Flexible Maternity Leave – Is it Really a Step in the Right Direction?

I need to start this post by apologising to fathers and all those who campaign for their rights, because I know this blog is going to really rile them. In a way that’s good, because they need to still be riled, they need to not think Nick Clegg’s new flexible maternity leave plans are a sign that a father’s needs are at last being considered and they still need to campaign and fight for their rights. In short Clegg’s new plans are really not the recognition that they seek, at best they are a cursory nod to the fact there is a problem and at worse they are deeply damaging to the mother-infant dyad.

Let’s start with what is really needed. Decent parental leave for both mother and father, a recognition of the emotional and indeed physical (if you include the effects of lack of sleep) turmoil BOTH new parents face after the birth of a baby. This leave should come for BOTH parents, individually, not as a package that can be shared by both parents. I would like to see new fathers receive at least 6 weeks paid paternity leave and the option to take up to a whole year at reduced pay after this. In addition to this they should be able to attend antenatal appointments and classes whilst still in receipt of full pay, as mothers currently do. This leave should be completely independent of anything the mother receives.

What they should NOT have is a share in what was the mother’s maternity leave. This is not really valuing a father, but worse than that it is grossly DE valuing mothers, it takes no account of the breastfeeding relationship or of the mound of scientific research which shows the importance of the mother infant dyad, the most important relationship in the world. I hope my fears do not come true, that of a mother sacrificing precious time with her baby in order for the father to have some. That is not a step in the right direction, no not at all – that in my opinion is a step backward and a big one at that. It is placing pressure on vulnerable new mothers to return to work earlier than they would like so that fathers may spend time with their new baby.

I appreciate too that it gives new parents a choice and for those who really want that choice I concede this may be a good move (though silently I am thinking anything that encourages mothers back to work in the most important period of the infant’s life is a big step backwards for humanity), but I literally recoiled away from my computer screen when I read this in the Guardian article:

“Only mothers will be allowed to take leave in the first two weeks’ leave after birth. But after that parents can divide up the rest of the maternity leave.”

Two weeks?! let me say that again TWO WEEKS?!!!! At two weeks postpartum I was still bleeding heavily, finding it hard to sit down, my breasts were leaking, I was still getting to grips with feeding, my emotions were all over the place and I still looked 6 months pregnant. I can’t imagine handling too my husband’s desire to spend time with the baby and me returning to work (albeit perhaps only temporarily).

So, I may be a lone voice of dissent, but I believe these plans are a step backwards for everybody – oh except for the UK economy that is. Herein lies the problem.


About SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.
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