Labour’s Paternity Leave Policy: Is it even a step in the right direction?

Stay-at-home dad, bottle feeding, paternity leave,
Feeding my daughter during her first month

A Labour government will double paternity leave for dads from two to four weeks, and increase their weekly paternity pay to £260 – over £100 more than present. No doubt this move will be tagged as anti-business by Labour’s opponents. But is it as pro-family as it seems?

I was lucky that I spent the first 6 weeks home with my daughter. I can’t imagine not having spent that time with her, and I feel for other fathers who wanted the same but weren’t able to.

While this Labour policy may seem progressive, reflecting the reality that many fathers want to be at home with their newborn too, I feel what it’s really reinforcing is that after 4 weeks a man’s place is still at work while a woman’s is at home with the baby.

There are many reasons why fathers decide to become stay-at-home dads. In our case is was a combination of me really wanting to be home with our daughter; my wife’s desire to return to work and maintain her career; and a feeling that I might be better suited to being home all the time with an insatiable grub that lacks basic conversation skills. The fact that my wife also earned more than twice as much as me was not an obvious influence, but perhaps it made our decision easier.

What I think families need more than a simple increase in paternity pay and entitlement, is support to make these type of flexible decisions that are right for them, for there is no one size fits all way of parenting any more. While for some couples the mother being home full-time is what’s wanted, others (like us) would prefer have the dad home in those early years. Many couples would like to both be working as soon as possible. The financial hit would be harder on some rather than others, so that too would affect decisions.

Far more progressive is the Shared Parental Leave system that comes into force from April, where parents can share the majority of the mother’s 52 week leave entitlement between them, in theory letting the couple decide which one of them is to become the primary carer. One of the biggest stumbling blocks with this is that many women have generous maternity packages from their employer that are far in excess of the Statutory Shared Parental Pay of £138 per week.

I remain unconvinced about Labour’s proposal, though I am sure it will lead to more fathers taking time off to be with their newborn. The IPPR, who came up with these proposals, believe take up will increase from 55% to 70%. That sounds optimistic, but I guess we’ll see should we have a Labour government come May.

I believe that the level of pay is really a small part of the reason for the low numbers taking paternity leave. For parents who had no interest in the father being home, their feelings will remain unchanged. Many men feel that their employer would look unfavourably on them taking leave, that their job cannot be interrupted, or that it will hurt their career. They too will remain feeling the same way about paternity leave.

The policy seems rather outdated next to Shared Parental Leave in that it assumes the father will return to work after 4 weeks while the mother is home with the baby. If Labour really wanted to encourage more men to become stay-at-home dads, or women to become working mothers, then I think they should really be building upon the Shared Parental Leave system, perhaps finding a way for mums and dads to share an employers parental leave system.

So is Labour really trying to be progressive? I am reminded of the free childcare/early education for three year olds. The 15 hours of free childcare per week, notionally intended to encourage at-home parents back to work is now seen as more of a rebate to middle class families. They would be paying for the childcare at nurseries anyway but now get a term time fee reduction. I have a similar feeling about these proposals, that it’s intended to be a nice little financial present for those families who would have probably used paternity leave anyway.

This feels less about a policy helping families, than a headline to help persuade disaffected supporters to vote Labour in May. But at least a few more dads will get to spend time with their newborn like I did.

 

What do you think about these paternity leave proposals? Please get involved by commenting below, joining the conversation on the Facebook page, or on Twitter @manvspink.

In Defence of Mr. Mom (From a Stay-at-Home Dad)

'Mr. Mom' (1983) poster, Mr. Mom, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad, stay at home dad blog,
‘Mr. Mom’ (1983) poster

It seems a lot of us stay-at-home dads don’t like the term ‘Mr. Mom’ being applied to us. Well, when I say us, I don’t mean me – I’m fine with it. In fact, I encourage it.

I have fond memories of Mr. Mom, and I have no reason to believe it to be significantly better or worse than its 80’s comedic peers, such as Police Academy, Bachelor Party, and Stripes.

I read a nice piece by Nicole Shanklin called ‘Modern Parenting: Mr. Mom Style‘. Her husband was a stay-at-home dad to their daughter for 2 1/2 years. Lots of fellow (blogging) dads while complimentary about the post were less so about the inclusion of ‘Mr. Mom’ in the title (check the comments). So much so that it was changed to ‘Modern Parenting: Stay @ Home Dads Rock‘, which I think is a shame.

What are the arguments against calling a stay-at-home dad ‘Mr. Mom’?

Well, fairly valid ones: Working mothers are not called ‘Ms. Dad’; being a stay-at-home dad doesn’t make you a male mother; what’s wrong with just calling us dads?

And yet… When I became a stay-at-home dad in 2012, I relished the moniker of ‘Mr. Mom’, and I still do. While stay-at-home dad is a fair description of my role, as is the shorter at-home dad, they lack the wordplay of Mr. Mom, and honestly – they simply fail to conjure up that image of Michael Keaton holding up his baby’s bottom to a hand-dryer.

Perhaps this is a clue to why I like the term. Keaton’s expression in that image exudes confidence. Many stay-at-home dads will tell you of being judged – often borne out through experience – about our ability as primary caregiver, because we are dads. That we are perceived as less able parents because we are men, that our ‘male’ methods are inferior to ‘female’ ones – which from memory is also a theme of the movie.

Parenting Mr. Mom style

In some aspects, I do parent differently from my wife. Not better or worse, just different. Is this because we are male and female? I have no idea. My daughter wears a lot of superhero t-shirts, knew more Star Wars characters at age 2 than my wife does at age [REDACTED], and will respond to food made with scotch bonnet chillies with an enthusiastic ‘More!’. Have I introduced these things to her because I am a man? I’m sure all the chilli loving fangirl mothers out there would disagree with that notion (you know who you are…).

But for me, to feel confident about my way of parenting & to introduce my daughter to things I am passionate about is fundamentally important. I don’t want to second guess myself and be consumed with self doubt about whether this is really the right or wrong thing to do – or even worse, to change my behaviour because I am worried about how others might judge me. Is drying a baby’s bum on a hand-dryer unorthodox? Sure. But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do (although I’m not advocating it).

So I like to channel the Mr. Mom in that poster, the confident dad parenting his way.

Perhaps the main reason that I don’t have a problem with it is this: I’m English. We don’t use the word ‘Mom’ – it’s ‘Mum’. To us, ‘Mom’ is basically an exotic word from a foreign culture, so when someone calls me ‘Mr. Mom’ (which people do) I simply think of Michael Keaton in that poster. It’s a pop culture reference that makes me smile, and I don’t think I’m being made to feel like any less of a dad.

However, if anyone asks me if I’m ‘babysitting’? Grrrr…

Of Mums and Men: Playground Politics, Stranger Danger, Stay-At-Home-Dads, and the ‘Mum-Hub’.

Mum hub, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad, stay at home dad blog,Calling myself a stay-at-home dad is a bit disingenuous. We rarely stay at home, especially when the weather is this good. Today we pay a typical mid-week, mid-morning visit to our nearby playground to meet some friends for a playdate.

We arrive before them. I ask my daughter what she’d like to go on. As she considers her answer (she’s a bit of a ponderer), a mother ushers her crying child past us. “I’ll go and see if anyone has any plasters.”

I call out to her to say I have plasters if she needs any. She enthusiastically answers yes, and she comes over with her crying daughter who has a pair of grazed knees. I tell them I hope Spider-Man ones are ok, and the mother tells her how lucky she is the nice man helped us, and that her brother will be so jealous of the plasters (he comes over and does indeed look on jealously).

With great plasters comes great responsibility.
With great plasters comes great responsibility.

I notice the girl has a snotty nose, the kind that often accompanies such bouts of crying. I offer a tissue. The mother’s eyes widen, and she tells me & her daughter how amazing I am, how great the Spider-Man plasters are, and again how lucky they are the nice man was here – because mummy forgot to bring anything.

The mother laughs when I compare my daughter’s nappy bag to a secret agents ‘go bag’, that’s always packed with necessities so we can just grab it on the way out. Plasters applied, nose wiped, the mother thanks me again and wishes us a great summer.

Warning! Stranger danger!

Moments later, I am cleaning something unsavoury from the bottom of my daughters shoe. A little girl comes up to us, intrigued about what I’m doing. Aged about 3 or 4, the girl starts asking me questions, such as what’s that picture on my daughter’s shoes “Turtles.” I reply. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.”

It was a nice conversation. Suddenly, her mother strides over and pulls the girl away from us without looking at me or saying anything until they stop beneath a nearby tree, where the little girl is admonished for talking to a “strange man”. The girl looks perplexed. Her mother then drags her back to a huddle of other parents in the centre of the playground – a collective I call the mum-hub.

This is a place where stay-at-home dads fear to tread

This is an elusive and distant group. I have never been invited into its confines. The other week, I spotted a mum who I had met before, who I had been chatting to at a pre-school visit we had both attended, whom I had since exchanged hellos with on the street and in the supermarket. She seemed nice, and I was looking forward to chatting to her again. I made eye contact and smiled, hoping to get at least a smile in return, and she immediately looked away. She spent the afternoon laughing enthusiastically with her fellow mum-hubbers, ignoring me even when nearby.

I have never seen any dads in the mum-hub. Not even partners. The mum-hub is usually a child-free zone too, a place of adult conversation while their children fend for themselves – laughing, playing, fighting, falling, getting stuck, getting bullied, crying. Today, there was lots of crying and distressed pre-school children that needed the attention of strangers before their parent in the hub noticed. Yet, the reaction was swift when a little girl decided to talk to me, the strange man.

None of the other mums I know – actually know as opposed to one I chatted to once – are ever in the hub either, nor was the friendly mother who I offered the Spider-Man plasters to. I can only assume they think nothing of a dad playing with his daughter.

Perhaps the mum-hub is in my imagination, but it represents those collections of mothers that are off limits to at-home dads like me. They exist in playgrounds, playgroups, and cafes.  They are cliques of (usually) at-home mums whose exclusively female daytime community is by design not accident, that prefer their women only social-parenting life. Who find it odd that a man might want to be at home with their children, perhaps even suspicious. Mothers like Loose Women’s Nadia Sawalha, who stated “I don’t really want to talk to them. I don’t want them to be there.”

I obviously find it sad that this is the case. I’m not going to confront them about it. There’s a bit of live and let live, but mainly because it’s pretty ugly in front of children.

What I can do is continue to be the engaged stay-at-home dad I am, take my daughter to the playground, and hopefully little girls will see that there is nothing weird, or anything to be afraid of, about a man accompanying his child there. I also hope all kids will see there’s nothing weird about a girl wearing Spider-Man plasters or Ninja Turtle shoes.

Is Father’s Day for all dads, or just the ones with jobs?

Our playgroups put on new kiddy crafts each week. When a specific celebration comes around, they will usually revolve around that. So this week it was making Father’s Day cards.

Unlike the mums who were helping/directing their children to create them, I just let my daughter do her thing – it seemed odd commissioning one from her.

A 'shirt & tie' Father's Day card is still a thing
A ‘shirt & tie’ Father’s Day card is still a thing

What was also odd were the actual cards they were supposed to end up with. Two playgroups opted for the same concept – the front of the card had been cut and folded down to look like a shirt collar, and there was a cutout tie to glue into place. The inference was clear (despite the fact I have only ever worn a shirt & tie for weddings and funerals): A father’s role in the family revolves around having a job. This is also the role that retailers like to cast us in.

Gendered marketing to children is an issue I take great interest in, unhappy as I am about commercial interests defining, from even before birth, what they think a boy or girl should be. But what about gendered marketing to adults? How does that affect us?

I adore my current role in life as one of the growing army of stay-at-home dads. It has come about mostly from my long-held desire to do this, with financial circumstances supporting that choice (ie. My wife earning more than me). Frankly, it’s been a blast.

Out & about doing baby & toddler things with my daughter, I’ve gotten to know some dads, but mostly mums – and the fact is that in terms of being a parent I have far more in common with the at-home mums I meet than most working dads.

The offering around Mother’s Day tends to be all about ‘giving mum a break’ – from cooking, cleaning, childcare, etc. Brunches and pampering packages abound. What about Father’s Day? Traditional gifts revolve around either ‘work’ related gifts like smart socks, shirts, and ties, or ‘play’, things that are thought to keep men sane during the 9 to 5 – booze, sports, and gadgets. But there’s no sense that fathers like me – stay-at-home dads – also need a break from their routine and responsibilities.

By packaging the days in this way, retailers are reinforcing the idea that being the homemaker is a mother’s role, while that of breadwinner is still the father’s. I think these marketing driven definitions contribute to the guilt that many mothers feel about wanting to return to work, and lessen the chances of men admitting they would dearly love to be stay-at-home dads. Society follows suit – while we have the term ‘working mother’, the male equivalent would be recognised as ‘father’.  I’m a ‘stay-at-home dad’, but for female counterparts ‘mum’ seems to suffice as a label.

I have generally felt ambivalent about Father’s Day since childhood, and I continue to do so as a father. Perhaps because my birthday is also only a few days away, and it seems greedy to have 2 ‘special’ days in one week. My cynical side also tends to judge Father’s Day as a way to package and sell more stuff, much like Halloween.

We have no out of the ordinary plans for the day – I will spend it with my wife and daughter, like most other ideal Sundays.

Then again, perhaps there is a purpose to ‘Father’s Day’? It has serendipitously coincided with the start of the 2014 Football World Cup. I could cynically take advantage of it to watch a couple of back-to-back games? Reverting to stereotype, I am a dad that likes watching football.

And having a break from my routine and responsibilities.

Father's Day, stay at home dads, stay home dad, being a stay at home dad,
Another playgroup card. Clichéd perhaps, but…

The hopeless Mr. Mom

At some point in the at-home parent’s life, they may likely reflect on whether their partner would do a better job of it than they currently are.

This thought occurred to me whilst rushing my daughter to the hospital emergency room.

Swallowed hairclip
I know a young lady who swallowed a hairclip. I don’t know why.

We had recently arrived home after a trip to the supermarket. I left her strapped in her buggy while I put the shopping away. I figured it was the safest place to leave her. Ha!

As is the way of the little one, she discovered a flaw in my plan, which involved her mouthing, choking on, and then swallowing her metal hair clip.

The realisation of what was happening remains the most horrifying experience of my life – and I’ve been run over by a lorry.

So in the haze of frantically calling for medical assistance, rushing her to hospital, amidst it all, I also had an overwhelming feeling of guilt.

I think we can all agree that a key aspect of the at-home parent’s role, is to keep their child safe. Well, this was a big fail, with potentially catastrophic results.

I was especially apologetic to my wife. We had swapped at-home roles some months previously. I felt like the embodiment of the hopeless ‘Mr. Mom’ cliché.

But our attending doctor told me a story that was weirdly reassuring, about changing their daughter’s nappy and discovering 4 metal screws in it, amongst the other ‘contents’.

Of my many childhood injuries I could detail for you, the most stupid was when I decided that my mini-golf club looked like a pole vault pole, as well as a snorkel. So I combined the two. Ouch. I can still remember the flap it created in the roof of my mouth (Ugh…).

I recall another childhood story a friend told me: You know the way you suck pen tops to create a vacuum, and then stick it to your tongue? As a child, she decided power leads had similarly enticing cavities in them. So she did the same thing with one. That was plugged into the wall. She regained consciousness on the other side of the room.

As parents we can only go so far in ensuring our children’s safety. Bumps and bruises are all part of growing up. Sometimes our children will stray too far from the frontier of curiosity into reckless stupidity. But they’ll never learn the line unless we let them discover it themselves, hopefully without too much damage.

The fact is I have never tried to pole vault with a golf club in my mouth ever since childhood. And fingers crossed, my daughter’s days of swallowing hair clips are over too…