Parental Leave will offer fathers a chance to spend more time at home with their newborns. But it comes at an expense for many, says Helen O’Callaghan.
FROM this November, up to 60,000 new parents are set to benefit from a new welfare payment. Under the Parental Leave scheme, new parents will each receive two weeks’ paid leave (€245 weekly) in addition to the maternity and paternity leave benefits that already exist.
The new benefit is non-transferable — meaning each parent must use it or lose it — a requirement designed to encourage more new fathers to stay home with their babies during the year following birth.
In September 2016, dads in Ireland got statutory paternity leave for the first time ever — since then new fathers have been entitled to take the two weeks paternity leave in one continuous block anytime in the 26 weeks following baby’s birth or adoption.
But dads haven’t stepped up in expected numbers to take this paternity benefit. Before its introduction, the Department of Social Protection estimated approximately 30,000-40,000 recipients in a full year.
Last year, only about 24,000 men took their paternity leave — which translates to just 40% of eligible men availing of the benefit.
So what’s behind the slow uptake? One factor is lost earnings: Many dads feel the loss of pay sustained by taking the leave is just too large.
And almost two-thirds of Ireland’s private companies aren’t topping up salaries of employees who take the leave.
This is pointed out in a recent discussion paper by research author Dr Stephan Köppe at UCD’s School of Social Policy, Social Work and Social Justice.
Dr Köppe refers to a survey of almost 400 private companies that found approximately 37% top up the statutory paternity benefit.
“The low flat rate benefit is not attractive for medium and high-income earners [who] have no occupational top-up — the statutory benefit only replaces about 53% of average net income,” says Dr Köppe, adding that although self-employed workers are eligible, they find it harder take time off work.
Following the announcement of the new Parental Leave scheme last week, Minister Regina Doherty told RTÉ Radio 1’s
“What we’re trying to do is have a culture change. Home rearing has become predominantly associated with women. We need to change that culture.”
Dr Eddie Murphy, adjunct associate professor at UCD’s School of Psychology, finds the minister’s comments unfair. “We’ve just come out of the greatest recession that faced this generation,” he says.
“It’s had a massive legacy in terms of debt, stress and economic challenges. And parents aren’t recession-proofed — they’re paying mortgages, childcare, maybe they were made unemployed or subjected to significant pay cuts.”
He believes if families could afford for dad to take paternity leave, they would.
“But if your company doesn’t top up your salary – you’re on €600 a week and you’re down €355 – there’s a massive economic cost to taking a pay cut. And young children when they’re dependent are very expensive.”
Psychologist Mark Smyth, president-elect of the Psychological Society of Ireland, says paternity leave and the new Parental Leave communicate an important message that dads could and should have a more active role in raising children.
And he says the periods of leave give dads something very precious — the chance to get to know their new son/daughter.
“The very early days after a child is born are anxiety-provoking. You realise this tiny person is completely dependent on you, there’s no manual, you’re reliant on instinct and that’s terrifying. But when we spend time with our children as dads, we build experience and that creates confidence.”
The more time Dad spends with them, the more he learns their non-verbal cues, the patterns in baby’s behaviour that indicate whether s/he’s tired, hungry or uncomfortable, says Smyth.
“Tuning into the way baby communicates builds Dad’s confidence that he has a role and can be a positive influence.” And this time spent with baby promotes attachment.
“Physical contact is very important for babies in the first weeks. Skin-to-skin contact makes them feel safe and connected. If Dad’s around, it helps baby create that emotional bond with Dad, that sense of attachment.”
A 2006 paper, The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children, from the US Department of Health and Human Services refers to studies that show children with involved, caring fathers have better educational outcomes.
“A number of studies suggest fathers who are involved, nurturing, and playful with their infants have children with higher IQs, as well as better linguistic and cognitive capacities.
"Toddlers with involved fathers go on to start school with higher levels of academic readiness. They’re more patient and can handle stresses and frustrations associated with schooling more readily than children with less involved fathers,” said the report authors.
The paper also refers to the importance of fathers playing with their children.
“Fathers spend a much higher percentage of their one-on- one interaction with infants and preschoolers in stimulating, playful activity than do mothers. From these interactions, children learn how to regulate their feelings and behaviour. Roughhousing with dad can teach children how to deal with aggressive impulses and physical contact without losing control of their emotions.”
Smyth says when dads get down and play with children on their level, it helps children feel understood.
“By engaging in play, you learn better what your child likes or doesn’t like, what their frustrations are — one of the most important things for children is to feel understood,” he says, adding that when Dad is kicking a ball back and forth with a child, it’s about much more than that – it’s teaching motor coordination and turn-taking.
A dad-of-two, Murphy has cut back on private practice and when asked to take on new commitments, he looks at how much it will pull him away from family life.
“I coach the under-12 soccer team and that’s to be with my boys, who are nine and 11.”
Both he and Smyth say they’ve never met a dad who regrets having taken time off work to be at home.
“It’s time they value and enjoy,” says Murphy. “It’s a different pace and they’re fascinated by the growth in their children.”
“In my experience, they have usually found it a positive thing to do,” says Smyth.