Paternity leave is coming . . . as soon as we build that spaceport

Sat, Nov 24, 2012, 00:00

This is a lament for something that we never even had and that we can forget about seeing for a long, long time. It is for paternity leave, a dull dollop of HR phraseology so underused that it has none of the familiarity and warmth of its sister, maternity leave.

In Irish law it does not even exist. Maternity leave, rightly, gets an entire Act to itself, as does parental leave, but paternity leave is nothing. It is a nonphrase. Even in employment advice it exists only as a concept to be mentioned in the context of how it doesn’t officially exist.

Yet the pang is very real, that yearning among fathers to be home to see their children, to do something other than kiss them goodbye at the breakfast table and to see them again only just in time to turn their lights out at bedtime.

For now, though, paternity leave is purely at the discretion of the employer; it’s a strange notion in the 21st century that your job should dictate whether you get to see your newborn baby in daylight hours without having to sacrifice your holiday entitlements.

How does that work in practice? The public service and many employers have set paternity leave at three days. And there it stays. We are where we are, and we’re not going anywhere else soon. On the list of political priorities, paternity leave currently sits somewhere between distributing iodine tablets to every household and building a spaceport.

Not so in the UK, where Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, described its current system as being like something from the 1950s – and this in a country that actually has statutory paternity leave, of one or two weeks. For Ireland, then, when it comes to paternity and employment rights you can scratch a couple of decades off that again.

It’s a talking point in the UK because its government is looking to introduce more flexible leave, in which the 52 weeks can be shared between partners, or during which they can take the time off together.

Notably, Clegg’s emphasis is not solely on how paternity rights benefit men but also on how they improve women’s role in the workplace.

A policy that allows women to return to work two weeks after giving birth (four if they’re in manual industry) might cause some queasiness, but the overall strategy is about sharing the load between parents and allowing women to progress in careers that current maternity-leave restrictions have the effect of stalling.

If acted on, the UK will join some of our neighbours in leaving Ireland behind in this regard. Most obviously, and perhaps predictably, our Scandinavian cousins have been way ahead on this for some time.

In Norway the first six weeks are solely for the mother, but built into the leave is a 14-week period for the man alone. If that’s not taken up, then the couple lose that particular benefit.

Also, there is the right to leave the office at 5.30pm, to adjust work hours around childcare pick-ups and drop-offs, and to have time to help with homework.

The law is crafted so that fathers are expected to share the parental responsibilities with their partners. Although Irish workplaces have become softer in many respects, the hard-won flexibility has become a curse of sorts, as employers find it a useful way to stretch the hours beyond the traditional punch-in, punch-out routine. Norway’s laws have at least enshrined the idea that such flexibility can be about something more noble, regardless of your gender.

Ultimately, the notion of paternity leave for Ireland got lost between the emphasis on broader employee flexibility and the absence of any kind of co-ordinated men’s-rights movement (an idea that still sounds a somewhat silly note given more obvious and pressing women’s rights).

But when a government is cutting back on child benefit and examining taxing maternity-leave benefits, it is perhaps a decade or more from moving in any direction other than backwards.

By the way, The Irish Times offers its male staff two weeks’ paid paternity leave as standard. I will benefit for a third time from this in the coming weeks, so this column is not a howl of redirected frustration but a view from a father who sees what a difference even this precious fortnight makes.

Few fathers are so lucky. It’s all about that employer “discretion” and the hope that it allows for even those three days. Just three days, the equivalent of a long weekend, for a father to experience the awesome, life-altering explosion of wonder, fear, responsibility and pure love that is bringing a baby home. Then it’s straight back to the office for a breakfast meeting.


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