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Stephen Wastling’s commute to work takes between 25 and 32 seconds, depending on traffic. Every morning the 32-year-old Londoner rises at 6.30am, slips into his dressing gown and shuffles out of the bedroom door. The landing is a commuter’s paradise: no rain or rush hour; no idiots standing on the left side of the escalator, or sweat-stained armpits up in his face; no angry cyclists ding-dinging him on the footpath; no dog sh*t. He makes a right into the next room. Traffic, here, can be a nightmare: usually the Playmobil Noah’s Ark and an assortment of coloured stack-up cups in a bottleneck on the carpet. Negotiating these often makes him late.
By the time he arrives for work, the boss is already screaming at him. Her name is Phoebe.
She’s 10 and a half months old. “She doesn’t like to be kept waiting, but apart from that Phoebe is a great boss,” says Wastling. “She doesn’t send me emails, set tight deadlines or demand things by ‘EOP’. No, we go to the park, we look at animals, we listen to music, go to singing classes, we see friends. I love it.”
Wastling, as you may have guessed, is a stay-at-home dad. Or, more accurately, he is a dad who has taken three months off his other job as a medical physicist at London’s National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery to care for Phoebe on the government’s Shared Parental Leave (SPL) scheme. It’s not forever; he’ll go back to work this April. But for now, nappy-changing, nursery rhymes, mashing root vegetables, folding muslins and scraping encrusted food and sick off his clothes is his full-time job.
SPL: The basics
Rolled out in the spring of 2015, SPL’s aims are bold: to challenge the status quo for new working mothers, thrust more women through the glass ceiling and shape a generation of omnicompetent uber-dads, as comfortable with controlled crying as they are with codes
of practice. Up to 50 weeks of leave – 37 weeks of which earns statutory pay that can be topped up by encouraging employers – can be shared by parents if they meet certain eligibility criteria. Couples can choose to take leave in turns, or double up by taking it together. And while the rights only apply to parents in work, it includes those who are adopting, same-sex couples, co-habiting couples and couples bringing up a child together, even if the baby is from a previous relationship.
In Wastling’s case, his wife Alice, an obstetrician in a local hospital, took time off for the first nine months of daughter Phoebe’s life, before going back to work in January. Then Wastling took over for the final three months before she starts nursery. “It is just the most positive and uplifting experience,” says Wastling, “and a privilege to have the opportunity to spend time on the coalface of such an important period in my daughter’s life.”
Where them stay-at-home dads at?
On paper, SPL seems groundbreaking; a giddy step toward a gender-equal utopia where women run corporations, factories and banks while men punctuate their careers with long, halcyon spells bouncing babies on their knees and teaching toddlers to build tiny volcanoes out of vinegar and baking soda. Yet, three years after the scheme’s launch, take-up could be as low as two per cent of Britain’s eligible families. What happened?
Jeremy Davies, of think-tank The Fatherhood Institute, says it’s not that men don’t want to take an active role in childcare; far from it. It’s that we, as a society, tell them not to. “Lots of people jump on the low uptake of Shared Parental Leave and the instant reaction is: this is about men not wanting it; it’s men in crisis, they’re stuck in the past. Sorry, that’s b*llocks. I think that men, especially those in their twenties and thirties, are actually pretty sorted about this. They want a greater role in bringing up their kids, but they come up against cultural obstacles all the time. And that is quite demoralising.”
Consider this: the main shop in which to buy baby clothes is still called Mothercare. The leading advice portal for parents is Mumsnet. The relatively few parenting books aimed at dads have guffy, patronising titles like The New Dad’s Survival Guide, Pacify Me and Dude, You’re Gonna Be A Dad. Have you ever seen a baby-changing table in the men’s toilets? “Even when your child goes to nursery and you turn up at the door, they look at you like you’re an alien or a paedophile,” says Davies. “And in the workplace, men often need to hide themselves as a parent to look like they’re completely focused on work.”
Smashing the stereotypes
Think of examples of stay-at-home dads in popular culture and it’s hard to get beyond Kevin from the BBC sitcom Motherland – a comically-emasculated wreck of a man whom no self-respecting father would wish to emulate. In adverts, men always appear as hapless, overweight buffoons clutching a beer in one hand and a pair of barbecue tongs in the other, while the women roll their eyes and organise the house, the car, the family. “It even happens in children’s television,” adds Davies. “Take Peppa Pig. There are good points about Daddy Pig. First of all he’s there, he’s reasonably hands-on, but he’s still the butt of the joke. He’s the one who makes mistakes while Mummy Pig is in the background sorting everything out. All this has an effect.”
Attitudes, however, are recalibrating and workplaces are waking up. Wastling says taking shared parental leave has enhanced his reputation at work rather than undermined it. “It’s gained me a lot of respect from colleagues,” he says. “SPL shows you’re a rounded person who is compassionate and caring, and thinks about sharing a role with your partner.”
Wastling is no swivel-eyed ‘daddy-vangelist’, desperate to convince you his life is better than yours. He won’t, even when pushed, tell you full-time baby care is the most soul-freeingly fantastic thing he’s ever done. He admits it can be donkey work – it gets you in the arms, the legs, the back. He didn’t do it because a life of house-husbandry sounded easier than a “real job”, or because he couldn’t hack the rat race. Not at all. He did it for himself, for his baby, and – perhaps most importantly – for his wife, who needed to return to medicine after nine months lest her scalpel skills got rusty. “Alice was keen to return to work at the nine-month point, so she could continue her work and be a confident surgeon,” he says. “I wanted to do it because I wanted to look after Phoebe. So it was win-win for us.”
We are at a historic moment in sexual relations right now. Yet, still, one arena in which the voice of gender equality seems conspicuously muffled is at home. Isn’t it time men and women pulled their weight fairly and equally? According to the experts, it benefits literally everyone involved.
“So many men are going to work and missing out on the wonderfulness that is a newborn baby,” says parenting specialist Elizabeth O’Shea, who runs advice website, Parent4Success. “This is a child that you will have for the rest of your life, and research has shown that the stronger the bonds fathers form with their babies early on, the stronger their relationships are down the line.”
As hard work as rearing a child can be, O’Shea says it’s crucial not to forget it can also be a real giggle. “Often as children grown up, they tend to go to their dads more for fun and their mums more for comfort,” she says. “And taking an active part in childcare teaches dads how to be children again. They learn how to relax, have fun, make silly faces, sing nursery rhymes and throw babies up in the air. It helps bring out the lovely childish side that is often suppressed when men go to work.”
Doing it for the kids
The benefits don’t begin and end with dad. Child psychiatrist Dr Mike Shooter CBE is former director of the Royal College of Psychiatrists and author of Growing Pains: Making Sense Of Childhood
Think, he says, of when children throw an object over the edge of the table, forcing mum or dad to pick it up and give it back. “It becomes a game that can get really quite tedious,” he says. “But it is one of the most important things that infants learn: that, just because things are out of sight, it doesn’t mean they disappear forever. It’s the sort of thing that enables parents to go to the lavatory without the baby thinking it’s been deserted. Those early lessons build the kind of trust that lasts through life. If a father wants that, he should be involved in the process right from the very beginning.”
Sharing is caring
In easing expectations on mothers to give up on their careers, sharing parental leave can also have a positive impact on new parents’ relationships. “A lot of mothers find it very difficult to leave the baby with anybody else and that then creates a big difficulty because the parents aren’t going out and keeping alive that adult relationship,” says O’Shea. “So, trusting the dad to look after the baby without help can be empowering for a mum and help the dad understand the work involved. This can be of great help in keeping alive an adult relationship.”
Dr Emma Banister, a senior lecturer in consumer research at Manchester Business School who’s co-leading a project that follows new fathers as they embark on SPL, agrees: “Both the men and women we spoke to said SPL meant both knew what it was like to care for a child. Many dads might come home from work and say, ‘All you’ve done is look after the baby.’ But actually that’s harder than going out to work. They all said this shared understanding had strengthened their relationship.”
Redefining fulltime fatherhood
‘Fulltime fatherhood’ has been a byword for career-suicide for far too long; a dusty, dog-eared relic from a time when men in grey suits and kipper ties brought home the bacon, and women just cooked it. In many minds, that profile endures. “When I take my girls to soft play or music classes mums often ask things like ‘Oh, is it your day off?’ or ‘Are you babysitting today?’” says Freddie Yauner a 35-year-old stay-at-home dad from London and co-founder of multiple-sclerosis charity, Shift.ms. He’s been caring for both his daughters, Nancy, 10 months, and Margot, three, since his wife returned to work in TV last December. “Some mums are quite disconcerted at you being there, particularly if you’re engaged with your child. I sometimes wonder if there’s a degree of jealousy; that your presence at these things is pointing out the fact that their partners aren’t pulling their weight in the same way.”
Shared Parental Leave is a step towards putting this right. But the responsibility to inspire change cannot rest solely on the shoulders of pioneering dads like Wastling and Yauner. Bosses need to acknowledge, explicitly, that Shared Parental Leave is a positive thing for their workforce, male and female; that they could be happier, and potentially more productive, with their work-life balance as a result of taking it.
“The men talked about developing empathy, the potential to become better managers,” says Banister. “They’d say, ‘Now I have a better understanding of what it’s actually like for employees, men and women, who take parental leave, or perform other types of care at home.’ It’s the idea that people have lives outside of work that helped managers realise the need to be more empathic towards their colleagues.”
In short, Shared Parental Leave is an opportunity to begin redefining what it means to be a dad in 2018. There’s more to life than work, retire, die. Think, perhaps, of SPL as the gap year you never thought you’d have; a chance to take a long-deserved furlough in life’s battle to succeed.
“Caring for my kids has given me perspective on life,” says Yauner. “It’s that satisfying feeling of climbing a hill and turning around to look at the view – but a million times more rewarding. My kids melt my heart at least twice a day; the little things, like seeing them crawl for the first time, teaching them to hold a spoon, the first time they laugh. This is a time in their lives neither they nor I will ever get back, and I want to share as much of it with them as I can.”
Then he adds, “Just please don’t call me a babysitter. Dads don’t babysit; it’s called parenting. And it’s bloody brilliant.”
How to take it
COUPLES CAN SHARE UP TO 50 WEEKS OF LEAVE
Of those, 37 are paid at a statutory rate of £140.98 a week or 90 per cent of their average weekly earnings, whichever is lower (employers are encouraged to top up this pay accordingly, but are under no obligation to do so). Couples can then choose to take it in turns or double up and take it together.
HOW TO QUALIFY
One or both parents must have been working for their current employer since at least the time that the mother fell pregnant, or in the case of adoptive parents, six months before they were matched with their child.
IT’S NOT JUST FOR HETEROSEXUAL, MARRIED, BOTH-BIOLOGICAL PARENTS
SPL is also open to same-sex couples, adoptive parents, unmarried co-habiting parents and couples bringing up a child from one of their previous relationships.
A PARENT CAN BOOK UP TO THREE BLOCKS OF LEAVE IN THE COURSE OF THE CHILD’S FIRST YEAR
As long as they give their employer at least eight weeks’ notice before taking leave.
BRINGING UP A CHILD IS REWARDING WORK
Now, you and your partner can share the joy your child brings by sharing parenting leave to combine work with family life. Have a conversation with your partner to decide what’s right for you.
Find out more here.