Who's left holding the baby?

Paul Deemer

06 / 3 / 2015 9.49am

Paul Deemer is head of equality, diversity and human rights, NHS Employers.

Every relationship has its pressure points. For some it's money, for some it's in-laws and for some it's not putting the top back on the toothpaste. For us, it was the kids. We started our family fairly late in life, in our early 30s, so by that time we were both fairly well established in our careers. I was working my way up the town hall ladder and my wife was gradually building up her experiences in the world of social work. We knew (hoped) we would always have a family, it was really just a question of time. But when it happened, like so many others - we were totally unprepared! Two new little people in the house in the space of three years was a total life changer.

We learnt on the job and cobbled through. Don't ever tell me men can't multi task by the way! Having managed bottle feeding, nappy changing and report writing (pen and paper - we didn't have Blackberrys in those days), at 3am in the morning over several years I think I have earned the t-shirt. But the real pressure point was around 7am every morning when we went to wake the kids, hoping desperately that they weren't coughing, sniffling, sneezing or worse. That was the point at which the big question started looming - 'OK - who's staying at home?' 

I remember it like it was yesterday. My heart would start to race, my palms would sweat and my brain would be working overtime. What meetings have I got today? How important are they? What will x think if I ring in again? What are mum and dad doing today? Could they look after them? Am I a bad parent for thinking that? And then, the big question, 'whose meeting was more important - mine or my wife's?' To be continued...

Next year the UK will introduce legislation which will allow parents to share the time off they take during the first year of a new born baby's life. The provisions have taken a long time to get through Parliament and faced numerous challenges, delaying tactics and barefaced opposition. But the legislators persevered and the new provisions will come into force. Pretty progressive stuff, huh?

Not really, no! Sweden introduced shared parental leave in 1974 and from 2002 extended the period of joint leave available to 480 days. More than that, the majority of leave is paid at 80 per cent of normal salary. All of the Scandinavian countries have very good policies in this regard - and put us to shame. But my gripe is not about the legal provision. We are where we are in that regard, and I'm not going to change that. I actually think we do quite well in respect of this area too, the Equality Act is way ahead of much of the rest of Europe. After all, we could be in America where they only have 12 weeks unpaid leave! I'm more interested in where we are in terms of our psyche as a country when it comes to maternity / paternity / parental leave. In that respect I think we are not only behind the times - we are positively un-family friendly.

In the NHS we actually have some of the best and most progressive maternity and paternity and parental leave provisions in the UK - and I'm very proud to be part of that. But I still think there is a psyche and mentality in the minds of many managers which sees childcare responsibilities as a problem and something which should be left at the office door. Many of them also see it as an essentially female problem and don't recognise that many male parents are just as keen to be involved in the care and upbringing of their children.

That's all very well - but the reality (and I return now to my nightmare scenario above) is that the care of your children is all consuming. My wife and I actually managed to generally work things out between us when the crisis points emerged, helped by some generally understanding employers and some fantastic support from in-laws! But if I left the house and went to work knowing that the one of the kids weren't very well, that was with me all day (even if I knew they were in safe hands with my wife / in-laws). It was even worse if (on the odd occasion - and we've all done it!) we took them to nursery or school knowing that they weren't fully 100 per cent. My whole head space was taken up with the 'what will I do if they ring?' scenario.

And then one day it happened! I had just started a new job actually, and I was co-facilitating my first induction session. We were literally just half an hour in and I saw one of my team waving at me through the door of the training room - trying to get my attention. I gave my apologies to the group and went outside to be told that the nursery had rung and wanted one of us to go pick up our son because he had been sick! I knew that I couldn't ring my wife as she was in one of those ‘can't miss’ meetings, so I had to make a rapid decision. It actually wasn't a difficult one when it came to it. All of the reactions I described previously (racing heart, sweaty palms) just didn't have time to kick in. I knew that I needed to be with my son and that he needed me and that the training course was very much a secondary consideration. So I left and raced to the nursery.

The world didn't collapse around me. The training course finished thanks to my fantastic co-facilitator. My boss (who actually happened to be a social worker) was lovely about it the next day. And I was left holding the baby, but I was happy! If only I could have done it without all that stress. I hope one day that we will have workplaces and managers everywhere who understand the pressures of having family (both children and elders), are sympathetic to the demands of those caring responsibilities, and have policies and provisions which are supportive and flexible to those demands.

And if there's any new dads out there looking for nappy changing lessons - I'm your man.

Visit the NHS Employers flexible working and parental leave for more information. 

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