In the pre-birth guide we explained that dads have more rights when it comes to paternity leave than they ever have before.
You need to discuss these options with your partner to decide which might be best for you. The right one will depend on a range of factors, from your legal rights to your economic circumstances.
There are now two main options open to most working fathers.
Paternity leave: why has it grown?
Until quite recently, dads taking time off after the birth of their children beyond a few days was rare in the UK.
A father’s prime role in the life of a baby was to earn the money to keep it housed, clothed and fed. Prevailing wisdom had it that interaction between newborn and father could be happily left for evenings and weekends, and neither would be worse off for it
In recent years, attitudes have changed. The vital role of fathers in early childhood is increasingly recognised - and scientifically proven. The bonds that develop in the weeks and months after birth are seen as crucial to the long term health of families. All this led to the call for the introduction of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). Introducing the scheme in 2015, former deputy prime minister Nick Clegg said:
“More and more fathers want to play a hands-on role with their young children, but too many feel that they can’t. That’s an Edwardian system that has no place in 21st-century Britain.”
Fathers today spend more time with their children than their fathers did, and a lot more than their grandfathers did. Most people no longer believe in a binary world where dads are the primary breadwinners and mums the primary carers.
Before SPL, the disparity between maternity leave and paternity leave in the UK was the biggest in the developed world. While women had 52 weeks’ maternity leave, dads had just two weeks’ paternity leave.
SPL was designed to change all that. We’ll look at what SPL actually means later in this guide, and also discuss why, up to now, few couples have opted to take it.
Statutory Paternity Leave
Statutory Paternity Leave is what the majority of new dads in the UK take. If you’re an employee, you’re entitled to one or two weeks paid paternity leave. If you work for an agency or are a contract worker, you are unlikely to be eligible for Statutory Paternity Leave.
It is quite straightforward, but here are some things to note:
Despite its simplicity, Statutory Parental Leave is not enough for an increasing number of men. How do we know? Because research has shown that working fathers are as likely as working mothers to say they prefer to be at home with their children. It has also found that fathers are just as likely as mothers to say that parenting is extremely important to their identity.
The increasing desire of dads to play a full part in parenting from birth onwards led to the introduction of Shared Parental Leave in 2015.
Shared Parental Leave (SPL)
“I took SPL and, though it was a bit of a struggle financially, it gave our family the very best start.”
SPL was introduced in 2015 to much fanfare. Parenting experts regard the option to share leave between parents as (at the very least) a step in the right direction. Dads in the UK are no longer the poor men of Europe when it comes to paternity leave. Mums, meanwhile, are no longer forced to put careers on hold for potentially damaging lengths of time if they don’t want to.
“Supporting children’s attachments to both their mothers and fathers early in their lives builds the foundation for child development. The more fathers care early on, the more they tend to invest in the child for the rest of its life.”
Duncan Fisher, Family Initiative
Benefits of Shared Parental Leave
SPL helps dads bond with babies and helps families bond together. Dr Sarah Forbes, co-lead of the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham, said:
We know that the more involved dads are early in the life of a child, the greater the benefits later, from improving health to creating confident, well-behaved teenagers. SPL is a way to ensure those benefits begin to accumulate right from birth.
“We know more fathers are sharing the care of children in general and they want more time to bond with a new baby in particular. This usually means fathers continue being more involved in the care – and fun – that goes with raising children, which is good for parents and children alike.”
Nikki Slowey, Family Friendly Working Scotland
Benefits of Shared Parental Leave for families:
It’s universally accepted that happier employees are more productive. Dads who are bogged down at work, stressed because they can’t be at home helping out with their new baby, are unlikely to be giving their best on either front.
By contrast, when dads take prolonged time off to bond with their baby and cement family relationships, they are happier, more productive and more engaged workers.
Fathers with a happy home life may also be more loyal, giving credit to an employee who has shown flexibility and understanding in the first weeks and months of parenthood.
There is an added bonus. When parents choose SPL, Mums also get greater choice, potentially returning to work earlier and in a better frame of mind.
“Creating more options for fathers means mothers benefit from greater choice in how to balance their own work and home life – mothers don’t have to be the only parent to take time out. This, in turn, is good for businesses because happier employees are more engaged and productive. Shared Parental Leave is definitely something employers should embrace and encourage.”
Nikki Slowey, Family Friendly Working Scotland
Benefits of SPL for employers:
- SPL creates happier family relationships
- Happy dads are likely to be more productive and engaged employees
- Studies have found that employers who show flexibility and understanding over parental leave may be rewarded with added loyalty
- SPL also frees mums up to return to work earlier, if they want to
Shared Parental Leave - a dads story
Nick Davies is a Programme Director at the Institute for Government. He took SPL after the birth of his son in 2018.
My wife and I have been discussing SPL ever since the legislation was passed. It was a joint decision to have a child, so we naturally wanted to raise our son together as well. Even with the best of intentions, it can be easy for childcare responsibilities to revert to the mother. I hoped that taking six months SPL would ensure that we were truly equal parents.
We also both have full time jobs that we love. Clearly, taking a significant chunk of time off can have a detrimental impact on your career progression. We didn’t want one of our careers to take a bigger hit than the other.
A straightforward process
I’m lucky that my employer was extremely understanding. Despite being relatively small (around 50 people), I’m already the third person to take six months SPL at the Institute. I filled in a few forms, but it was all pretty straightforward.
Coming back to work (two weeks in at the time of writing) has also been really smooth and I certainly haven’t been made to feel in anyway guilty for taking so long off.
My wife and I both took six months off (each adding two weeks of annual leave to the SPL). My wife’s leave started one week before my son was due and she returned to work when he was six months old.
I took two and a half weeks of leave with my son was born, went back to work for six weeks, then took six months, and went back to work when he was eight months old.
I also really valued the two months on my own at the end. It sounds ridiculous looking back but I don’t think I really appreciated how knackering looking after a baby was (even one that is a good sleeper) until it was just me and him. He also likes me a lot more after spending that much time together, though my wife is definitely still his favourite (fair enough!).
Fortunately, my wife’s employer offers six months SPL at full pay. My employer offers enhanced SPL but only for the lead parent. As my wife got enhanced pay, I had to take a financial hit. We were lucky enough to have enough savings to cover the shortfall while I was off. It was financially painful but well worth it.
It was, without doubt, the best six months of my life. Spending that much time with my wife and son is a priceless experience that I will never forget. It was amazing to get to work it all out together and I expect we’ll be reaping the benefits for years to come. It was also super fun
Shared Parental Leave is yet to take off
We've talked in detail about the many benefits of SPL for dads, mums, newborns and employers. And yet the fact remains that take-up of SPL remains low, perhaps as low as 2% of eligible families.
Why is that? The sad truth is that, for many men, the odds are still stacked against their full involvement in the care of their newborn baby. With financial and career considerations being the main reason for the low take-up of SPL.
Research has found that finances are still a major stumbling block to the large scale take up of SPL. It reveals that 1 in 2 dads won’t take up parental leave because they earn more money than their partner, meaning the family would take a significant financial hit if the dad took a lengthy period of paternal leave.
Other research, this time from Working Families, has found that:
- 52% of dads said they wanted to spend time bonding with their child and share care with their partner.
- But 48% of fathers would not take up their right to parental leave – a third because they could not afford to.
One dad told an inquiry by the parliamentary women and equalities select committee:
“Shared parental leave appeared pointless to us (and probably most relationships) post birth because I’m the breadwinner and it makes no financial sense as we struggle financially already...It sounded fantastic until you read the small print. Men should be allowed a longer period of full-paid leave, like women can be entitled to.”
The TUC has campaigned for an increase in statutory paternity pay to make SPL more affordable for many families.
Not everyone is eligible
There is also a large group of working dads who miss out on the opportunity to take SPL altogether, because they are not eligible to take it.
The TUC research cited above found that one in four men who became new fathers in 2016 were not entitled to any paternity leave at all, and were forced to head into work within days – or even hours – of the birth of their child.
Another 44,000 new dads didn’t get paid paternity leave because they had not been working for their employer long enough.
Dads who are not entitled to statutory paternity leave and pay would also miss out on SPL.
How can we help more men to stay at home with their new families in the weeks or months after birth? A few solutions have been suggested:
- Working Families advocates a level playing field for paternity rights, so that dads classed as workers, employees, the self-employed and contractors are entitled to the same rights.
- Before the last election the Liberal Democrats called for statutory paternity leave to be extended to a month (from the current maximum of two weeks).
- The TUC argues that the government “needs to give all new dads a right to their own paid parental leave that is not dependent upon their partners.”
- Some experts believe employers should be encouraged to ‘top up’ statutory paternity pay so that dads can afford to take SPL.