Being able to spend these first months of his life with him was amazing, and I'd highly recommend Shared Parental Leave (SPL) to any expectant couples.
What is shared parental leave?
SPL was introduced in April last year. It allows parents to share maternity or adoption leave between them (and soon, it will be extended to allow sharing with grandparents). Sir Jeremy Heywood intends SPL to help the Civil Service become one of the most female-friendly employers in the country and make childcare a parental issue rather than one just for women.
With maternity leave, new mothers are entitled to 52 weeks of leave. For up to 39 weeks, they are entitled to statutory maternity pay. Many employers pay enhanced maternity pay, with some (including the Civil Service) offering 26 weeks or more at full pay.
Under SPL, mothers are still required to take two weeks' maternity leave after the birth, but the remainder can then be used as SPL. The parents can share their leave however they choose, in up to three blocks each. They can also share the salary entitlement, choosing who receives pay when.
How my partner and I are sharing our leave
Our first child was born this January and we decided to share all our leave equally. My partner took two weeks' maternity leave, I took two weeks' paternity leave, and we are each taking 25 weeks' SPL.
We heard that the first three months with a new baby were the hardest, so decided to take three months together directly after our son's birth. I then returned to work for three months while my partner looks after him alone. In mid-July, when he is six months old, my partner will go back to work and I will take a further three months off to be the stay-at-home parent.
For the last three months, my partner and I looked after and got to know our son together. The first few months are an amazing time and I feel very lucky to have had the pleasure of seeing my son change day by day.
The turbulent early weeks were less stressful than we anticipated because neither of us had to be up for work in the morning and could share the load during the night.
Being home for an extended period meant I was able to take care of my partner while she recovered from the birth, freeing her from the day-to-day things (like cooking for herself) that might be more difficult under the pressure of looking after our son on her own.
I've been able to do everything for him (even feeding him when my partner expresses milk), meaning I'm just as competent at caring for him as she is. Because we have equal experience looking after him, each of us is confident we can leave him with the other without worry or stress.
The challenges we’ve faced
SPL is relatively new, so taking advantage of it was difficult at times. The paperwork can be cumbersome and sometimes doesn't fit with the actual policy. For example, taking time off at the same time as my partner, directly after paternity leave, wasn’t handled by the software our HR department use, making it harder to arrange. Since coming back to work, I’ve been working with HR to be sure others don’t have this sort of problem.
It’s also not yet very common, though more people are taking it up (the recently reported figures stating that only 1% of men have taken it are, in fact, wrong - they refer to all men of working age, not new fathers), so HR departments should be better-equipped to deal with it in future.
I’m fortunate that my manager has been incredibly supportive. Even so, returning to work has been hard. It feels like I'm starting again, at a new job, yet where all the faces are familiar. I'm sure many women returning from maternity leave feel this way, but it isn't something I've experienced before.
The next stage
I'm back at work for three months now, and then have three months being the primary carer for my son.
For my next block of leave, I'm nervous about being the only dad at activities: there are lots of mum-and-baby groups out there, but dads’ groups are still relatively rare. I've already experienced nursery and health professionals talking only to my partner, even when I was holding the baby. Stay-at-home dads and SPL are helping to reduce this kind of ‘gendering’ of parenting. Hopefully, it'll soon be a thing of the past!
It's been wonderful to spend this time with my son, and I'd strongly recommend expectant parents to consider taking Shared Parental Leave and benefiting in the way we have.
More people are eligible for SPL than you might expect. You can check if you are eligible on GOV.UK.