Fathers deserve the right to bond with their babies. Our parental leave system is a mess

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA</span>
Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA

I racked my brains trying to work out what to get my husband for his first Father’s Day. A fart-themed mug and a book of dad jokes don’t really cut it, after all the weeks and weeks of hands-on fathering. And I mean proper fathering. The Father’s Day gift economy, themed as it is around activities that you do away from your children – golf and drinking whisky – hasn’t really caught up with modern dadding.

In two weeks, my husband goes back to full-time work, after nearly four months of shared parental leave, and I will become a full-time parent. In this country, most dads go back after the measly two weeks of statutory paternity leave, so our experience is not typical. The culture enables this. My husband has been told socially that there is not much point taking this time, that he won’t be able to interact with the baby – who will only be interested in his mother – and will “just be changing nappies”. No one mentioned bonding.

He has been there, in every sense. He was there in the neonatal intensive care unit with his shirt off, holding the baby against the beat of his heart so that the boy knew from his first hours on this earth that he was loved and protected. He fed me, when I was struggling to feed the child, and sat in on more breastfeeding consultations than anyone should have to. He fed the baby, too, from bottles, right from the beginning, which had not been our plan, but which has only enhanced their closeness and liberated me. He’s done the night feeds and the rocking to sleep and the post-jab Calpol. They bowl around the neighbourhood together, the baby strapped to his chest in a way that Piers Morgan would hate. He can make our child smile with the widest, purest grin I’ve ever seen. And yes, he’s had a fair bit of baby shit up his arm, too.

All dads should have this, I think, if they want it. It shouldn’t be such an immense privilege to get to bond with your child. In her book The Life of Dad: The Making of a Modern Father, Dr Anna Machin says that bonding between father and infant is a two-stage process. The first stage happens at birth, is underpinned by oxytocin, and “relies upon the biological connection between father and child provided by genetic relatedness”. The second stage comes much later, because “it is based upon conjoined lives and interactions and is promoted by the much more powerful bonding chemical beta-endorphin, leading to a more profound and much deeper love”. Take the time at the beginning, however, and it feels to me as though the second stage can be reached much more rapidly.

For many dads, the stuff about feeling like a spare part isn’t incorrect. If they aren’t around full-time for long, they might feel like the secondary parent right from the beginning, “standing outside … this woman’s world”, as Kate Bush has it in This Woman’s Work, her moving and daring song about fatherhood. “Dads who are thrown back into the office after a couple of weeks never get the chance to bond with their children, which is horrible,” my colleague Alex Hern told me (he took six months to be his daughter’s primary caregiver). “That’s the part that is unimaginable to me; it just feels, from the privileged vantage point of not having had to do that, like such an awful thing to inflict on a new parent.

Related: Writing honestly about motherhood still provokes anger, but we must tell our stories | Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

“There’s a huge difference between ‘looking after’ your baby and ‘being in charge of’ your baby, and it was crucial for my relationship with my partner for me to have been in charge of my daughter for long enough that I stopped asking how she had done things, and started doing things my way. It means we’ve come out the other side of leave with an approach to parenting that blends both our experiences.”

This is backed by the research. Sociology professors Paul Hodkinson and Rachel Brooks, whose book Sharing Care examines the experiences of fathers who have taken more of an active role in sharing care for their children, conclude that “the sharing of parental leave from early in babies’ lives may make it easier for caregiving fathers to take on full responsibility for emotional and organisational aspects of care later on”. This would help alleviate the disproportionate care burden that continues to fall on women.

Though we’ve enjoyed shared parental leave, it was unpaid, so we have taken a large financial hit and I’ve been writing this column throughout. As a policy, it has been a failure, with only 3-8% of eligible couples taking it (the UK government has yet to publish the results of its long-promised consultation on this policy). It is still not available to the self-employed.

It’s also unnecessarily confusing, and took me a couple of weeks to get my own head around it, simply because it was so poorly explained by most websites. According to a new survey from Pregnant Then Screwed, just half of dads believe their employer understands how shared parental leave works. It breaks down the numerous ways in which men are discouraged from taking the time, from the financial hit (cited by more than half of dads as the reason for not taking shared parental leave) to discrimination in the workplace (16%).

The fact that the shared parental leave policy involves “taking” leave from your female partner is spectacularly ill-conceived, with women not wanting to relinquish their time and some dads not wanting to “deprive” their partners of it. As for our pathetic two weeks of paternity leave, 97% of respondents do not believe that two weeks is long enough, and one in four dads say that they continued to work while on paternity leave with half saying that there was an expectation from their employer that they would, which is unlawful.

Though companies are starting to offer enhanced parental leave to men, if the UK is to catch up with the many other countries that offer properly paid, ringfenced paternity leave, we need to rip up the shared parental leave policy and start again. This is one of the demands of the Pregnant Then Screwed March of the Mummies, a national protest for parents on 29 October (its other demands are good quality affordable childcare for all children and flexible working as the default).

If men want more time with their children, they are going to have to fight for it alongside their partners. The key to this, I think, is to start framing paternity leave as crucial bonding time for men and their children, which they are currently being denied. As my husband says, it’s been one of the most rewarding times of his life. It should be a right, not a privilege.

What’s working

I took the baby swimming last week (his dad is taking him this week), and watching six babies and their parents – a mix of mums and dads – discover the joys of the water was almost unbearably cute and completely worth the screaming fit he threw in the changing room afterwards.

What’s not

Due to hot weather I’ve spent days consigned to a dark room, breastfeeding under a fan. Send ice lollies or, even better, cooler temperatures.

  • Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist and author

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