Parental leave - a problem shared is a problem halved

31 January 2014

I so enjoyed Mariella Frostrup’s programme on Radio 4 the other night (Wednesday 29 January 2014). It was called “Bringing up Britain” and the focus was on parental leave, which from April 2015 can be shared between mum and dad largely in whatever proportions they choose. However, this was not a programme about the change in the law per se, but rather on the social effects the new regime may have.

Frequently the contributors referred to a forthcoming “quiet revolution”, and they were not exaggerating. In fact, we do not really know how society’s “norms” are going to shift after April 2015. For millennia there has been an assumption that in the ordinary course, it is mothers, and not fathers, who will be primarily responsible for nurturing babies, at least for the first few years of their lives. The programme examined why this may be the case – part biology, but part also psychology. Factors were introduced into the debate that many of us have probably not given much thought to. Factors such as babies’ familiarity with their mothers “noise” and even their walking patterns, all learned whilst they are in utero.

Whilst this has been the norm – it does not necessarily mean there may not be another way. There have already been studies into the pros and cons of fathers, and not just mothers, being primarily responsible for rearing children from the early years. It is clear there are indeed other ways of doing things and the evidence that the mother, rather than the father, is best placed to nurture the child may be called into question.

In any event for many years, generations in fact, mothers have been going out to work. It does not appear that children have suffered academically or psychologically, as a result.

So there is more of a level playing field than some would think. The new legislation is now going to point the way to real choice. It is true these leave periods will become a little more complex. Arrangements will have to be discussed, not only between the parents in question, but also their respective employers. Dialogue may become more protracted than has previously been the case. However, that would appear to be a manageable process, the more so with familiarity over time.

Employment law is an exciting process. Often we find ourselves in the vanguard of change. Indeed we have experienced a series of mini “quiet revolutions” for some decades now. When requests to work flexibly first came in, there were real concerns that business would find the process hard, even very hard, to manage. In fact, it has produced many advantages, not only for the employees concerned, but also for the businesses that employ them. Indeed, interestingly, many of those employees who have now been able to remain in the workplace, arguably through being able to work flexibly, are themselves going to have to manage the next “quiet revolution”, the new generation of parents who from April next year will be able to choose how they distribute their leave entitlement following the birth of their children. My guess is that when we look back on this development in the future, we will see it will have led to more fulfilling lives for employees, and greater advantage to employers, than some now may anticipate. If it works (and that will certainly require give and take on all sides) we may be proud of what our generation has inaugurated!

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On March 10th 2014 Heather Matheson commented:

A very interesting and refreshing perspective to the subject. Thank you. Most of us are spending time reflecting on the practical difficulties of managing this new process and this view, timely as it is, takes us to a place where we can constructively consider how this might change and benefit society in the longer term. Refreshing, certainly. Thank you.

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