From the 1st September this year, Ireland introduced statutory paid paternity leave to the amount of two weeks to be taken within the first six months of a baby’s life. In the UK a father is entitled to up to two weeks, to be taken within the first 56 days. In Sweden, the promised land, fathers can take 3 months paid leave.
Whilst two weeks is, marginally, better than nothing, what kind of message are we sending out by placing so little importance on the provision of paternity leave in the UK and Ireland? We are saying that this is women’s work and there is no place for men in the raising of young children. That there is no benefit to the child, the father or the family unit in having a father at home. Reinforcing tired stereotypes of men providing for the family , and women staying at home. Increasing paternity leave would go a long way to shifting the wider societal perception of childcare as solely a woman’s role. It would also help to strengthen the bond between father and newborn, allowing him to spend precious moments with his child, some skin to skin action, helping out with night feeds.
Consider the standard situation: the baby wakes frequently during the night, as is normal for a newborn. The mother gets up to the child because the father has to go out and do a full day’s work the next day, whilst she can stay at home and nap with the baby during the day (I know, right?) This pattern continues for the 6-9 months of maternity leave, until eventually the mother returns to work. Now both parents get up during the night when the baby cries. Do they though ? The baby is used to mammy in the middle of the night, so cries until it’s mammy she gets. Too often because the mother is at home alone for the first few months with her child a dependency is created that can be hard to shake, even as the child gets older.
Which brings me to breastfeeding. I breastfed both my kids, mainly out of laziness, but I am totally thumbs up for breastfeeding if it works for you. Likewise I am all for formula if that’s your thing – I mix-fed my second from around 6 weeks for convenience, and because I really wanted to be able to leave the house wearing something that didn’t have to provide quick and discreet access to my boobs. The thing about breastfeeding, though, is that it’s very much something only a woman can do – and it can be uncomfortable, annoying, boring and restrictive. I can recall with my first feeling trapped by it. I know that’s not helpful to the debate but that’s my experience, and its why my interest was piqued when I recently came across a blog on the Tyranny of Breastfeeding. It’s a few years old and based on the publication of a book ‘The Conflict: How Modern Motherhood Undermines the Status of Women” by French feminist Elisabeth Badinter. I haven’t read the book, but from reading the blog I surmise the argument is that the promotion of breastfeeding is detrimental to women’s personal and career based progress. Whilst I can’t get fully on board with this, I can see the point from where the argument starts, but the answer is to normalise breastfeeding not to stop it. If breastfeeding is restrictive , so is maternity leave and motherhood as a whole – stop getting in the way of my life, damn child.
Which is why paternity leave is so important. We’re not going to make real strides forward in gender equality until childcare is shared. This can only be done by increasing paternity leave, adopting a model of shared parental leave and introducing state subsidised childcare. I don’t think we should create a situation where women are pressured into feeling they should return to work before they are ready, but we do need to create a situation where families are able to make choices which suit them best, rather than have situations thrust upon them out of financial necessity.