“It’s assumed traditional maternity leave is what you do”

If you had a baby, who’d look after it for the first year? You, right? The mum. Because that’s what traditional gender roles, cultural expectations, societal pressure and, perhaps most importantly, the mother-centric family services in the UK quietly inform us is normal, right and easiest. And nowhere is this more pronounced than in our maternity and paternity leave allowance, with women having the option of taking 52 weeks off and men two. However, change is afoot… 

Since its inception in 2015, the Shared Parental Leave scheme allows parents to divvy up the mum’s statutory maternity allowance. Parents can share up to 50 weeks off and 37 weeks of pay, taking the time together, staggering it, or even splitting it into blocks and returning to work intermittently. It’s a positive step forward, allowing more flexibility and making us question our reliance on outmoded ways of doing things, helping to reshape traditional gender roles…

Here, Leila Reyburn, reflects on her experience of Shared Parental Leave.…

“I hadn’t given SPL much thought until, a few months into maternity leave with my daughter Pearl, I was asked to go back to work early on secondment covering for my boss. The plan had been for me to take the full year off, but my team is small and that kind of opportunity doesn’t come up often.

SPL was a no-brainer for me, but I think my partner, Tom, was on autopilot, and it took him a while to get his head around changing things. It’s just assumed that traditional leave is what you do.

Ideally, I would have gone back to work in April 2017, which wasn’t great timing for him professionally – to which my argument was, ‘I didn’t get to choose a good time for me!’ Tom worried about the impact on his career, then realised a few months isn’t actually that long. Plus, the secondment was a promotion, which meant my earnings would be on a par with his, so SPL made financial sense for us. 

I ended up taking 10 months and Tom two. As long as you give your employer eight weeks’ notice, you can swap maternity leave for SPL whenever you like. (I’d originally been planning to go back to work earlier, but my boss’ secondment was delayed.) 

After his initial hesitancy, Tom loved it. He got to spend two solid months with Pearl, and it’s not often you get the chance to take that kind of time off work. Relationship-wise, Shared Parental Leave was good for us. After 10 months of me saying, ‘God, this is really hard,’ he understood.

And then there was the novelty element. At the various baby groups, there’s usually one token dad, and I think Tom enjoyed all of the mums saying, ‘Oh, it’s so brilliant you’re here’. I found that annoying – men are just doing what we do every day.

A big advantage was that when I went back to work, I left Pearl with Tom rather than put her in nursery. Those stressful transitions – returning to work and enrolling your child at nursery – usually happen at the same time, but this way I was able to ease back into work mode, knowing she was with Tom, and then deal with Pearl going to nursery a couple of months later.

I do think we’re still dealing with ingrained inequalities that stop people taking SPL: the gender pay gap, and the fact people are quite old-fashioned when it comes to parenting roles. We also act out of habit, not considering other avenues. Had SPL not been an option, I don’t think I would have gone back to work early – I would have taken a year’s leave, and missed the promotion. SPL enabled me to make that choice.”

For more information on SPL CLICK HERE