Paternity leave – is it FINALLY coming to Ireland?
The news last month that Ireland may have paternity leave legislation introduced by the end of the year was greeted mostly positively by parents and advocacy groups. There are of course concerns; the payment is small, so not all fathers will be in a position to take the leave. There’s also some scepticism about whether or not it will really come into force.
And then there is the question of whether or not dads will actually avail of the leave – do they want paternity leave, or are they just as happy to scuttle back to work as soon as the first explosive nappy has been dispensed with?
Anecdotally, there's no doubt there are fathers who would rather go three rounds with Conor McGregor than spend two weeks looking after a newborn. But there are many, many more examples of dads around the country who willingly and gladly take time off when their babies come into the world – who see their job as more than just making sure the rear-facing car-seat is properly fitted and driving home from hospital at 5kmph.
They do so via paid paternity leave provided by employers, or using annual leave. Doing a straw-poll in my office (anecdotes and straw-polls are all we have – without statutory paternity leave, there are no statistics) nobody could think of any father who willingly chose office over newborn in those first few days.
Darragh, 38, a father of three who works in the funds industry, was fortunate. He was given paid five days paternity leave when each of his three children was born. “Everyone in here takes the paternity leave,” says Darragh. “Some of us also take annual leave on top, while others hold back annual leave, in case they need to take time off later. I can’t remember any situation where someone didn’t take it.”
Gareth, 39, is self-employed, and he and his partner are due a baby later this year. “I won’t earn any salary but I do intend taking time off,” says Gareth. “The fact that the government is planning on helping the self-employed with financial assistance for paternity leave will be a huge help, and will encourage more dads to spend time with mum and child.”
It’s all very well for individual fathers to say they’d take it if it was on offer, but is this borne out in countries where paternity leave exists?
Or after a few nights of walking the floors at 4am, do dads suddenly have “urgent work” that requires a return to the office and a good night’s sleep in the spare room?
In Germany, fathers are entitled to take parental leave, which is shared with the mother. It’s a very generous allowance of twelve months paid leave, with a bonus of two extra months if it’s shared. This tends to translate into two months leave for dads – the amount they can take without reducing the mother’s allocation. In fact, 82% of fathers take no more than that two month entitlement, so this model is far from perfect, but it’s still a long way ahead of the non-existent paternity leave that we have in Ireland.
Jens, 34, is from Hamburg, and works in banking. “A few years ago, almost no dads went on parental leave and employers didn't like it very much,” says Jens, who has an eight-month-old son. “A lot of my friends had children last year and all went on parental leave. The employers’ attitude seems to have changed in the past years.”
André, 44, also from Hamburg, has a one-year-old daughter. “Basically everybody I know takes parental leave. Is it getting more and more common that even dads are taking the leave and that this is accepted by the company,” he says. “In some jobs it’s difficult and my assumption is, the higher the position of an employee, the more difficult it is to be on paternity leave for months.”
And what about our closest neighbours? In the UK at present, new fathers are entitled to two weeks paternity leave, with a statutory payment of £138 per week. Some employers top up at least one week of this.
Stephen, 40, an accountant working in London, says that most people he knows take the leave, and that there is no pressure from employers, as far as he can see, to turn it down. “I don’t think anyone begrudges you to be honest, since it’s only two weeks,” he says. “There was no issue for me anyway when I requested it, and a guy I work with took three weeks off when he had twins – I suppose that was at my boss’s discretion.”
Jon, 34, who works in funds in Essex, agrees. “Yes, most of my friends and colleagues take the full two weeks they are offered, even when the second week is only on statutory pay,” he says. “ I wanted to take the time off to spend time with my new family and support my wife especially as she wasn’t that mobile after giving birth. I also found it helped my wife that I was there to offer support when she was learning to breastfeed our daughter.”
From April, Shared Parental Leave comes into place in the UK; fifty weeks of paid leave, which can be shared between both parents. Stephen won’t be able to avail of this, as it’s for babies born after April 1st. “It’s a pity we missed the fifty week thing. It sounds very reasonable,” he says.
It does sound reasonable. Unfortunately, here in Ireland, we’re still lagging behind the UK and Germany, and all of our European neighbours.
As summed up by Professor Peter Moss during the Family Leave Policy seminar in Dublin last September, “Ireland's leave policies are based on maternalistic policies that assume that women take care of young children. Ireland is the only EU member state that provides no period of well-paid leave.”
So, small as the step may be, a discussion about the introduction of paternity leave is most certainly a move in the right direction and one to be welcomed.
Will Irish dads take paternity leave? There’s no crystal ball, but looking at the current practice of taking annual or unpaid leave, it is logical to assume that many will.
Most dads want this leave – they want time to bond with a new baby, and to become confident about looking after a baby. Just as many first-time mums today have no experience looking after newborns, neither do first-time dads.
The crux of the issue is pay – according to findings by LeaveNetwork.org, unpaid or low-paid leave has low take-up. Some employers will no doubt top up, but others won’t, and many families will be unable to do without salary for two weeks.
Setting financial concerns aside, first and foremost, paternity leave is a health and welfare leave – its function is to help mothers and babies. It’s not about whether it will be good or tough or life-changing or exhausting – it’s about being there for the mother and child.
So yes, I think Irish dads will take paternity leave when it comes – they’ll do it for all the reasons mentioned above and more. Things have changed since fathers spent childbirth in the office or down the pub. Men are more involved in childrearing than ever before, and assuming a lack of interest in paternity leave does them a disservice.
Here’s hoping that the government will follow through on this; that it will be the start of something better for families, and not just another abstract discussion.
Andrea Mara is a shoe-obsessed, coffee-loving mother of three from Dublin. When she’s not working in financial services, or looking after the kids, Elissa, 7, Nia, 5 and Matthew, 3, she’s simultaneously making tomorrow’s school lunches, eating Toblerone and letting off steam on her blog. Find more working mum musings from Andrea, at @officemum.ie