Shared Parental Leave: Why Parental Equality Matters in the Workplace

Michelle Gant, Director of The Engaging People Company and mother, on her decision to share caring reponsbilities for her child with her partner 

My husband and I had always planned to share the caring responsibilities for any child we would have. When we made this decision, it would have meant my husband taking a leave of absence  whilst I would take maternity leave.

But then, with impeccable timing, Shared Parental Leave (SPL) was introduced and our preference was made possible: my husband would be able to remain employed and receive statutory pay for the duration of his time looking after our child.

Our plans were met with mixed reactions. Some people were supportive, whilst others questioned our thinking and thought we would change our minds.

Regardless, we were adamant. Our baby was born, and she filled our lives with more love and joy than we could ever have imagined. I adored my time with her but when my time to return to work came around, I was ready to balance my caring responsibilities with work. And for his part, my husband was excited and daunted, just as I had been when it had been me home alone with the baby. 

Like many new parents, the return was not without emotion and my heart ached to leave my daughter behind for the first time, but I was leaving her with the best person possible – her own father. In time, things settled down and we fell into our new routine.  We were right to have been adamant – this set-up was what worked for our family.

But that didn’t mean everyone agreed. There were a few doubters, a few raised eyebrows, a few remarks which normally I would have shaken off with a shrug. Not so, however, when I was a new mother, desperate to succeed in the most important role of my life. At a time when I was feeling vulnerable, I took some of those spoken and unspoken criticisms to heart and wondered, on more than one occasion, if I was a good enough mum. As if I should feel ashamed because I wanted to balance my caring responsibilities with work.

Meanwhile, my husband was often viewed as a ‘babysitter’. I remember, with frustration, how I was told – kindly but erroneously – that someone would ‘help’ my husband when he signed up to a baby class. ‘He doesn’t need help,’ I mused furiously. ‘He’s her father.’ And his worries were practical too; what would happen then if they went out somewhere that didn’t have unisex changing facilities? 

But regardless of this, we loved our shared parenting experience. We both benefitted hugely, and we built our own bonds with our wonderful daughter. We’d do it again tomorrow.

The whole experience taught us though that societally and culturally, we have some way to go to normalise parenting equity. 

Employers have a crucial role in empowering choice when it comes to caring responsibilities. It isn’t enough to simply have a process that facilitates this. Businesses need to offer practical support - such as keeping in touch days, access to coaching, regular engagement during the leave and supportive, potentially flexible, return - for mothers or fathers who are taking parental leave. 

Companies need to normalise equality through the organisational dialogue, being mindful of what bias may be being tolerated.  They need to promote what is available and use inclusive language and imagery. They need to offer flexible policies that give people real, tangible options. Managers need to recognise the impact on any individual of such an enormous life change and be supportive, flexible, and empowering in their management style – regardless of gender. Leaders should be setting the standards in their behaviours and dialogue, and therefore give implicit permission to their people to pursue the choices that are right for them.  Because employers who empower equality, will make it easier and acceptable for employees to pursue their own parenting choices in a supportive and safe environment.

My husband and I developed skills that we never could have imagined through parenthood. It made us stronger, more confident, more capable in many ways – after all, if we can tackle the incredible yet overwhelming responsibility of parenting then we can do anything. I set up my own business, which I only felt confident to do after becoming a mum. There are millions of people like us, people whose abilities have been enhanced not diminished by becoming parents. Why wouldn’t companies want to empower and support such knowledge, skills and experience in their organisation? It’s good for business. It’s good for everyone.