I am not a father at this point in time, nor do I have a partner expecting a baby. Yet the topic of maternity leave – and, more crucial to me personally, paternity leave – has arisen frequently over the past four weeks.
The issue of maternity/paternity leave would normally not be a serious topic for me. I am 20 years old with no serious short-term plans for a baby or a family of any type. In the past I have read articles on the issue and, beyond the sympathy one feels for families that are in difficult situations, I had no real reaction. At this point though, I am slowly nearing the completion of my degree. This of course means that I am looking into possible careers for the future. Eventually, a family of my own is also supposed to be in the picture.
Looking at future career options recently, the issue of benefits came up and among them was paternity leave. In one particular pamphlet, a small section was dedicated to explaining maternity leave. Being an inquisitive person, I asked the presenter how paternity leave was handled. To my shock I discovered that the mother and father of a child who both wish to take time off to be with their child have to share a 35-week block of “parental leave” at 55 per cent of their regular pay, up to a maximum of $447/week. A 15-week block of maternity leave is available to the mother, starting before the birth; then she can take 35 weeks of so-called parental leave at 55 per cent pay for a grand total of 50 weeks. An additional two weeks of unpaid leave are also available. The 35-week block of parental leave can be split between the mother and father.
So not only is taking this time off a significant financial strain because 45 per cent of one partner’s income is missing, it is also far from equitable asking partners to share a 35-week block of time to initially raise their newborn. This is not a truly significant amount of time, and depending on how much time the mother wishes to have with the baby, it may not be sensible for the father to take off any time whatsoever. That a new mother wishes to spend significant time with the newborn is quite understandable. After all, she just underwent nine months carrying the baby and also went through labour. By no stretch of the imagination do I wish to diminish the extremely important role of a mother.
However, in a society where we are asking ever more of fathers (fathers should be in the delivery room, fathers should be active participants, etc.), we are very unwilling to provide the help that these men may not only wish for, but also deserve. An added burden for many men is that their workplace may frown upon them taking time off to be with their newborn. Many men have to fear being looked over for a promotion or being stigmatized by co-workers because they may have chosen to spend high-quality time with their baby immediately after birth. Even as a society that considers itself to be progressive, we still delineate child rearing along the male-female divide.
According to an article from August of 2010, “Some 45 per cent of new fathers said they did not take paternity leave, according to a 2009 report by the Equality and Human Rights Commission. Of those [45 per cent], 88 per cent said they would have liked to have done so, and 49 per cent said they could not afford it.”
Quite clearly, significant numbers of fathers wish to spend time raising their newborns to provide the high quality nurturing they feel their baby deserves. So will fathers be able to be with their newborn? The answer is that on a theoretical level, yes they can. The reality is that they cannot. With the family already facing financial difficulties because one partner is receiving 45 per cent less pay, how can we expect new fathers to feel at ease about taking their possible share of the 35-week block? Our levels of government have money for all types of “adventures” like Afghanistan or higher salaries for themselves, yet investments in our families always seem to fall short.
To ensure greater financial support for families and to help new fathers take paternity leave if they wish to do so, an increase would be required in the percentage of pay allotted. As well, fathers and mothers should receive 35 weeks each; with the mother keeping the initial fifteen weeks of maternity leave. If we are asking fathers to step up to the plate then we should help them do so. Spending financial resources on fathers benefits not only their families, but also society as a whole.