Wednesday 13 December 2017

Terry Prone: Parents' year off is a good idea, but it could well backfire

James Reilly
James Reilly

The idea of men getting leave to participate in the early weeks and months of the lives of their daughters and sons is nothing new.

Children's Minister Dr James Reilly's predecessor, Frances Fitzgerald, floated a plan to give fathers a fortnight's paid leave and Tanaiste Joan Burton did rather more than float it at her party conference a couple of months ago.

Dr Reilly has not said he's going to give a shared year off to parents of a new baby. But the group advising him on early childhood is currently considering the possibility.

That's all it is, right now: a possibility. Depending on public reaction, though, it might feature in political party manifestos coming up to the general election.

But what's under consideration is a more radical "Daddy track", like what's happening in Britain, whereby in addition to a fortnight's leave after birth for the mother, almost a year off can be shared by both parents.

If it comes into law, it forever changes parental possibilities. Whether it would change parental realities that much is anybody's guess. The Swedes had an instructive experience when, roughly 40 years ago, they introduced the fathers' year off. Only 5pc of Swedish males took up the offer.

If that happened in Ireland, there's a real chance that the general reaction would be to shrug and move on, to say: "It's all about choice, and if a male parent doesn't choose to take time off, he can't be forced to do so."

But that would be to ignore the factors that might influence the decision.

The first is that men who are focused on their careers, which is a legitimate focus, will not have failed to notice that when women take extended leave to be with their babies, it rarely improves their chances of rising rapidly to the top in their particular organisation.


Those men may look askance at the idea of putting their career on "pause", no matter how much they agree with the principle involved.

The second factor that would influence take-up by men of this new baby leave is that while the State, as is the case from yesterday in the UK, may provide a statutory salary during this period of shared leave, it may be up to the employer to top this up to the level of the man's regular salary.

That could be a challenge, particularly for small businesses. Big multinationals may have no problem paying a substitute to replace a man on parental leave. A new small company may be in a very different financial situation and goodwill towards gender equality and child welfare doesn't pay corporate bills.

The third issue that might stop men taking up paternity leave is the possibility - whisper it - that the endless cycle of feeding, soothing and washing required by even the most equable baby, together with the sleep deprivation, social isolation, visits to the doctor, laundering and sterilising procedures might not be that appealing to some of them.

Whisper it even lower: there are a few lads out there who, while they might think of themselves as New Men, limit their new maleness to putting out the wheelie bin and occasionally being dragged to a chick flick.

When the Swedes found that their initial proposition didn't take hold, they turned it into an offer men couldn't refuse. They upped the ante to 80pc pay for almost 400 days and made some of the leave "use it or lose it". Now, 85pc of Swedish men take shared leave and are at home to bond with their babies in the crucial early months.

The idea Dr Reilly will consider before summer presents a pretty classic dilemma.

On the one hand, it would be expensive. On the other, the pay-off for children, for parents and for society, albeit difficult to measure, could be enormous.

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