31 May 2016

By Daniel Godsall

Our Views

holiday, maternity, parenting

Maternity is not a vacation

Throughout my career, I have heard various colleagues refer to maternity leave as being somewhat of a holiday. Those same colleagues have quickly revised those opinions when they or their partner find themselves at home on maternity leave trying to juggle all the tasks that come with looking after a new baby!

Recently Meghann Foye found herself in the centre of a storm of publicity after suggesting that women without children should be entitled to a similar right to maternity leave, so that they could enjoy some ‘me’ time. There was a significant backlash from mothers who felt Ms Foye’s comments failed to appreciate the fact that for those on maternity leave, whilst not undertaking paid work, work hard caring for a young baby.

The importance of parenting and childcare is often underestimated. Ms Foye is not the only person to feel that looking after a child is easy or “natural” and this myth is perpetuated by cultural stereotypes of mothers who are naturally adept at parenting. Often, as parents, we are reluctant to admit that our little angels can actually behave like delinquents and that we struggle, at times, to know what to do for the best.

So, how do we correct these misapprehensions? One way is greater involvement of fathers, so that they can truly understand the difficulties that mothers have in trying to combine work and family responsibilities. When speaking to a male friend recently about the option of taking Shared Parental Leave, he responded that he couldn’t possibly use this as it would damage his career. Welcome to my world!!

The other is a greater understanding of the importance of parenting. A body of research has shown that active parental involvement in childcare has a range of positive consequences on the development (and particularly the behavioural development of a child). Employers that place value on the time that parents spend with their children by offering family-friendly benefits, particularly paid leave, show to their employees (and society as a whole) that they recognise how important this issue is.

Further, the quality of an organisation’s offering can have a real impact on whether parents (particularly mothers who tend to bear primary responsibility for childcare) are able to continue in their roles with the organisation (and progress at the same rate as their childless peers) or are effectively forced out.

And, most importantly, it is how the policies are applied in practice, rather than how they appear on paper, that is key. Having worked for two different employers both of whom had almost identical policies, the difference between how these can be applied in practice is incredible. One employer clearly had these policies in place to avoid discrimination claims from mothers like me who would otherwise struggle to continue in their roles post-children. But the organisation placed no real value on the policies (besides avoiding legal risk). The other genuinely believes in the importance of retaining those that have caring responsibilities and sees this as a business critical issue. The effect of that is that managers within the organisation do whatever is possible to accommodate the needs of those with care responsibilities. As an employee, whereas I left the first organisation within a few months of having my second child, I am likely to remain in my current role (where I have had my third child) for the foreseeable future.

This weeks guest blogger is a Senior Associate at a leading City Law Firm.