Audrey Junner, Partner at Hill Brown Licensing a Division of Miller Samuel Hill Brown reflects on her own experience of Shared Parental Leave (SPL).
It’s difficult to open a paper or turn on the TV these days without seeing the marketing campaign for Shared Parental Leave (SPL). Introduced in April 2015 to provide parents with a more flexible way to take leave from employment in the first year after the birth of a child, SPL legislation allows a mother to convert part of her maternity leave to SPL, which can then be used by her partner. For me SPL has a special significance.
When l found out l was expecting for the first time in December 2016, l experienced all of the usual emotions: shock; excitement; queasiness, and another feeling which took me by surprise - overwhelming fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of motherhood but also, selfishly, fear for my own professional future. As a partner in a law firm, the thought of stepping away from the coal face for up to a year was a terrifying concept. At 32 l could almost feel my head knocking on my own imagined glass ceiling.
My husband, a firefighter, always planned to be a hands on dad. Shift work and generous holidays meant that he was always going to feature prominently in our long term child care plan. The short term was my big concern so SPL seemed like the perfect solution.
Before Poppy was born we reached the decision that l would take 4 months maternity leave, boosted to 5 months with annual leave. Thereafter, the baton would be passed. Due to the nature of his job, my husband was able to take just 7 weeks SPL, but remain off work for 3.5 months with scheduled holidays. We were able to reach a solution which works for our family with the full support of our employers, MSHB and Scottish Fire and Rescue.
At five months old Daddy Daycare began. For me, the transition back to work has been relatively seamless. No pickups and drop offs to negotiate. No new nursery routines to learn. No tears at nursery gates (probably mine not hers). I have been able to get back to work knowing that Poppy is in the best hands possible. My husband is a parent, not a babysitter and SPL has allowed him to embrace that role, and at the same time gain a real appreciation for the challenges it brings. The first five months taught me that asking what they have been doing all day when l get in from work is never a good idea, so tensions are kept to a minimum. We are in the same boat. We lose our paddle frequently but we are in it together.
There has been criticism of partners across the UK for not embracing the SPL opportunity, with latest stats showing that only 3% of new dads have signed up. Some sources suggest this is due to dads in particular fearing the stigma associated with being a stay at home dad. If anything, l think it’s the opposite, with men choosing to embrace the role as a care giver actually gaining respect in the workplace. Mums may also have their part to play with many simply refusing to give up their own opportunity for a year off from the daily grind. In my experience it’s been other new mums who have been the most surprised and, in some cases, fairly judgmental of our decision. The baby classes in our area are unsurprisingly only attended by women, and the support group offered to me was for ‘first time mums’ only. So SPL could be a lonely experience for dads. It is still a fairly novel concept and, as with anything new, it can take society a while to catch up.
The key message for businesses is support. SPL is a statutory requirement but without the backing of employers and an open minded approach there is every chance partners won’t feel comfortable and the uptake will remain low. Not many employers offer enhanced pay during SPL taken in the latter half of the child’s first year. The result is a monthly income of just £145 a week which can be a hard pill to swallow for those with large mortgages to pay. We have had to tighten our belts financially during my husband’s period of SPL. We balance this drop in salary against the nursery costs we would have incurred and remind ourselves that while we may not be drinking champagne, my husband is witnessing milestones he would otherwise have missed.
For so many reasons it’s not a solution that can realistically work for everyone but in my experience it can be a great option. As a mother it isn’t easy to wave good bye to your young baby every day. Her first word was Dada and he gets the biggest smiles, but seeing their bond grow, while continuing to feel secure in my career, makes it all worth it.
For advice on how SPL can work for you or your business contact our specialist employment law team.
Disclaimer - these views are entirely my own.