For International Men's Day 2020, Tim Mouncer, Public Affairs Manager at the Law Society of Scotland, tells us about his experience of taking shared parental leave and his hopes that it becomes an expected norm for fathers.
Like many parents, this March my childcare options disappeared overnight. Unlike most fathers, I had recent experience of being a full-time dad. I had some idea how to come up with new ideas, games and distractions whenever the ten-minute attention span of a toddler wavered.
I took five months of shared parental leave last year, seeing my daughter grow from a seven-month old baby still trying her hardest to crawl to a twelve-month old saying her first words and fearlessly clambering backwards up slippery slides. Being ‘on’ all the time was so, so hard in completely different ways to the everyday stresses and challenges of the workplace, but so much fun and the most wonderful, positive, rewarding time. With the arrival of my second daughter during lockdown, I’m looking forward to doing it all over again in the new year.
Before lockdown, I was perfectly comfortable being the only dad in child-friendly settings, classes and playgroups. Mums have been universally welcoming and I’ve formed some great friendships. I learned to grit my teeth when I heard ‘well done you’ though – no one says ‘well done’ to a woman taking maternity leave. I’d come across other dads who were hearing the same, often taking a day off a week or a few weeks of full-time leave, which was great to see. But even five years on from the formal introduction of the Shared Parental Leave system, I know hardly any dads who have taken a significant period of parental leave.
I grew up in a family full of strong, intelligent, career-focused women. Most of my best and closest friends are women and now I have two daughters. Even if we’d had boys, I’d want them to see me and their mum as equals. To be totally honest though, I wasn’t volunteering to take on childcare as a radical lefty gender warrior. I just wanted to spend as much time as possible with my children, learning about them, playing with them and building a relationship that will last our whole lives. Parental leave is the only time most people will ever have to be with their children all day, every day, rather than snatching time after work or at weekends.
It’s clear there’s still a culture of women being considered the main carers. We know the impact this has on the gender pay gap, on talent retention, on girls’ career goals and on men’s relationships with their children. Employers are getting better at recognising the benefits of flexible working and work/life balance. It’s proving harder to break down a culture where taking parental leave is the norm for women, but unusual for men.
It’s been an enormous help that everyone at the Law Society has been genuinely supportive, understanding and flexible. So much work has gone into our diversity and equalities work for the profession, including our guidance on flexible working, so it’s good to know from experience that my employer is walking the walk and not just talking the talk.
The pandemic shook up family life and childcare in ways none of us could have anticipated. Career wise, furlough and returning to full-time parenting didn’t come at a good time for me, but motherhood rarely comes at a good career stage for women.
Looking after a toddler, sometimes for up to 70 hours a week while my wife continued to work full-time, when all the normal distractions of soft play, singing groups, baby play cafes and buggy walks were suddenly taken away was very, very hard. I hope though that, like me, other dads thrown into this situation unexpectedly will look back at it as a fun, rewarding, challenging time, which has had a really positive impact on how they relate to their children and partners.
I hope more of us will share our experiences and encourage others to make the leap too and that we’ll see a real step-change in how we see masculinity and childcare. I may be exhausted, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.