Reflections on Parental Leave

In a nutshell

When having a baby, it's important to decide what will work best for you, your partner, your family, and of course your career in terms of Parental Leave. 

At Newton, we offer a shared Parental Leave policy which Operations Director, Paul King, has recently returned from. Read his reflections on Parental Leave and how to make it work. 

Paul King


Paul King

Posted May 18, 2022

No one can ever prepare you for parenthood (although everyone tries); the daily joys, and of course challenges, that being a parent brings. For me, the unexpected pleasures come in the everyday motions of seeing my son, Alex, change and grow. Watching him learn new skills, giggle when he finds something funny or giving an uncannily grown-up sigh.

Whilst the delights of taking care of a whole new person are considerable, this new-found responsibility also comes with the need for both you and your partner to make compromises within your lives. It’s the extent to which these compromises are made, and by whom, that I want to explore further.

I don’t think we’ve truly achieved equality -and that might not even be the right outcome for everyone- but I wanted to share our experiences of trying and the barriers we’ve experienced.

 Gender Disparities in Parental Leave

In an ideal world, it would be great to say that in 2022 there are no gender disparities between men and women in the parenting roles they assume. That’s unfortunately definitely not true. While it’s difficult to exactly assign causes to the gender pay gap, I find the below chart pretty compelling evidence for childcare responsibilities being the most significant driver of the gap (the mean age of women in the UK at the birth of their first child is 29 years old).

One of the sections I found particularly depressing in Caroline Criado Perez’s Invisible Women was the repeated studies showing the amount of unpaid care work falling to women over men. Even when we (men) think we’re taking 50% of the load, we’re often not. Maybe we’re failing to recognise the mental load of “organising the family” or, in the case of new children, pregnancy and Parental Leave. According to a survey by the TUC, only 1% of parents use Shared Parental Leave – the version of Maternity Leave open to both parents.

This is a far bigger gender split than we see in CEOs, Consultants or Engineers – and I think we will struggle to reach gender parity in the professional world if the parental world remains so imbalanced.

My wife, Pip, and I were aware of the gender disparities in parenthood before having Alex and decided to do what we could to avoid the stereotyped roles.  I don’t think we’ve truly achieved equality – and that might not even be the right outcome for everyone- but I wanted to share our experiences of trying and the barriers we’ve experienced (so far!).

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Conversations Before Parenthood

Before having a child, Pip and I had open discussions around how passionate we both are about our careers, seeing work as a big part of our lives. We understood that having children would require a conscious compromise in our work lives and impact our career trajectories. We knew starting a family might prevent us from reaching for promotion or that next opportunity (at least as quickly) and this was something we both wanted to bear, equally.

We didn’t want to fall into the gender stereotype where it was Pip who would make all the career sacrifices for our child. Luckily, we were supported in making that decision not only by our employers, but also by the fact that financially, it was a viable choice for us to make.

This was a decision that worked for us as a couple. I’m by no means trying to suggest that all parents should split parental leave equally.

Our Decision to Take Shared Parental Leave

We decided to share the parental leave, with Pip looking after Alex for the first four months and me looking after him for the next four.

Here I want to pause, and really enforce the point that this was a decision that worked for us as a couple. I’m by no means trying to suggest that all parents should split parental leave equally. Individuals should feel free to decide what works best for them, the point being that there should be equal opportunities in place for parents to make that decision, regardless of their gender. Almost everyone would agree that it’s a good aim to have women equally represented on company boards – why should the expectation around representation in childcare be any different?

Equally, if anyone wants to take the full 52 weeks of parental leave, they ideally wouldn’t have to feel that this will impact their long-term career options. One year out of a 50-year career is unlikely to make the difference in how successful a working parent can be. Unfortunately, anecdotally, I see an assumption that post a woman taking maternity leave, she will then take most of the parental burden, and often experience a slower rate of career progression to male counterparts due to time constraints.

My Experiences of Parental Leave

I can’t say that my four months of parental leave were the same as Pip’s; Alex was at a completely different stage and there were subtle differences that I experienced as a stay-at-home partner. I first noticed this before I’d even finished work. Going on shared parental leave requires you to go to your boss and ask for time off. Due to the nature of society, the expectation that pregnant women will take time off is baked in. For partners, it’s a completely different matter, again due to societal expectations; I felt apologetic for asking for 4 months leave because it’s not the norm. Even though I was making a decision that Newton actively encourages, I felt very conscious of this.

Once on leave, I continued to feel my status as “the odd one out” for being the only man at almost all the baby classes I attended. I never faced any challenge or criticism, but it certainly made it feel more unnatural for men to take on the primary caring role. This experience was also a valuable lesson for me, having often been in the majority for much of the rest of my life, I experienced first-hand, being in the minority, and then becoming more conscious of my own actions, even if no one passed comment. I’ll try to take this lesson back into in my working life.

Pip, having returned to work, got told on multiple occasions “it’s a good job you’re WFH while Paul is taking his leave”, implying that she must still be taking a lot of the parental load because I wouldn’t be competent. We’ve not found any inherent gendered differences in our capabilities as parents, but unsurprisingly, the more time we spend doing something, the better and more confident at it we become.

Returning to Work

On returning to work, the gender dipartites in parenthood emerged again, admittedly once more in a subtle manner. When Pip went back, she was frequently asked ‘How are you coping? Do you miss Alex?’. I meanwhile was more often asked ‘How did you cope? Did you miss work?’. Both were well-meaning wellbeing questions, but with a difference that reveals how strongly engrained gender stereotypes are in society when it comes to parenting.

We even experienced this with Alex’s nursery. I purposefully put myself down as the first point of contact, but still, they always call Pip first. They disrupt her working day above mine because she is the mother and assumed to be the primary carer.

A Round-up of My Reflections

I am lucky to work for a company with a great Shared Parental Leave policy (Newton’s shared parental leave offers a 50% rate of pay for either parent for 12 months). This makes the decision to take time off much easier. I would love to see UK legislation which ensured all employers offered equal maternity and shared parental leave pay. It seems very counterproductive to me that the law allows a company to pay mothers and their partners completely differently on parental leave. In Norway and Sweden, there is a so-called "daddy quota", which is a part of the parental leave period exclusively reserved for fathers. If the father doesn’t take his allotted period of leave, the family loses it. Thanks to this “daddy quota”, 9 out of 10 Swedish fathers now take leave.

I also believe we re-enforce the “woman as the natural primary carer” narrative by talking about making careers and jobs more flexible, to support mothers into the workplace. More flexibility in the workplace will appeal to lots of people for lots of reasons and is a great aim for a company to attract more diverse talent. However, why are we not talking more about the underlying disparity in parental responsibilities – if we created a more level playing field here, mothers wouldn’t need workplace adjustments (and maybe dads would be more motivated to make flexible careers work!).

Hopefully, through my involvement with the Parents and Carers Network at Newton and by having open conversations like this, we’ll be able to support people in making the parental leave choices that suit both parents.

I was grateful for the support I received from Newton in my decision to stay at home with Alex for four months. I was able to experience my son in a way that I know many fathers don’t get the opportunity to and looking after him for that time was a great joy. I hope that we can continue lessening the gender disparities between parents and support couples in doing what is best for them so that everyone can thrive at work and as parents.