There has been quite a bit of interest in Shared Parental Leave since it came in two years ago, but most research has focused on either the mums’ or dads’ experiences. Few studies of shared parenting in the UK have looked at the impact on couple relationships, which is odd since SPL involves a negotiation between both parents.
Dr Katherine Twamley from the Department of Social Science at University of London, however, is in the middle of a two-year Leverhulme Trust research project with her colleague Pia Schober from the University of Tubingen in Germany on how SPL affects couple relationships, looking both at those who chose to take SPL and those who didn’t and on what the impact has been for the former on their relationship as a couple and on their gender practices.
The project has two parts. The first part is a survey and the second part is in-depth interviews. The survey was conducted with over 800 expectant parents in London who attended ante-natal clinics, most of whom were women, and Dr Twamley is currently analysing this material which is mainly based on open text answers.
For the interviews, she is speaking to first-time parents eligible to take advantage of Shared Parental Leave. Half have opted for it and half have not. They are interviewed when pregnant and then keep a separate diary of their experience. Then the parents are interviewed again six months later and then 14 months after the birth.
The first interviews are about why parents have chosen either to take or not to take the leave. The others are on what has happened on leave and afterwards. There will be a follow-up project five to 10 years afterwards, given that it is only in the longer term that the influence on gender practice will become clearer.
SPL was introduced in April 2015 and allows the mother to share 50 weeks’ leave in the first year after the birth with the father. One of the main aims of the legislation is to increase family well being and to promote greater gender equality in the workplace by encouraging women and men to share childcare more from the beginning. So far take-up has been very low.
Dr Twamley says that only a small number of parents to be she surveyed were thinking of taking SPL. They were asked about potential barriers to taking the leave – from eligibility and financial barriers to gender and family role attitudes and mothers’ concerns about transferring leave to dads. Of those who said they weren’t taking the leave, finances were the main reason they gave for not doing so. Women rated finances and concerns about the potential negative impact on their partner’s career as the main reasons.
Asked if they would take SPL if Shared Parental Pay was better, 23% of people said they would. More people [43%] said they would take it if SPL was offered on a use it or lose it basis, but the change which would make most people take it would be if all their colleagues and friends took it. Dr Twamley comments: “From this you can see that the financial barrier is not simply about Shared Parental Pay, but about the potential financial consequences later in the man’s career.”
She says many appear to be in denial about these assumptions, however, and cites one man who said that even if he got 100% of his pay it would still not make financial sense for him to take the leave.
Dr Twamley did a pilot study prior to the current research project on Additional Paternity Leave and says she was interested to find how heterosexual couples were already putting more emphasis on the father’s career than the mother’s. “Underlying the assumptions about the consequences was the belief that the father’s career was the money-making one,” she says. The pilot study also showed that those considering the leave were in part motivated by a fear that not doing so would make their relationship more unequal. “They felt that more inequality would lead to more conflict. If they both understood each other’s role rather than perceiving that the other person had it easier then they believed there would be less conflict,” says Dr Twamley.
She is interested to look at whether there is a different attitude if the woman in a couple earns more than a man. She adds that the assumptions about the impact on the man’s career tend to be stronger if the woman works part time. Interestingly, maternal gatekeeping – where women don’t want to give up the main parenting role – did not appear to be a big factor.
Dr Twamley has done both couple interviews and interviewed partners individually. This has highlighted a discrepancy between what women say in couple interviews and individually on issues such as housework. She has also conducted women-only focus groups where women express doubts that SPL will change things for them due to low take-up and suspect they will still end up doing the lion’s share of the housework even if their partner looks after the baby.
In terms of the practicalities of dividing leave, Dr Twamley says many would prefer to overlap their leave. She thinks this is due to first-child anxiety of being alone with the baby, even though encouraging the man to take it alone can forge a strong bond with the child and a sense of greater independence for the dad.
Dr Twamley thinks the focus of the current discourse on family policy on the individual family unit rather than wider society, in this case, greater gender equality, may be hampering progress and says there is a lot more that needs to be done with regard to educating people about SPL in order to normalise it.
Many of the people she surveyed were eligible for the leave, but didn’t think they were. Others had never heard of it, although she says that, on the employer side, there is certainly more awareness of it than of APL. Her research shows a strong correlation between take-up of SPL and education level [97% of those taking leave in the study sample are university educated] as well as ethnicity [white parents are twice as likely to take it in the sample]. Feminists or those who were more in favour of gender equality were, unsurprisingly, also more likely to take the leave.
For now, then, it is important to create greater awareness about SPL and to consider all the potential benefits – from couple relationships to greater well being for everyone in the family.
*Look out for Workingmums.co.uk and DaddiLife’s videos on shared conversations about SPL in the autumn. Dr Twamley is also involved with a blog which focuses on the interaction of the childhood agenda and feminism.