Parental Leave and “Choice”

Troon argues that recent announcements from Labour and the Conservatives of plans to offer families ‘radically more choice’ in how they balance work and childcare may actually reinforce traditional assumptions about gender roles in childcare

On 28th January the government announced changes to the parental leave system, which currently allocates the birth mother up to twelve months, of which nine months can be partly paid. Her partner (male or female) gets up to two weeks at minimal pay. The government’s new plans allow the mother to allocate all or part of the final three months’ unpaid and three months’ paid leave to her partner should they wish. The Conservatives wish to allow couples to take 38 weeks of a total twelve months’ leave in any combination they want. As someone who looks after children when his partner is working, earns roughly what she does, whose partner is currently feeling much like this about maternity leave, and who only managed by luck to have an extended period of time with my first son, I should be jumping for joy at these moves to allow us choice. Both, however, are deeply flawed.

There can be no real reason for allocating the early part of leave only to women and the later part, potentially, to their partners. Women often need less than six months to recover after birth, and that time should be for their own physical or emotional wellbeing and treated as ‘sick’ leave, not incorporated into leave for childcare. The Conservatives’ proposal comes close to what has been argued for by Jennifer Gray on this site, but ignores one key piece of reasoning behind an EHRC leave proposal. By allowing leave to be taken simultaneously, male partners may indeed get to ‘help out’. Regardless of the time spent actually caring for children, ‘helping out’ and ‘assuming responsibility’ are not the same, and it is notable that more men think they take ‘responsibility’ than women think their partners do. The sphere in which responsibility is taken also needs examining. I know many men who undertake a fair share of the childcare at home, but rarely take the baby out of the home, something which would be impossible if they actually looked after children on their own. Allowing men to act as societally invisible subsidised domestic sidekicks in a supposedly woman’s world does not promote the idea that childcare should be their responsibility too.

My key objection is that ‘choice’ is not sufficient to change the idea that this leave, and childcare, are primarily intended for women, and may make the situation worse by suggesting the current status quo is desired rather than enforced. Gendered inequalities in existing pay and welfare structures mean that choice is so constrained by external circumstance that what ‘makes sense’ can hardly be seen as choice at all, so that two in five men do not take even what leave they are currently allowed . The problem goes much deeper than economics. From the children’s centre staff who refer to me as ‘’babysitting’; to the women at baby group whose discussions about childcare never consider their men staying at home; to a barrage of media coverage, the world outside of the feminist blogsphere is one in which the assumption of female caring is so strong it makes choice and criticism of that choice about when and if a woman returns to work, not whether her male partner should be involved. The law needs to change this, not work within it.

Meaningful reform of parental leave is critical to parents and non-parents. The initial period of leave influences which partner does what for the rest of their children’s childhood, and the way their children and other adults perceive gender roles. The image of women alone as child carers constrains all adults, and women especially. We don’t need a law which states that men can do childcare if they want, but one which states that they should. Its basic components must be a separation of the recovery period of the mother from leave given for childcare, and leave periods for both partners which allow some flexibility but which cannot be taken largely simultaneously. The government claims these ideas offer ‘radically more choice’; it would be better for us all if they simply offered a more radical choice.