This year we had a daughter and my husband and I decided to make use of Shared Parental Leave (SPL). This legislation, brought in in 2014, allows two people (in our case the mother and father, but it could be two fathers, adoptive parents, whatever) to share one year’s leave between them.
In February the Department for Business said that the uptake of SPL could be as low as 2% of the 285,000 couples that are eligible for it each year. I think SPL is amazing so I thought I’d write down what we did and why it was good.
In this blog post I’m going to talk about what my husband and I did. I’m an a heterosexual relationship but the policy I’m talking about is available to same sex (or queer!) couples and couples adopting. In these cases there is a “Primary” and a “Secondary” parent.
Before SPL, things were bad
Before Shared Parental Leave, I would have been entitled to a full year off work (paid at whatever my employer’s leave policy is plus statutory). My husband would have been entitled to 2 weeks off work.
This situation is a bit shit for everyone. Dads (or secondaries!) get less time with their babies. Mums (or primaries!) get less support from their partners. Women have to take a disproportionate career hit. Even in families where the dads want to pitch in equally, they’re not able to because they have to be back at work.
With Shared Parental Leave you share your parental leave
I AM NOT A HUMAN RESOURCES PROFESSIONAL so here is the explanation from https://sharedparentalleave.campaign.gov.uk/
Parents can share up to 50 weeks of leave and up to 37 weeks of pay and choose to take the leave and pay in a more flexible way (each parent can take up to 3 blocks of leave, more if their employer allows, interspersed with periods of work).
Eligible parents can be off work together for up to 6 months or alternatively stagger their leave and pay so that one of them is always at home with their baby in the first year.
One thing I found confusing to begin with was understanding the pay for shared parental leave. This is because initially I thought pay was moveable (eg I get 19 weeks full pay which I can take at any time). But actually all parental pay works by providing a rate for a specific week calculated from the when the first leave is taken.
So if I’m off during week 13, I’ll get the week 13 rate (which in my case because of the FT’s enhanced maternity policy, is full pay). If I’m off during week 20 I’ll get statutory pay (£145.18). It doesn’t matter if week 20 is my first week off, the pay for week 20 is the statutory allowance as my employer’s enhanced pay policy ends on week 19.
My parental pay is calculated based on my employer’s policy, and my partner’s parental pay rate is calculated based on his employers policy.
First we took four weeks off together
OK, enough with the poorly described legislation. What did my partner and I actually do.
My partner’s employer (Microsoft) gives six week’s paid paternity leave in the UK, and he could take it in up two chunks. The Financial Times’s policy is the same for everybody (mothers, fathers, primaries, secondaries, etc). We all get 19 weeks leave fully paid.
First, we took four weeks off together. I have no idea what we did during this time - it’s a total blur. I dimly recall lots of sleeping in? And some stumbling around? And cuddles.
Then my husband went back to work, and for seven and a half months I was the primary parent. I also took sole responsibility for all the cooking which allowed my partner to focus on work.
Being the primary parent is hard!
Some people don’t like the phrase “primary” parent. “It minimises the other parent’s role!”. Yes it does. But look. Having been both the primary and the secondary - the primary is different and a lot harder! At all times I had to be considering the needs of quite a needy small person. She can’t tell me if she’s hungry or tired or needs a nappy change. I have to remember if she’s poorly, if she’s currently refusing broccoli, what her favourite toys are, when she last pooed. Every day has to be, at a minimum, planned so that she’ll get some baby safe food and some time for naps. Sometimes it takes her an hour to eat a whole meal.
The secondary parent is still important. In the evenings being able to hand over responsibility, even just for the half hour before bed, was lovely. After a day of singing and chasing and tickling and playing and cleaning and feeding, I could have some quiet time to cook dinner. I didn’t especially like cooking until it came at the end of a day’s free play with a baby. Being able to follow a set of instructions uninterrupted and at the end have some delicious food became a real treat.
Despite being a fairly equitable pair, while I was on leave, I was the the person who was leading decisions about our daughter. Even when my partner was there too, I was in charge. This was because I knew what she needed because I was pretty much always with her.
When we switched I realised how much I had become accustomed to looking after a baby. How rolling with the unpredictability of a child had become how I went about the day. Seeing my partner get to grips with this challenge made me realise what a shift it is.
Going back to work at nine months was pretty easy, especially as I knew our daughter was with her dad. We chose a nine/three split because I wanted my partner to have a good chunk of time to get into being the primary. It took him a while to settle into the role so I’m glad we picked three months.
I chose to express milk at work for three months when I went back. This was an awful experience to be honest. I’m somewhat on the fence about if I would recommend doing that to anyone else.
Tips for anyone wanting to take SPL
- Engage your HR rep. My contact in the FT’s HR team described SPL as the most complicated piece of legislation they have to deal with. There are a huge number of ways to take SPL so talking through them with an expert is a really good idea.
- Try and have it so you both have some solo time. I gained so much empathy for what it was like being the secondary parent when I had to do it, and I know my husband learnt heaps from being the primary. Our daughter also got a lot from having a different parent running the show.
- Get yourself a spreadsheet. Organising maternity leave, paternity leave, shared parental leave, the annual leave you will still accrue while being on leave, all across multiple financial years is a logistical nightmare. I’m not going to share my spreadsheet because I think it probably only makes sense to me, but it was essential in working out what I was going to be paid, when I should return to work, etc.
OK - that’s it. I hope more people will take Shared Parental Leave. I must state again that I AM NOT A HUMAN RESOURCES PROFESSIONAL, but if you have any questions about what we did that I haven’t covered here, just pop me an email.