I had my first child a decade ago. At the time, I had the statutory right to a paltry four months’ maternity leave, because I had become pregnant quickly after starting my job. (I managed to take eight – thanks to my enlightened boss). My partner had the right to a mere fortnight of paternity leave, starting at the birth.
Now, nice as it was for us both to be around in those first couple of weeks, my baby was typical in that she spent most of her first fortnight asleep. During the ensuing months of wonderment, bonding, colic and projectile vomiting, I was on my own all day. I liked looking after my smiley bundle of baby, but sometimes, the days were very, very long indeed. Most days, adult company centred on groups where we sang that the wheels on the bus go round and round. And round, and round. I got very envious of my partner for getting to go out into the wider world. I shouted at him for stopping for a coffee on the way to work.
Being wrenched from full-time brain- and people- work, dealing with global issues, to full time parenthood, didn’t work very well for me. I wanted to spend lots of time looking after my baby, sure – but I wanted my life to have other aspects, too. And meanwhile my partner wasn’t getting time to get to know our baby, because he was at work so much. And the baby was surely getting the impression that she had one main parent and one distant one, rather than two equal ones, which was how said parents felt about it.
Yet, once I had recovered from the birth, and once breastfeeding was part- rather than full-time, there was absolutely no reason why I, as the female half of the partnership, needed to be at home full time, and no reason why my partner could not do just as good a job of parenting.
But I didn’t think I would see change on this in my lifetime.
So this is a lesson in what is possible. Fast forward ten years. Maternity leave in the UK is now a full year; it has increased three-fold in ten years. And recently I have realised that something else, something bigger, has changed. I came across three couples, in one week, where dad is taking daddy leave. Not that nice-but-token fortnight at the beginning, but sharing the year of ‘maternity’ leave, so that mum and dad take six months each, or mum takes nine and dad three. More dads appear to be taking seriously the idea of equal parenting and equal work-in-the-world, from the very start. And next year the law will formally offer this option.
It is living evidence that, with political support for regulatory tweaks, social norms and practices that seem very deeply entrenched can change quite quickly. The unthinkable can become reality.