Should Governments Stop Pushing Paternity Leave?

Rosie Carr and Ian Wylie debate the merits of paternity leave

Featured April 10 Words by Rosie Carr And Ian Wylie
Should Governments Stop Pushing Paternity Leave?


All kids need their dads, but the only person a newborn needs is its mother. Maternity leave is crucial for the baby and helps the mother too - she's just been through the equivalent of running a marathon and her body is in serious need of rest. But as for the dad, apart from a small effort some nine months earlier, what has he done to deserve six months off work? According to equality champions, who can't abide the notion that men and women are different, the father has just as much right to be at home nurturing and rearing his young child. But the difference between men and women does matter: fathers can't breastfeed, for a start.

Dads are far more useful later on when children are physically active and need help and encouragement to explore different interests. This is why in households where the father earns less than the mother, it's often he who stays home with the kids.

It's absurd to imply that a new mother doesn't need maternity leave and that she should allow her partner to use it instead. One German dad, taking advantage of Germany's Elterngeld system, which allows parents to take 14 months off between them, explained in an interview how he had stayed at home to look after his infant daughter, but admitted to taking the child into his wife's workplace twice a day for feeding.

There is no evidence to suggest that a newborn looked after by its dad is better off than one reared by its mum. Nor is there evidence to suggest that a higher uptake of paternity leave will lead to better career progression for women. The fact is that most mothers want a good work-life balance, not to climb to the top and work even longer hours. And paternity leave won't help dads' careers either.

I asked six men (all dads) in my office if they would choose to take paternity leave and send their partners back to work. One complained that although he'd taken two weeks off following the birth of his child, he'd felt "pretty useless" most of the time. "I couldn't feed her when she was hungry, and frankly, I find babies under the age of two boring." The others agreed, with comments such as: "I haven't got the right equipment." And the women I asked complained that dads tended to treat leave linked to children as an excuse to lounge around and watch TV.

Equality zealots are adamant that fathers have a huge appetite for spending more time with their children. However, in Sweden, which offers generous paternity leave, dads don't take large amounts of time off. So if paternity leave isn't essential for a baby's development, and dads aren't too keen on taking it, who does it benefit? Employers? Quite the opposite. It's disruptive, costly and means tonnes more paperwork. It's a pity that some of the money being lavished by the PC brigade on persuading dads that they should participate more actively in infant care doesn't stretch to changing male attitudes to housework.

Rosie Carr is deputy editor of Investors Chronicle magazine


It's not the prettiest sight in your local Starbucks or Costa: a dad in sick-stained shirt awkwardly trying to balance a crying baby in one hand and a latte in the other as he watches the clock, willing his partner to get home from work. But the UK Government's announcement that from April 2011 British dads will be entitled to three months of paid paternity leave if their partners return to work is just the latest sign that European lawmakers recognise the importance of fathers spending more time with their young children.

If you're a dad in, say, Germany the law is flexible enough to allow you to work half time on your parental leave. Paid leave in Sweden allows fathers to enjoy 16 months with their children from when they are newborns - two months are set aside for each parent and the rest can be used by either.

As a hands-on father of three, I know from experience that looking after a baby all day is no picnic. I'd take office work every time, given the chance. But the research is also clear: the greater the involvement of fathers in childcare at the very beginning, the greater the wellbeing of those children as they grow up.

We've known for years that children need their fathers' input. A study published by Lancaster University a decade ago found that where fathers were involved with their babies' care, there was more likelihood that the mother would find the process of breast-feeding a bit easier, that the child would be more successful at examinations as a high-school student, and less likely to have a criminal record by the age of 21.

Looking after a baby while your partner is at work can be lonely and isolating. But with every dirty nappy you change and with every cuddle you give, you're investing in your child's wellbeing and future happiness. There are precious few opportunities beyond weekends and holidays to spend significant amounts of time bonding with our children. A month or two of paternity leave with a newborn may be a father's last chance at anything like it. There's an issue of equality too. Why shouldn't men have the same parental rights as women? Aside from the recovery time a mother needs to get over the birth, leave is just as relevant for fathers, who are equally capable of looking after their kids. Mothers don't have a monopoly on good parenting, just as dads don't have a monopoly on being the "breadwinner".

So you're worried about the cost of these measures? That you'll end up covering the workload of a colleague who's on paternity leave? That's called sharing the burden. Just as I, and my children, will gladly share the burden of working to pay taxes so that everyone can benefit from healthcare, infrastructure, policing and so on. Of course, not every father will take up the offer. But we shouldn't deny this right to those who understand that the time they can carry their baby in their arms is relatively short - but infinitely important.

Ian Wylie writes for The Financial Times and the Guardian

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