Father's entitlements: What the new paternity leave means to families

Dads of newborn babies can now claim two week’s paternity leave. On Father’s Day, Helen O’Callaghan looks at the many benefits of the new scheme.

FATHERS haven’t stepped up in expected numbers to take paternity leave. Statutory paternity leave entitlements were introduced for the first time in Ireland on September 1, 2016. 

New dads can take two weeks’ paternity leave in one continuous block any time in the 26 weeks following baby’s birth or adoption. Paternity benefit is €235 a week. Uptake is somewhere around 29%.

During its first three months, 5,013 paternity benefit claims were awarded — yet, in that period, 14,740 babies were born. 

Before its introduction, the Department of Social Protection estimated approximately 30,000 to 40,000 recipients in a full year. 

The Department confirms 7,500 paternity benefit claims were awarded in first four months of 2017 — indicating take-up of approximately 22,500 in a full year, well short of the minimum expected number.

But a Department spokesperson says the figure doesn’t account for fathers taking their leave up to six months after their child is born: “For example, fathers whose child was born on February 28 this year can take it at any time up to September 1, 2017. 

"Given the flexibility afforded to fathers, it will be 18 months from scheme commencement before [we’ll] have an accurate figure for take-up of paternity benefit in a full year.”

But is 29% take-up really low? David Joyce, equality officer with ICTU, points out that Britain’s Trades Union Congress reckons about one-third of dads there take up paternity leave — and they’ve had it since 2003. 

“With Sweden and Norway, you’re looking at 80% take-up rates. Compared to the UK, Ireland’s fairly similar but compared to Scandinavia, we’re way down.”

The clincher, he says, is the amount of payment associated with the leave. 

“In Sweden and Norway, paternity benefit is [the dads’] full pay. Here and in the UK, it’s reduced pay unless your employer tops it up. 

"So, unless you’re getting it topped up, a household would have to make a serious decision to be on this amount of reduced pay — particularly at a time when there’s a newborn and lots of new expenses,” says Joyce.

He points to a “degree of resistance” from employer bodies to bringing in paternity leave in the first place. 

“So, I’d imagine for some there would be resistance to topping up the benefit.”

The Civil Service tops up the two weeks’ benefit to full pay level, as does Eircom and so do some of the banks.

CIPD Ireland, which represents HR and learning/development professionals, has more than 5,000 members and did a survey soon after paternity leave came on stream. It found 42% of employers topping up paternity benefit. 

Of these, three in four were topping up to full pay. Among employers partially or fully topping up, 48% had a service requirement — dads had to be working a set amount of time with the company before they’d get the top-up.

What was surprising, says CIPD Ireland director Mary Connaughton, was the gap between employer willingness to top up maternity benefit versus paternity benefit. 

“We found 64% topping up maternity benefits. Yet, this is most commonly for 26 weeks, so more expensive, whereas paternity top-up would be just two weeks. We put this down to it being a new scheme.”

Suzin Staunton, a 33-year-old unemployed secondary school teacher from Saggart, Co Dublin, believes — regardless of the amount of benefit — that it’s “brilliant” to give families the option of two weeks’ paternity leave. 

Her husband, Niall, a sign fitter and maker, took the leave after their second son, Corrin, was born last month.

“His boss was very accommodating — she topped up to his full weekly wage for two weeks. Otherwise, the amount he’d have lost would be over half his wages and he’d have taken two weeks holiday instead.”

Work and organisational psychologist Patricia Murray says while paternity leave legislation is now in situ, you can’t legislate change. 

“This will be a slow cultural shift. Habits die hard and the habit was one person [the woman] did the baby stuff.”

She predicts big take-up of the leave in five to 10 years time and sees its introduction as “a really good thing”.

Connaughton sees it as very positive and as an “instrument for fathers to get time out around the birth of their baby”.

Mum-in-residence at MummyPages.ie, Laura Erskine, says mums in the online community have been delighted with support from partners on paternity leave “during those exhausting and emotionally intense weeks at home with a new baby”.

Joyce says statutory paternity leave sends “a small but very welcome signal” that men’s caring responsibilities are an important part of current society.

“Research shows women and men make different career adjustments when a baby’s born. The woman often reduces hours, while the man increases his.”

With the labour market designed for a time when just one person was the sole breadwinner, Joyce says this drives women out of the work environment and men out of caring roles: “It’s not surprising many men refrain from discussing the possibility of modifying their work schedule for family/caring reasons.”

Dads’ age will influence whether they take the leave, says Murray. 

“Young dads will feel more empowered to take time off — gender isn’t as divisive as it once was. There’s a less ‘us-and-them’ approach to gender roles.”

But she believes the older male cohort will indulge in some “Irish-type slagging” — even if light-hearted — of dads taking the leave.

Murray says dads may feel they have to justify taking the leave — presenting a specific reason for doing so, such as mum having a difficult birth or having a number of other children at home. 

“So it’s not just he’s at home helping with the baby-minding.”

She also sees a need for women to move aside so their male partners can move into the caring-for-baby role. 

“In the zone of parenting a new baby, women have traditionally been all-powerful. They’re breastfeeding, minding and very visibly attached as a mother. 

It will take time for some women to move over, to leave space, so he feels the ‘sacrifice’ he’s making [two weeks out of work, particularly if benefit isn’t topped up] is warranted. A dad will think ‘I’d better be busy at home if I’m doing this’.”

For decades, dads have been a presence in the playground with their children. But there’s still newness about dad as baby-minder, says Murray. 

“The mother and baby unit is promoted as a natural unit. We need to change our perceptions so we see maleness can also be tender and nurturing.”

In fact, two weeks’ paternity leave right after childbirth can be a godsend to a woman who has just experienced a major physical event, when pain and fatigue are the order of the day. 

Dr Miriam Daly, director of women’s health at the Irish College of General Practitioners, points to some tough physical and emotional realities a new mum’s experiencing.

“She may have pain and discomfort, especially if she’s had stitches or a C-section. Sitting and walking may be very difficult for a few days. Post C-section, she won’t be able to carry loads or drive for a while. She may be tired from the delivery, especially if it was a long labour that went on through the night.”

In addition, the woman may be anaemic from blood loss, have nipple pain from breastfeeding or back pain due to poor posture while sitting for long periods/bending to care for baby. 

Hormonal changes post-delivery, such as rapid drop in oestrogen, can cause weepiness and emotional turmoil — usually temporary, but some women develop post-natal depression.

Having her partner around at this time can be a huge support, says Daly, whether it’s helping establish breastfeeding by winding, bathing and dressing baby while Mum rests between feeds; accompanying her on the first daunting trips out with baby; or simply being a supportive presence when baby’s screaming inconsolably.

Psychologist David Carey says having dad at home to help the new mum relieves her of significant stress and challenge. 

“Support of a father to a mother can’t be underestimated,” he says, adding that it will certainly help solidify the attachment, the bond, between infant and father. But he doesn’t see paternity leave as essential for good father-baby bonding. 

“We need to be cognisant that, for years, fathers have enjoyed positive and secure attachments with their infant children without the benefit of paternity leave. It may be helpful but, in terms of attachment, it’s not essential.”

For Suzin Staunton, whose month-old-baby wants to be up in someone’s arms all the time, her husband’s presence during the child’s first two weeks was a real gift. 

“I’d be having my shower and Niall would be doing skin-to-skin contact with Corrin. In the first days, he did it a couple of times a day for anything from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Now, when Niall comes in, the baby turns his head and his eyes go around looking for my husband. The connection has been made.”

Joe Leogue

Being first-time parents, my wife Maria and I decided it’d be best to have all hands on deck for those first two weeks when neither of us, to be honest, had a clue what we were doing.

Aoibheann arrived a week overdue in February — a handy time to take paternity leave as it was a time of year when no-one else in the office had time booked off, so there was flexibility in letting me take the time off once she was born.

In hindsight, taking my leave for her first two weeks was the right choice for us.

Sleep was erratic for all three of us, and I know Maria appreciated the help — however useful I was is up for debate — while she recovered from the childbirth.

Now that Aoibheann is a little older, and more alert and interactive, I do sometimes wonder would it have been better to wait to take the leave.

But while spending time with her now would be more fun and playful than when she was a newborn, I know we made the right choice from a practical point of view.

Robert McNamara

I took my paternity leave in February when my son Páidí was about four months old. He’s my first child and the benefits of spending two uninterrupted weeks with him are immeasurable.

It gave both him and me the chance to get to know each other at an important stage of his development.

He was just beginning to smile, so it was great to be around and see that for myself, instead of getting updates via text at work and feeling terrible for not being there.

Most importantly, though, I gained an understanding of how difficult it is to be at home and care for a child.

It’s infinitely rewarding, of course, but it is very difficult and I now appreciate and have a full understanding of how hard my wife works on a daily basis to give him everything he needs.

Nappy-changing, feeding, changing clothes, playing, getting him to sleep — the list of duties is endless.

During my leave, my wife was with us a lot of the time but my presence gave her the opportunity to go out for the day if she wanted, or a chance to go and meet friends without having to pack a thousand baby-related things into the car.

The two-week window isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but it’s so important. All dads should consider taking it.

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