We bet you didn’t know this about maternity leave…

Mother and Baby groups. Mum and Tots Facebook pages. Nappy-changing facilities in the women’s toilets, but not the men’s. Even the stick-figure pushing the pram in a ‘family’ parking space is often wearing a skirt (ergo representing a woman).

If you’re not a parent or parent-to-be, you probably haven’t realised just how mother-centric family services in the UK quietly reinforce traditional gender roles. The message is that, at least to begin with, parenting is predominantly the woman’s job, with partners great to have around, but largely superfluous. Nowhere is this more blatant than in our maternity and paternity leave allowance, where women have the option of taking 52 weeks, and men only two. What does this say about who society thinks is responsible for looking after children? 

Things, however, are changing. In April 2015, the government introduced Shared Parental Leave (SPL), with then-deputy prime minister Nick Clegg explaining: “More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children, but too many feel that they can’t. That’s an Edwardian system which has no place in 21st-century Britain.”

The SPL scheme allows parents to share up to 50 weeks of leave and 37 weeks of pay. Each parent can take up to three blocks of leave (or even more, if their employer allows), interspersed with periods of work. So, as long as you pass the eligibility tests (find out more), you have a statutory right to take Shared Parental Leave – and, similarly, your employer also has an obligation to give it to you. You and your partner can be off work together for up to six months, but SPL is flexible – there is also the option to stagger the leave, so one of you is always at home with the baby.

The policy offers parents more options, yet many people aren’t aware of SPL (our survey discovered 33% of Stylist readers knew nothing about the policy), and even if they are familiar with it, many new parents still aren’t sharing their leave. But why?

“One of the things we know from our research is that when people transition to parenthood, it pushes them towards traditional gender roles,” says Dr Emma Banister. The senior lecturer at the University of Manchester set up the Making Room For Dad project with Dr Ben Kerrane, studying the effects of SPL (a series of videos drawing on real-life accounts of couples taking Shared Parental Leave can be found online here ).

“Even very egalitarian couples who share their responsibilities 50/50 learn that, once they have a child, they find themselves pushed into traditional roles,” says Dr Banister. “It goes deep – men are understandably not the main focus during pregnancy and birth, and can feel sidelined. An example of this is the restricted visiting hours for dads in maternity wards. It’s made clear to women very early on: this is your baby, and you’re responsible for it.”

“Women need recovery and bonding time after giving birth and those initial few weeks are very important,” Dr Banister adds. “But some potential barriers are used as an excuse not to change the status quo. For example, when it comes to breastfeeding, employers can make it easier for women to express milk if they do decide to return to work. Some of the barriers perhaps aren’t as big as they’re made out to be.”

“The days of assuming every mum is happy to stay at home with their baby for years to come are over,” notes consultant clinical psychologist Emma Citron. “It’s about the couple deciding what suits them best and reviewing this after their baby is born. If the partner isn’t seen to be more on-board in raising the child, it can lead to a lot of resentment.” Indeed, 78% of  Stylist readers said they’d want to discuss taking SPL with their partner, when or if the time came.

On Father’s Day 2016, British men spent, on average, only 24 minutes caring for children for every hour spent by women. According to the Fatherhood Institute’s Fairness In Families Index (FIFI), these lopsided figures mean that parents in the UK are officially the worst in the developed world at sharing childcare responsibilities.

Of the Stylist readers who said they would consider taking SPL, some 43% said it was because they’re eager to progress in their careers, seeing a long break as potentially detrimental. However, another 21% said they believe there’s a stigma attached to women returning to work early, and 35% said they would probably feel guilty about it. It seems cultural and societal expectations are firmly ingrained in our views about parenthood. 

“People can make you feel guilty – for losing out on your career, but also for going back to work,” Citron notes. “You’re fighting family pressures and cultural norms. It can be very hard to stand up to, especially when you’re feeling vulnerable, having just had a baby.”

“Also, there’s the guilt when you’re back at work,” Citron continues. “A lot of employers have ‘voluntary’ overtime, but it’s very much expected that you work those hours. If you have to leave on time for childcare reasons, it can feel like you’re not chipping in with the team effort.”

It is, however, heartening to note that the vast majority of men are on our side. The results of our recent survey show that 77% of ShortList readers reported that they think two weeks’ paternity leave isn’t enough.

“Shared Parental Leave means the onus isn’t always on the woman to be the initial caregiver,” says Dr Banister. “It becomes a conversation about how ‘we’ are going to do this, rather than how ‘I’ am going to do this. Some of the fathers from our study ended up going part-time or even gave up work completely after SPL, while other dads started working in a slightly different way. It opens up a much-needed conversation that parenting is a shared responsibility – and it gives people options.”

Citron agrees: “In terms of gender equality, SPL can lead to a very good basis for a healthier and happier relationship if couples are having these conversations, whatever they decide.”

The increase in the cost of living has seen unprecedented numbers of women move into paid employment over the last 60 years. And, while women are still fighting the pay gap along with myriad gender inequalities, policies such as SPL show progress; keeping skilled women in the workplace for longer and encouraging the kind of conversations between partners that would have been considered ludicrous in our grandparents’ era. Whatever ends up working best for you, the very fact SPL is an option parents can consider is a step in the right direction.

For more information on Shared Parental Leave click here.

**Words: Jo Usmar Illustration: Abbey Lossing**