Kevin O'Higgins Solicitors

Is two weeks' paternity leave enough?

Thursday, 28 January, 2016
Ed Power

As high-profile new dads go, Mark Zuckerberg is playing a blinder. Fresh from donating huge wads of cash to charity in honour of his new daughter Max, and posting adorable snaps of dad and baby during her first swim, the Facebook founder finally went back to work this week, after a full two months' paternity leave from his demanding job. 

One imagines that in that period, father and daughter had plenty of precious bonding time, and that Zuckerberg's wife Priscilla was only too delighted to have an extra pair of hands to deal with the demanding newborn schedule of feeds, nappies and all-night cry-athons.

Meanwhile, back here in Ireland, the Cabinet finally approved paid leave for Irish dads - but set it at just two weeks. While families will undoubtedly welcome the measure, does it go far enough? Just how much time does a new father really need to bond with his baby?

Far from being revolutionary, our newly implemented two weeks' paternity leave places us very much at the back of the class in Europe. Iceland offers new fathers up to 91 days paid parental leave, Norway 70 and Sweden 60. In comparison, the government is proposing to give fathers here 14 days paid paternal leave (mothers and fathers both have the option of unpaid parental leave of up to 18 weeks). By continental standards, it is a paltry concession.

"When it comes to parental leave, two weeks would seem the norm," says June Tinsley, policy officer with Barnardos.

"The difference is that other European countries have paid paternal leave on top of that. We want to see a movement towards that. It would encourage shared parenting and enable the child to be at home for the first year of their life."

That we are even debating the issue in 2016 speaks to the general backwardness of official attitudes towards childcare in this country (we spent 0.2pc of GDP on childcare support, against 0.8pc in the rest of the EU). International research is clear about the benefits of paternity leave - for fathers, mothers and, most importantly, children.

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, numerous studies show fathers opting for parental leave are far more likely to take an active role in childcare, even upon their return to work.

Most involved of all were Danish men - 75pc of whom engaged in play with their children every day. In Britain, where paternity leave was introduced in 2003, dads taking time away from work were 33pc more likely to read to their kids by the time they reached toddlerhood.

Moreover, there is clear evidence that the children of fathers who spent extended periods with their kids after childbirth develop at a faster pace. Studies by the University of Oslo show that children perform better academically into secondary school if they have received early care from their dads.

"Father's leave is linked to more involvement in childcare activities such as helping a baby to eat, changing nappies, getting up in the night, bathing and reading to a child, compared to fathers who took no leave," said Dr Jennifer Baxter, the Australian author of one of the definitive studies into the benefits of parental leave.

"The children of fathers who take long leave after their birth are more likely to perform better in cognitive development tests and are more likely to be prepared for school at the ages of four and five."

Needless to say paternal leave is good for mothers too. Not only are they relieved of the burden of primary caregiver, those wishing to resume their careers do so on a firmer footing.

A Swedish study shows that, for every month a father took off after birth, his wife's future earnings were 7pc higher. Plus, the sense of a burden shared increased relationship harmony.

"The only way to achieve equality in society is to achieve equality in the home," said Bengt Westerberg, the government minister who introduced paternity leave to Sweden in 1995.

"Getting fathers to share the parental leave is an essential part of that. A cultural shift is required," says Barnados' June Tinsley. "There is a presumption that mum needs to be at home. We are finally recognising the true value that dads play.

"Traditionally we have seen the mother as the primary care giver. Society is changing. More women are at work than ever. Our family laws needs to recognise that. Employers need to facilitate it.

"We're catching up with the fact that dads are now more active in child rearing and in recognising the vital role they play in bonding with their infant."

The subject is close to this writer's heart. Being self-employed the concept of time-off is itself quite nebulous (I had a three-day breather over Christmas).

In any freelance profession,there is only so much work to go around and one frets constantly about being left behind.

Thus, during the birth of our first child, I found myself tapping out an article on my laptop in the labour ward (in my defence, we were there all night and after a while my wife was simply grateful I'd stopped jabbering moronically).

With the arrival of twins three years later and my wife having by then given up work, I felt under pressure to keep my shoulder to the wheel. Thus, I could take only a few days off after the new arrivals came home.

This increased the burden on my better half, still getting over childbirth and required to tend to the babies through the night. In an ideal world, I would have taken on these chores as she recovered. It simply wasn't an option.

Mine is an extreme case admittedly (and offset by the fact that I work from home and thus see the children through the day). Still, I'm sure many other Irish fathers will have had a similar sense of being torn between their parental duties and what they may feel is a responsibility to put bread on the table.

As pointed out above, even with the new laws, we are still far, far down the European leader board of support for new fathers. Furthermore, fathers may be reluctant to take paternity leave over worries their careers will suffer (research has shown this indeed the case).

The solution, as our continental peers have discovered, is to make parental leave for men essentially mandatory.

In Germany, a mother and father can take up to 14 months leave between them - but only if the father signs up for at least two of those months.

When the stipulation became law, the percentage of men taking time off after their babies arrived surged, in just two years, from 3pc to 20pc.

Likewise after the regional government of Quebec placed similar conditions on parental leave, the number of men signing up jumped by 250pc. There's a clear message here: it's not enough to give men the option for spending meaningful time with their newborns. Rather, the state must encourage fathers to do what is best for themselves and their families - with whatever degree of firmness is required.

It's a lesson the Government should bear in mind as it pats itself on the back for enacting some of the most bare-boned paternal leave rights in the developed world.

We've made an important start. But much remains to be done.


Irish Independent