Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
ARTICLES

It’s his baby too, give him paid leave

Both new parents, not just mum, should get time off work.

Nurse to Kathy Lette, in excruciating pain from labor, and awaiting the father of her child in the ward: ``Don’t worry. Some men just don’t want to be here.’’

Lette, angrily: ``Hey. I‘d prefer not to be here!’’

TONY BLAIR has admitted he isn’t sure whether he’ll take paternity leave inMay, when wife Cherie is due to drop the couple’s fourth bundle. While Cherie was publicly expressing her interest in seeing Tony take advantage of his right to leave, he was mumbling about his pressing responsibilities to ensure the country was properly run.

An astounding 57 per cent of Britons agreed that, while it is a good idea for a new father to take time off to help, Tony’s job was too important for him to do so.

Of course, Cherie also has an important job. She’s a QC, a judge and a leading employment rights lawyer. However, no prizes for guessing how the British public would have responded had she announced her intention to get straight back to work after the baby was born. ``I have a courtroom to run,’’ one can hear her insisting, while she dodges rotten tomatoes and the deafening sound of public accusations of bad motherhood.

The point, of course, is that despite the calendar showing the year 2000, many people still hold distinctly 1950s views about the differences between the feelings mothers and fathers have about new babies, and their respective responsibilities for child care.

Such dated mythology holds that the maternal instinct leads women to yearn to provide infant care, and to be uniquely suited to doing so. So fulfilled are women by nurturing babies in their bodies and at their breasts that they don’t even notice – little less mind – the devastating impact the baby has on their former existence as a grown-up. They yearn to take time out from their careers and to be there at those 3am feeds. The symbiotic nature of the maternal-child bond also means the baby is completely satiated by its mother’s – but only its mother’s – nurturing and love.

So where exactly does that leave Dad? Most likely folding the laundry, screening calls and worrying about paying the mounting pile of bills with no money coming in. No wonder he yearns to stay at work, or to get back as soon as possible. It is at work that his role outside and inside the family is socially recognised and sanctioned: as paid worker and family breadwinner.

While both the British and Australian Governments mandate the provision of parental leave (up to 52 weeks for Australian mums and dads, and 13 weeks for British dads and 40 for mums), only British mums are entitled to be paid for any of that. While the enormous costs to working mothers of unpaid maternity leave are recognised, the cost to working fathers is less often discussed.

The governments’ refusal to ensure adequate paid paternity leave reinforces the view that men are dispensable at home, but not at work. Few families can afford to go without both earners for long, and maternal mythology and the greater likelihood that a workplace agreement will ensure the woman gets at least part of her maternity leave paid, makes it more likely the person staying at home will be mum.

The Swedes solve this problem by providing a full year of parental leave paid at 85per cent of the lost wage, at least a month of which must be taken by the father or forfeited. By paying fathers and mothers to parent, the Swedish Government is reinforcing family-values talk with real action – action that ensures parents understand that their contribution as a parent as well as as a worker is socially valued.

Blair has been criticised by some commentators for refusing to make what amounts to the symbolic gesture of taking a week or two of paternity leave. But taking paternity leave must have more than symbolic value to truly transform the social and parental roles of men and women.

Regardless of which way Blair jumps, the behavior of British fathers towards paternity leave – and paternity in general – is unlikely to change until they are told, in both words and dollars, that they are as needed and important at home as they are at the office.

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Email: leslie@cannold.com Mobile: 0417 114 859 Fax: +61 3 9348 2015 - PO Box 1337, St Kilda South VIC 3182 Australia