Is paternity leave a waste of time and money?
Mis à jour : 4 mai 2019
I spent the past few days catching up not only with my visiting relative, but also with French press and the latest discussions in rather feministic magazines such as Elle, Marie-Claire or Marie-France.
One topic that was broadly covered was paternity leave, in the shape of interviews, pros and cons, and overviews of various political debates and opinions. The idea was nevertheless more-or-less the same: paternity leave is a positive break which should be strongly supported and extended.
At the moment paid paternity leave in France is comprised of 3 days for birth + 11 days of paternity leave to be taken within the first 4 months following the birth. As a mean of comparison, Swedish parents can share a total of 480 days that can be used until the child's 8th birthday. The range of options is obviously large.
The reasons in favour of an extension are manifold:
- becoming a father is as new as becoming a mother, and both parents need to learn how to connect with a newborn and adjust to a complete new situation.
- stress and fatigue that come from this affect both parents, in their respective ways obviously.
- the presence of the father in the first days can help mothers adjust, especially in case of medical complications at birth, and positively reduce risks of post-natal depression (PND). I recently read the stories from fathers who lost their wives to suicide due to post-natal depression, and the statistics are shocking: maternal suicide represents 20% of maternal deaths during the child's first year, and the risks are 70% higher at this time compared to any other period of life of a woman.
- a long paternity leave will help women re-integrate society actively, in the case for instance of working mums who will be able to start working again with less stress on their shoulders.
- at last we could talk about social expectations and gender roles, according to which women should focus on the children while fathers should provide for the family. Yes of course one could argue that mothers are mostly impacted from the birth itself, hormonal changes, feeding obligations (for breastfeeding mums), but there is on top of it a fair range of socially-imposed norms and peer-pressure regarding "what a good mother should be / should do", that could somehow take advantage of a stronger involvement from father.
In the meantime, in Zug:
Last week I came across the below article submitted by a reader of the Zuger Woche, which made me laugh, then grind my teeth. As much as I respect everyone's opinions and look forward to argumentation, this comment made me feel again like a lot could be changed and improved in Switzerland in terms of mentalities and access to infrastructures.
The reader, a woman and mother of 2, starts by questionning the way paternity leave could be further supported financially through another insurance extention.
The discussion somehow made sense to me until I stopped on this sentence:
"we could just however wonder whether such a paternity leave is necessary after all".
The article goes on in this direction:
"Of course it's nice to spend an extra time with your family. But saying that this paternity leave is not a holiday, but instead a time to take care of mother and child and be present as a father, is far-fetched.
1. If mother and child are not confined to bed, they do not need to be taken care of.
2. The father should also be available to his family during "normal" holidays.
3. A more present dad will be there and will take care of his children on a lifetime - care is not primarly a matter of time.
A present father does not depend on paternity leave. Fortunately, family remains a priva matter. Each family should determine for itself what works best; the state should not be responsible for everything."
Why did I react so negatively?
In Dubai, maternity leave in the private sector is set to 40 calendar days (think about it, not 40 working days, but CALENDAR days), so I had to add up to it all my paid leave, negotiate unpaid leave then part-time work until we could leave our son to daycare. With no family around and no strict legal protection regarding the safety of my job (for which then I will always be grateful to my loving boss), the stress as a working mother is violent to manage.
Birth also turned into a nightmare, and while we are all fine now it required a longer stay in the hospital, proper medical recovery, physical pain and mental trauma.
My husband had to go back to work almost immediately with no paternity leave at all, so he had to pull leave days to manage the time with us despite the gravity of the situation. A few days after being back home, he was notified that he could not excuse himself from the team building week planned in another country due to its corporate relevance and importance to the office. In his absence I had to manage my son, my poor health and psychologically appreciate the news that I was now a mother without any external support.
No need to explain that every minute was a challenge, and that paternal presence would have been more than necessary / appreciated / loved / required (pick the best option), while he would have loved to be there to help and be present for the baby instead of building kites and peaking tea leaves in Sri Lanka. Yes, 5 years later I still hold a grudge towards his past management on the topic.
But I feel also lucky that I managed without paying a heavy price mentally and physically. And I can only be grateful everyday that my husband has been the best dad ever since Day 1.
I also know friends whose husbands went quickly back to work because they were socially expected to do so, who have been working late hours without guilt because "that's just the way it is".
I know friends who poorly started their new life as mothers, who ended in specialized clinic against PND for weeks to recover noth mentally and physically.
I know fathers who had to go back to work while their child was in NICU, and could not do much about it.
On the contrary I know friends who have taken advantage of their paternity leave, maybe at a later stage of the child's development, allowing the mums to go back to work in peace. I follow on social media father figures who do not worry to be hands-on and share how great it can be to be a dad-at-home.
So obviously I reacted negatively to such an article, especially coming from a woman (somehow the same way as I react when a man finds it appropriate on female-oriented topics such as abortion, contraception or female hygienic products) who obviously did not seem to suffer from a second parental figure.
I am happy for her as it seems she has managed without possible support, while I can somehow also expect that she benefitted from external support such as the presence of grand-parents or other family members around to manage the everyday life, a chance that many of us do not have, living in another coutry for instance.
(oh yes, of course, the published article has continuously been talking about paternal leave, aka the presence of a father, but not of a second parent. The idea of a monoparental family has, I guess, also not been considered at all in her mindset).
But to me, at the end, what hurts the most is that a woman criticizes something that could benefit other women: it often feels like the hardest fight to start towards gender equality is the one against each other, us, women.