. UNICEF certainly think so, calling for one year parental leave as a minimum standard. Studies show that babies fare best if they spend the first year at home with a parent. This is the kind of research that chills my heart every time I hear about it, as someone who went back to work when my first baby was six-and-a-half months old.
At the time, unpaid leave on top of paid maternity leave was a relatively new concept, and I didn’t know many people who were taking it. I always assumed I’d go back to work when the money ran out, as it did at 26 weeks plus holidays.
I found maternity leave lonely and overwhelming for the first few months, and my delight at turning a corner when my daughter was about five months old turned to sadness when I realised how soon I’d be going back to work. I look back now and regret that I went back when I did, though as a wise person once told me, you do the best you can with whatever information you have at the time.
Today, many women take up to a year at home, using unpaid additional leave and holidays, thus meeting UNICEF’s recommendations. However for many others, it’s just not financially possible, because so much of that time off is completely unpaid. And even the first 26 weeks of “paid” leave is questionable – the relatively low state pay of €230 per week is topped up by only 50 per cent of employers, meaning one in every two families must get by on reduced income.
Ireland also comes out close to the bottom of European tables when it comes to maternity and parental leave. We do not provide “well paid” maternity leave – deemed to be two-thirds of previous salary – and our parental leave is completely unpaid, meaning it only meets minimum EU legal standards. In Europe, the average is 18 months’ paid leave
So what should we have in place?
Tanya Ward, Chief Executive of the Children’s Rights Alliance, says the State should do more to support families so that babies can remain at home during the first year of their lives.
“New legislation on two weeks’ paternity leave is long overdue and very welcome but only one part of a very big jigsaw. All the international evidence tells us that children do better when they are at home for the first year of their lives with their main caregivers. To really make a difference to children in their earliest, most precious years, we want the Government to introduce an additional six months’ parental leave in addition to the existing six months’ maternity leave – a full year in total. Many other European partners are doing this already, with enormous benefits to children, families and society generally. It’s a win-win for everyone.”
It would mean that between them, parents could stay at home for the first year of a baby’s life. As an aside, this would in fact also bring down the cost of childcare to individual families, because children wouldn’t be going into “baby rooms” in crèche with a costly three to one ratio.
Niamh Allen, Head of Membership and Development at the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) points out that current policies do not promote gender equality.
“Ireland is the only EU member state that provides no period of well-paid parental leave. Our current policies are based on the notion that women are still primarily responsible for the care of young children. The reconciliation of work and family life is central to promoting greater equality in society. As it stands, women do the majority of care work, and subsequently, the majority of those in part-time, precarious work are women. This has a massive impact on women’s economic independence, with 50 per cent of women earning less than €20,000 a year.”
She acknowledges that there have been improvements, but there’s a long way to go. “While the duration of Maternity Leave has improved in the last 15 years, when we look at Ireland’s leave policies as a whole, they offer little support to families with young children and compare poorly to other European countries. Ireland currently offers 26 weeks maternity leave paid at a low flat rate, with an additional 16 weeks of unpaid leave also available.”
And like the Children’s Rights Alliance, the NWCI is calling for six months of paid parental leave.
“The imminent introduction of paid paternity leave is welcome, but we must see this followed up with 26 weeks of parental leave,” says Allen. “Currently, the take-up of parental leave in Ireland is extremely low by international standards. The main reason for this is that it is unpaid, unlike many other countries, which have different combinations of paid and unpaid leave. NWCI campaign for the Government to incrementally introduce paid parental leave up to 26 weeks, so that parents will have a real option to be the main carer for their child in their first year.”
So the 82 per cent are clearly not alone in thinking six months is too short – UNICEF, NWCI and Children’s Rights Alliance think so too. Now if we could just convince the powers that be to make those changes - so that our own children don’t fight the same battles when they become parents themselves.
How much maternity leave did you take when your baby was born? Was it enough? Let us know on Twitter @HerFamilydotie.