When David Lawless told some of his friends he was planning on taking several months paternity leave he was met with a degree of ribbing.
There were a few who said I’d spend all the time just playing Fantasy Football and getting coffee,” he says. “But that’s not the case – the day just flies in. You have so many jobs to do.”
For many working and stay-at-home mums these sorts of comments may sound a little familiar. The idea that leave taken in the weeks and months after a baby is born is ‘time off’ or an extended holiday is a ‘joke’ that women have faced for decades.
But attitudes are slowly a-changing. In recent years, an increasing number of companies in Ireland are offering paid paternity packages. While a staggering 45pc of Irish dads do not take the paternity leave they are entitled to (according to the most recent CSO figures), paid leave is incentivising some to break with convention.
In recent months, Simon Harris announced he was heading off on paternity leave following the birth of his son Cillian so he could “get to know this little man”.
Last week, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee’s husband Paul Hickey spoke of his decision to take six months’ leave now his wife has returned to work. Mr Hickey said his decision had been met with some “scoffing”. “You won’t get equality until that thinking changes,” he said.
According to Seamus Sheedy, an accredited psychotherapist and vice chair of the Irish Association of Counselling Psychotherapy, this machismo attitude may be a hang-up from previous generations.
“I come from the 1960s and the mentality of that time was that fathers provided and mothers stayed at home. For my generation, seeing a man pushing a pram down the street looked strange. There was no paternity leave and that was an awful pity.”
According to Mr Sheedy, fathers’ involvement in the early days of their child’s life has a lasting impact on child-parent relationships.
“After the dads finish their leaves they tend to remain invested and involved in the child.”
As it currently stands, all new Irish dads are entitled to two weeks of paternity leave. New parents will get €245 a week from the State, and it is up to the discretion of your company if they supplement or ‘top it up’. There are some limitations to statutory paternity leave. For example, it must be taken within the first six months of the child’s life. Some companies such as Aviva and Diageo are more flexible and allow parents to take it at any stage within the first year of their child being born.
The amount of time for paid paternity varies considerably from company to company. Hewlett Packard Enterprise offers six months paid, Twitter offer 20 weeks, Google 14 weeks, and Vodafone Ireland 16 weeks.
Parents can also avail of Parent’s Leave and Parental Leave (this is where is can get tricky to keep track).
Parent’s Leave entitles each parent to five weeks’ leave during the first two years of a child’s life. If you qualify for Parent’s Benefit you will get €245 each week. Your employer is not obligated to ‘top’ up this payment. Meanwhile, Parental Leave entitles parents to take unpaid leave from work to spend time looking after their children. This is up to 26 weeks.
It may come as no surprise to hear that Sweden — often seen as the gold standard when it comes to rearing children — was one of the first countries to introduce paid paternity leave in 1974.
Recent research from the Nordic countries show this was a smart move. The benefits are substantial; mothers are less likely to suffer from postnatal anxiety, couples are less likely to separate, and there are huge benefits for the child in terms of emotional and cognitive development.
The early weeks and months of a child’s life is pivotal for their development. In 2015, Harvard Medical Professor Kevin Nugent told the Oireachtas Committee on health about the crucial importance of the first 1,000 days of a child’s life. Spending time engaged with our children can increase the chances of them becoming ‘happy, well adjusted people’, he said and helps to develop neural pathways.
Dr Damien Lowry, a Senior Counselling Psychologist and chartered member of the Psychological Society of Ireland, agrees with this analysis. The father-of-two says during those first weeks and months it is possible to see their ‘young brains blossom’.
“The importance of those days are so significant. It can establish emotional templates for the rest of our lives… so many of our patterns of behaviour are laid down in early childhood,” he says. “The first six to 12 months are critical for the emotional and cognitive development of a child.”
He added: “The dividends for taking paternity leave are huge. It leads to family cohesion, there’s a stronger bond with the child, and also a stronger bond between the mother and father as there is an equity in caring for the child”.
This was certainly the case for soon-to-be dad-of-two Shane Kelly.
Shane, Head of Society for Europe with Diageo, and his wife Anne Marie are expecting their second child in early spring next year.
Diageo offer employees 26 weeks of paid paternity leave to employees and Shane took his in 2020 — just as Ireland went into lockdown. Despite the myriad of restrictions it sounds unbelievably idyllic. “We spent it going for walks down country roads, looking at cows and chasing chickens,” he says.
The time spent with his son during those months helped foster an intense and deep bond with his firstborn son Ben.
“I just had the time to be present and experience his world,” he says. “I had no other commitments and didn’t have to rush off to a meeting. And we are really close. It was such a special time. It also gives you the time to figure out the type of parent you would like to be, and gives you time to be the best partner you can be.”
There are many reasons why some men all over the world still feel inhibited to take paternity leave such as missing out on pay rises and promotions, and having a questionable commitment to the company they work for.
Neil McDonnell of the Irish SME association says in Ireland there are both “hard and soft obstacles in the way for new fathers wanting to take paternity leave”.
First off, many fathers tend to be the primary income earners, and simply cannot afford to take time off. Moreover, most small and medium-sized businesses cannot offer the same financial support to employees. “These businesses cannot compete with multinationals,” McDonnell says. “It is much more burdensome for them to find a replacement.”
This is especially significant in Ireland because micro, small and medium-sized businesses employ the highest number of people in this country.
On top of this some men are still concerned that taking extended leave may result in them being discriminated against professionally.
“In areas like law and accountancy, it is very competitive. Taking time away could impact your career,” McDonnell says.
However, Shane Kelly thinks the idea you will be penalised for choosing to spend time with your family is losing its currency.
“The policy in our company only came into play in 2019 and it is amazing to see how quickly the culture adapted. It has had a positive impact on my career since returning. In no way has taking paternity leave negatively affected the conversations around my career.”
David Lawless, an IT Test Analyst with Aviva, is father to three children Jack (14), Dylan (8) and Sophie (2).
The option to take paid parental leave was not available to him with his first two children.
His wife Lisa had to return to work six months after the birth of Dylan and that meant placing him in childcare at a young age.
With Sophie the couple could take their family leave consecutively meaning their young daughter spent more time at home.
Aviva offer 18 weeks paid paternity which is available to employees once they have at least six months’ service with the company. The policy has been in place since November 2017 so while David could avail of it with his third child it has not been implemented at the time of birth for his other children.
At first David (45) was apprehensive about taking on the role as primary caregiver.
“But it came so naturally. I loved it, I have never experienced that connection and will be forever grateful that I was able to take it. I had so much fun with her, we had our morning dance in the kitchen — you can’t put a price on that experience and that time in your child’s life. It benefited everyone — our home life, Sophie’s life and it benefited us both as parents,” he says.
While four- or six-month stretches of paternity leave may not be available to most Irish dads, Seamus Sheedy says there has been a marked change in attitudes to fatherhood in the wake of the pandemic.
Working from home has resulted in a more hands-on approach to parenting. “We see people now looking for jobs that would facilitate them having more time at home.”
Banker Fergal Whitty welcomed his first daughter Bebhinn this summer and describes working from home as a gift.
“That has been such a bonus,” he said. “I want to soak up every minute… [Having a child] is such an upheaval and you really need four hands on deck. I wouldn’t have hesitated in taking more time.”
There has also been a slow erosion of the idea that families consist of a primary income generator and a primary caregiver and never the twain shall meet. There is a now a blurring of these roles and this results in equity in homelife but also in the workplace.
The issue of parental leave, and creating positive and supportive structures for early childhood affects us all — regardless of whether or not we have kids.
“If we invest in the emotional and mental stability of future members of society then it benefits everyone,” Dr Damien Lowry says.