December 9, 2013 by Robert Franklin, Esq.
The British coalition government has announced its intention to enact legislation permitting fathers and mothers to share 50 weeks of parental leave after a child is born. Under the plan, all mothers would be entitled to the first two weeks off after giving birth and the 50 following weeks could be split between them as they see fit. If parents want to take the leave, they’d be required to notify their employers at least eight weeks in advance. Read about it here (The Independent, 11/29/13).
Although the measure requires legislation by Parliament, it seems likely to pass as Conservatives, after expressing resistance to increased leave for fathers, are now on board with the plan. Conservative hesitation centered on the hardship additional leave would place on employers. The change is supposed to take effect in April, 2015.
Announcing the changes, which will require legislation, Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, said women should not have to choose between “a successful career or having a baby… We want to create a fairer society that gives parents the flexibility to choose how they share care for their child in the first year.”
Mr Clegg added: “Many businesses already recognise how productive and motivated employees are when they’re given the opportunity to work flexibly, helping them retain talent and boost their competitive edge. This is good for families, good for business and good for our economy.”
Hmm. No mention of fathers by the deputy Prime Minister. I suppose it’s still difficult to sell a reform that favors fathers as, well, favoring fathers. The only recourse is to point out its benefits to mothers. Of course mothers in the U.K. already are entitled to a year off following childbirth (although not all of that is paid), so it’s a bit hard to see how this assists them. But it clearly expands fathers’ opportunities to spend time with their children in the important early months of the child’s life. Much bonding gets done between the child and its parents, so it’s vital that dads be as present as possible then. But tellingly, Clegg felt himself unable to mention any of that.
Still, the new regulations clearly point in the right direction. For one thing, this signals some understanding on the part of the Tory/Liberal Democrat coalition that fathers are important to children. They’re not just saying so, they’re actually doing something about it. And, by making the 50 weeks after Mom’s recovery from childbirth equally divisible between Dad and Mom, the law suggests that mothers and fathers are equal. Of course this a minor change to the status quo regarding children’s ability to form and maintain significant relationships with their fathers, but something is better than nothing.
So, modest though it is, the revised parental leave law will constitute a step forward for fathers and children.
But. I have the sneaking suspicion that the reality of the reform may turn out to be a two-edged sword. Here’s my prediction: Some time after its effective date in 2015 – say a year or two later – some government ministry will produce statistics on how their new rights are being utilized by parents. Those statistics will show that fathers aren’t doing a lot to take advantage of their newly-granted parental leave. Oh, of course many will, but overall, there won’t be much change.
And that will spur the anti-dad set into action claiming that the new data show that men don’t care about their children, that unequal parenting is best, that sole maternal custody merely reflects the reality of which parent really cares about the child and blah, blah, blah.
Lost in all that nonsense will be the fact that British courts will still be denying custody to children at a truly alarming rate – well over 90%. Those same courts will still be declining to punish mothers who prevent fathers from exercising their meager visitation rights. And social services organizations will still be ignoring fathers as reasonable placement alternatives when Mom proves to be neglectful or abusive of the child.
In short, despite the new law on parental leave, everything else will be very much business as usual with regard to fathers and children. And, as is true now, no one will ever stop to wonder why many dads are disinclined to pick up more of the childcare slack. It’ll fall to fathers’ rights groups to try to impress on lawmakers and the press the simple fact that, if a father’s going to lose his child in family court anyway, why would he jeopardize his career to take extended parental leave?
The simple truth is that fathers can’t be expected to do that. Until both the laws on child custody and the practices of family court judges change radically to provide fathers meaningful time with their children, it’s patently absurd to expect fathers to throw themselves wholeheartedly into parenting. The downside is far too great. As quite a few fathers have found out to their dismay, even dads who do the majority of the parenting often lose custody to their wives. Who’d want to invest all that emotional energy, create an entire identity as a dad, plus lose out on career opportunities, only to have a judge toss it all away with the stroke of a pen?
As Scott Ritchie and many others have learned the hard way, that’s just too much to ask.
If the U.K. wants to do something for fathers, it must change custody laws in ways that actually guarantee to fit fathers a meaningful role in their children’s lives. And it must police judges who’ve proven time and again their willingness to ignore the child’s best interests in favor of their own pro-mother proclivities.
So my guess is that one of the (perhaps) unintended consequences of this reform will be to give ammunition to the anti-dad crowd who’ll be happy to point out that fathers are hesitant to use their parental leave, but won’t say a word about why.
But of course all of this is just my prediction. With any luck, I’ll be wrong.
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