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It’s Father’s Day this weekend and Sam Russell is nervous. He’s just about to return to work after being on Shared Parental Leave since February, looking after his 10-month-old son Rowan.
His wife, a City accountant, took the first six months off. Sam plans to return to his job as Stakeholder & Community Manager at London Overground Rail Operations Ltd in July. Rowan will go to a childminder. Sam’s own mum is a childminder, but he says growing up with childminding is very different from being a parent and having to put your own child into childcare. “We are a bit nervous about leaving him with someone else,” says Sam. However, he adds that sharing parental leave means his son is not so anxious around other people.
He and his wife had always been keen to share childcare responsibilities from the offset. He has not encountered any problems with SPL. He says his employer has faced the bigger challenge since he is the first person at his workplace to take SPL. His HR team have offered “fantastic” support, helping the couple navigate what can seem quite a complicated process. “We have all been learning together,” he says.
The couple had to consider how it would all work financially and who should take leave when. Sam says they probably would have chosen the model they have followed anyway – whereby he took one big chunk of leave rather than several shorter chunks after his wife took the initial six months. Talking it through convinced them even more that it was the best course of action for a range of reasons, foremost of which is finances since their Shared Parental Pay is not enhanced and Sam’s wife received enhanced maternity pay from her job.
He thinks it will get easier for others who follow, particularly if there are more concrete examples of couples who have taken SPL who can show how different models work and “bring it to life” more. “It’s quite a technical decision at the moment,” he says.
And he adds that employers will need to keep an eye on take-up so they can understand what might influence it most, whether that is lack of awareness, lack of flexibility or finances, for instance.
Research has shown other potential barriers to SPL include maternal gatekeeping and peer pressure from other male colleagues. Sam says his wife is happy that the couple are sharing parental leave, but has had to deal with a few comments from others asking why she returned to work so soon.
Moreover, far from facing peer pressure not to take SPL, Sam’s colleagues have been very supportive. Some have even said they are envious of him. “I have never felt that I have given up something or that I am missing out on opportunities at work,” he says. Any concerns that his career would be affected have not come to anything.
He has taken advantage of SPLIT days to go into work and talk to his manager about his return and has been checking emails every few days to keep up to date with changes at work.
For Sam the experience of SPL has been “very rewarding”, although he admits it is hard work. “Nothing quite prepares you for it. Before when I came home from work my wife would say how her day with the baby had been, but it is totally different when you do it yourself,” he says.
He adds that he is lucky to have taken the last few months of the leave as every day it feels as if his son is doing something new, from crawling to standing up.
Sam says he has been helped by the fact his wife has been working four days a week since her return from maternity leave and by a strong NCT group. Mostly Sam says he has felt very included in baby classes and adds that more and more dads are around these days. However, at the beginning he did feel a slight oddity among the many mums who had been off for six months or so already and had established routines. The nearest he has been to feeling excluded, though, was when he went to get Rowan weighed and the health visitor asked where his mum was and whether Sam was “babysitting”.
He thinks he will return to work with more to offer his employer. “I have learned a huge amount and have a different perspective on what is important. My wife feels the same. We were both workaholics before the baby was born. I think caring for a baby gives you a wider view. It also makes you more patient and more understanding of other people in the workplace and the kind of pressures they may face outside the workplace,” he says. “I have managed people in the past whose baby has been ill. Now I get it. I think I have become more understanding as a person.”
He adds that he feels sharing care is good for parents’ relationships because they each understand a bit better what the other is going through. “It makes you appreciate that looking after a baby is a difficult job,” says Sam.
He will be diving straight back into full-time work next month, although he may at some stage in the future consider flexible working. He would definitely encourage other dads to share their leave if they can. “It is far more rewarding than anything you can do in the workplace,” he says.
He adds that as the first person in his workplace to take SPL he will inevitably get a bit of attention. He is being featured in his work’s internal magazine and says LOROL wants to extend maternity buddies to those taking SPL and he is keen to be involved. “I’ll be the poster boy for Shared Parental Leave,” he laughs, “and that’s absolutely fine by me.”