I had a great time catching up with some friends and former colleagues at a conference yesterday. We spoke a lot about our families and when it came to the women who had children, we reflected on how it had felt to return to work and the impact it'd had (and was still having) on our families overall. As a group of women, we were in a fortunate position; well paid, in jobs that stretched us intellectually and able to contribute to the emotional, financial, and practical aspects of family life. We talked about the way in which being able to support yourself increases your sense of self-esteem but also the challenges that come when you have two parents that are working. Who does pick up and drop off? Who collects the kids if they're ill? How do you make sure you're present for each other, your children, friends, wider family - yourself even - when you feel like you're pulled in a hundred directions?
We talked too about how our partners and husbands felt, how it is for them and how much choice they feel they have when it comes to how much time they dedicate to work and family. In some instances, they have less.
Do I stay or do I go?
When considering my career, I made a definite choice to remain in the corporate world until after I had children. This was in part because I was enjoying the lifestyle and opportunities the job afforded, but also because the maternity benefit offered by my employer was first-class: six months on full pay. I heard a rumour that there was an employer offering twelve months on full pay, but they were in the automotive industry and I didn't know squat about cars. Still don't.
I asked my husband the other day what he would have done if he'd have been offered access to that kind of benefit. Unsurprisingly he said of course he would have taken it. The thing is, for most men, the only way they can get that level of paid leave is for a different, and much less positive, kind of life-changing event: having a terrible accident, a nervous breakdown, or becoming seriously ill.
Getting the balance right
I know plenty of couples where the woman earns more than her partner. Couples where it would have made practical and financial sense for dad to stay home with the children (and where this is the option they would have preferred) but whose employers offered something measly like one week of paid leave on top of their statutory entitlement. Hardly enough time to get used to changing a nappy without getting pee'd on...
Shared parental leave
Come April 2015, there will be a small step in redressing the balance with the advent of Shared Parental Leave (https://www.gov.uk/shared-parental-leave-and-pay/overview) but let's face it, statutory pay doesn't scratch the surface when it comes to paying the bills. What I'd be really interested to see is employers who are currently offering generous maternity packages considering making these available to their male workforce. It would take some doing but given that organisations already need to consider the requirements of adoptive and same-sex couples perhaps it could become a reality.
And if it did happen - would it make any difference? Would we see an exodus of dads from the workplace and mums going back to work more rapidly? Would either of these be a bad thing? There's only one way to find out - I wonder who will be brave enough to go first. And if you know a business that is going first - let me know!