Special Report: Maternity leave does not reflect the new norms of work and family life

The supports to which new mothers - and fathers - are entitled lag far behind the realities of life in 21st century Ireland, writes Elaine Loughlin
Special Report: Maternity leave does not reflect the new norms of work and family life

Elaine Loughlin and her husband Derek Fortune with their son Micheál, 11 months. Picture: Moya Nolan

The supports to which new mothers - and fathers - are entitled lag far behind the realities of life in 21st century Ireland, writes Elaine Loughlin.

WORK practices and family life have changed drastically in recent years but maternity leave has lagged behind and remains a crude instrument that does not always take current situations into account.

The entitlement given to new mothers is a divisive one.

There are those who believe that the amount of paid leave should be extended, while others argue that, given the number of women who now run their own businesses, the support should be changed to allow greater flexibility to mothers who want to return to work on a part-time basis.

All new mothers have the right to take 26 weeks' maternity leave from full-time, casual, or part-time employment, no matter how long they have been working for an employer.

The vast majority of women qualify for maternity benefit of €245 each week over this time, and employers can voluntarily top this payment up.

Mothers also have the right to take up to 16 weeks' additional unpaid maternity leave.

While the time off may seem generous — Ireland's maternity entitlement of 42 weeks leave is almost double the EU average of 21.9 weeks — we are among the worst countries when it comes to paid leave, which in many cases is all that families can afford to take.

While Estonia offers mothers the full-rate equivalent of 85 weeks in paid maternity and parental leave, Ireland provides less than 10 weeks, according to a Unicef report on family-friendly policies across the OECD.

Report co-author Yekaterina Chzhen said: "You can imagine that it is very difficult to stay at home looking after a newborn when you're not getting any money in, you have to basically rely on your partner."

As well as only offering half a year of paid leave, Dr Chzhen said when taken as a percentage of average earnings, the rate is very low.

"In Ireland, €245 a week is basically around a quarter of average earnings according to the OECD, which is why Ireland ends up looking extremely bad in the rankings of full rate equivalent leave available to mothers."

She said updated figures released since her study was carried out now puts the full rate equivalent leave at seven weeks, which is the lowest among OECD countries.

She said:

We were always behind but now it's actually looking even worse.

Mothers can stay at home for up to three years in countries such as Estonia and Hungry, but Dr Chzhen said this can also pose its own problems and returning to work can be difficult for women after such long periods.

"I think there are different models that developed countries can pursue because one can argue that it's better to have short and well-paid maternity leave, say six months, because this is also when it's important to have breastfeeding," she said.

Unicef Ireland executive director Peter Power said putting the right family-friendly policies in place at a national level is fundamental to enhancing child wellbeing.

"Supporting child wellbeing involves putting in place the right policies. Ireland ranks 40th out of 41 OECD and EU countries on full paid maternity leave, yet we know the importance of those first months and years to a child's development.

"The father's role is also key here, and we would welcome enhanced paid paternity leave. It's also vital to ensure that fathers feel supported by their employer to take that leave," he said.

Over half (54%) of women on maternity leave in 2019 received a top-up payment from their employer in addition to their maternity benefit payment. 

However, the data published by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) shows that there is a massive difference depending on the sector they work in.

Some 39.5% of women employed in wholesale and retail did not get a top-up. This was followed by the accommodation and food service industry where 38.9% of women had to make do on the State payment alone. This contrasts sharply to those working in public administration and defence where only 1.5% of women did not get a top-up on their maternity benefit.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shone a light on the entitlements that women get when they have a baby and sparked a campaign which called for additional paid leave.

Paula Solan who was involved in the campaign to have paid maternity leave extended by three months, said many feel the unprecedented challenges that new mothers faced during this time need to be taken into account.

Paula Solan with her son Quinn, 10 months at home in Lusk Co. Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan
Paula Solan with her son Quinn, 10 months at home in Lusk Co. Dublin. Picture: Moya Nolan

More than 30,000 people signed a petition to have paid maternity leave extended and the issue was debated in the Dáil. However, the Government instead decided to increase parents' leave, provided to both parents, from two weeks to five weeks.

Ms Solan, who welcomed her third child in January said: "I think maternity leave really should be expanded and paid up until at least the first year until they turn one, because that seems to be where we are really struggling in terms of our childcare settings here.

"I think one way of trying to improve that will be to make sure that the Government increases the maternity leave for a year, then introduces a proper parental leave so partners can then take off a number of months."

However, many women, especially those who are self-employed and run their own businesses, feel it is impossible to take the current 26 weeks of paid leave on offer and instead believe the rigid system needs to change to take modern work practices into account.

President of Network Ireland, Louise Meehan, said a lot of work is required to make maternity leave accessible for people who are self-employed.

"It isn't as simple as saying everybody who is self-employed doesn't take maternity leave, there are certainly members who have, and those who haven't," she said.

However, Ms Meehan, who runs Woodview HRM in Wicklow, said it can be impossible for mothers to run a business and take the full leave.

"When you're self-employed that's just not how it works. I haven't taken a full week of an annual leave since I set up my business. I have taken periods of annual leave to go on holidays and I've had time out, but there's always the odd email that you will deal with on your phone or the odd phone call.

"I think that degree of flexibility is important — you're not necessarily working but you are maintaining contact, dealing with any sort of crisis or emergency situations with clients in order to make sure that when you come back that there is still a business there to come back to," she said.

Another worrying trend is around the fact that women are less likely to return to work after each additional child. According to the CSO, 15.3% of women do not go back to work after having their fourth child.

Females are also more likely than males to work part-time — in 2019, a third of females were in part-time employment compared to one in ten males.

Over a quarter of women who worked part-time in 2019 indicated that they did so to look after children or incapacitated adults. This compares to less than 5% of men.

Maternity leave out of step with needs of modern women

The crude State-supported use-it-or-lose it system does not allow for the flexibility we need in today's working environment, writes Elaine Loughlin

I am one of those annoyingly smug people.

I played the CAO lottery and came out lucky, choosing a third-level course and a career path which I happen to really enjoy.

But when it came to taking leave to care for our newborn son, there was no conversation around my career as there was nothing to discuss – it was simply understood that I would take 26 weeks away from work.

In this country, we operate a use-it-or-lose-it system, whereby new mothers either take the six months of State-supported maternity leave on offer in one crude chunk, or return to work.

While the system provides families with a cushion of support, it is by no means supportive of all situations – especially in the context of today’s working environment.

The bubble of time I got with my son was precious and, given the choice, I'm not sure if I would have changed it in any way – but it was also the only option we as a family had.

My husband did not have the opportunity to consider whether he might like to take time away from his job to be the main carer for our child as, apart from two weeks' paternity leave and a further fortnight of parents' leave, the State currently only views the mother as being entitled to a longer period of paid supports.

The amount of leave fathers are entitled to is increasing, but it still is far from ideal.

As a result of this imbalance, new mothers often still feel that they have to speak about work and the return to employment in hushed voices, but we now have women at senior levels in companies, running their own businesses, sitting on boards of directors, who are the main breadwinners in their household.

Women can be mothers, but they are also sisters and friends, teachers and doctors, students, academics, scientists, politicians, and journalists.

I loved my time on leave watching my young son grow and develop a personality, as well as sprout a few painful teeth.

But there were days when I felt homesick for work. I don't believe that makes me a bad mother, even writing that sentence shows the level of 'mammy guilt' that those who return to employment suffer.

As well as a global pandemic, my maternity leave coincided with a general election, Government formation talks, and the historic coalition of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, not to mention the numerous scandals and controversies that seemed to tumble out of Leinster House on a weekly basis.

Many women would appreciate some little bit of flexibility in the system, which would allow them to ease back into work or would let them return for short essential periods, or to access training.

The UK and Australia have a system of 'keep-in-touch days', which allows mothers to work for up to 10 days during their maternity leave. These days are optional and both the employee and employer need to agree to them.

The type of work and pay employees get must also be agreed before they come into work. The employee’s right to maternity leave and pay is not affected by taking these keeping-in-touch days.

The UK also provides the option of allowing couples to split parental leave, which allows them to divide up the time. This is especially beneficial for mothers who run their own business and who do not feel they have the option of walking away from work for an extended period.

In an interview with journalist and presenter Brendan O'Connor, Kilkenny Design Group CEO Marian O'Gorman said having a career made her a better parent.

"I don't think I would have been a very good mother if I was at home," she said. "I was a person that needed to be challenged all the time, I needed to be thinking, I needed to be going, I am very active, and I had a very good person minding the kids at home – better than I could have ever done."

While it is not a view that would be shared by many – she also described herself as a "workaholic" during the same 2019 interview – her honesty was refreshing.

Most women, myself included, would not opt for the desperately short two weeks of leave she took after each of her four children. A ring-fenced period of time to allow mothers to recover is essential, but more flexibility and choice would be welcome, especially considering how our working lives have changed.

Perhaps it’s just another thing that is easier left as is, you can almost hear those responsible for pushing through the paperwork in department offices screaming: "Think of the logistics!”

What you're entitled to

Many women would appreciate more flexibility in the use-it-or-lose-it maternity leave system, allowing them to ease back into work. Stock image. 
Many women would appreciate more flexibility in the use-it-or-lose-it maternity leave system, allowing them to ease back into work. Stock image. 

MATERNITY LEAVE (26 weeks paid and 16 weeks unpaid) 

Mothers have the right to take 26 weeks maternity leave. You can take this time off work from full-time, casual or part-time employment, no matter how long you have been working for your employer.

If you have enough social insurance (PRSI) contributions, you are entitled to Maternity Benefit of €245 each week. Employers do not have to pay mothers but they can decide to provide a top-up to maternity benefit.

While mothers are allowed to volunteer or take part in education courses while on maternity benefit, the payment is stopped if they take part in any paid employment Mothers also have the right to take up to 16 weeks’ additional unpaid maternity leave.

PATERNITY LEAVE (2 weeks paid) 

The support, mainly aimed at fathers, provides two weeks leave in the first six months after the baby is born or adopted.

The mother's partner can take time off from either employment or self-employment and is paid €245 a week if they have enough PRSI contributions. Like maternity leave the employer does not have to pay you during paternity leave but can top up payments.

PARENTS LEAVE (2 weeks paid due to increase to 5 weeks) 

Parents leave was introduced last year and entitles mothers and fathers to two weeks of paid leave within the first year of their child's life.

Those who take this leave receive €245 per week if they have enough social insurance (PRSI) contributions – the same rate paid for existing maternity and paternity leave.

Parent’s leave is available to both employees and people who are self-employed.

Your employer does not have to pay you while you are on parent’s leave, although some employers may top up your parent’s leave.

In the case of adoption, parents can take the leave within one year of the placement of the child with the family.

Under Budget 2021 changes to parent's leave were announced, which will see the current parent's leave increase to five weeks for each parent. Parents will be allowed to take this time off work during the first two years of your child's life or two years from adoption.

PARENTAL LEAVE (26 weeks unpaid) 

Parents are entitled to take 26 weeks’ unpaid leave from work to look after each eligible child aged under 12.

In general, you must have been working for your employer for at least a year to get the full amount of parental leave. You must give your employer at least six weeks' notice before taking parental leave.

Covid-19 shows 'gaping hole' in postnatal support 

While expectant mothers receive a gold-plated level of free care throughout their pregnancies, once they give birth they get just one GP check at the six-week mark. 

 Amy Rose Harte with her 8 month old daughter Emilia. Photograph: Moya Nolan
Amy Rose Harte with her 8 month old daughter Emilia. Photograph: Moya Nolan

New mother Amy Rose Harte has been shocked by the "gaping hole" in postnatal support, which she says has been magnified by Covid-19.

Ms Harte says: mothers can feel "at sea" when they come home with their baby and are often left to educate themselves by logging on to Google.

While expectant mothers receive a gold-plated level of free care throughout their pregnancies, once they give birth they get just one GP check at the six-week mark during which the baby's progress is also monitored.

Ms Harte says: "When you're a new mother your focus and your energy go into this baby and that is as it should be. There's just an acceptance that the woman's own wellbeing should take second place and I think that is as it should be, but that doesn't mean it should be completely ignored.

"I'm actually quite shocked at the absence of anything for women bar the two-week check and the six-week check which is mostly geared towards the baby anyway.

"I just think there's a gaping hole in terms of supports," says Ms Harte who welcomed baby Emilia with her husband Jim McGrath in March.

She believes there is a lack of awareness about the psychological adjustment that happens for women when they have a baby and said more mental health supports are needed.

"What's happening is that a lot of women are engaging friends, they're on Google, and they're speaking to their mothers, and that is the extent to which people are getting support in the postnatal stage when it comes to things like breastfeeding, when it comes to things like mental health supports and when it comes to things like the physical recovery of labour.

The physical recovery of labour was something that totally caught me off guard that I wasn't prepared for. 

"There's always been a lack of support for women in the postnatal stage, and when I say lack of support I just mean within the community when you're discharged from hospital and you're sitting at home. I think Covid has actually magnified that."

In her own case, her daughter's seven-month development check was postponed meaning she did not have contact with healthcare professionals.

With mother and baby groups and other community supports also cancelled during the pandemic, she sought private help with breastfeeding.

"We were in a position whereby we could pay for a lactation consultant. But there are so many stories of women out there who don't have the means to pay and the question is, why aren't lactation consultants, part of the public care pathway?

"There are so many women who are sitting in the hospital who want to feed their babies who have their hopes built up. And actually, it ends up not happening for them because they don't have the proper guidance, or support," she said.

 Amy Rose Harte with her 8 month old daughter Emilia. Picture: Moya Nolan
Amy Rose Harte with her 8 month old daughter Emilia. Picture: Moya Nolan

Although lactation consultants do work in maternity hospitals and in the community, she said many women are not aware of this.

While new mothers traditionally had the support of their own mothers as well as family and friends living close by, the pandemic put a stop to this.

Even before Covid-19, the changing nature of how we work meant that many women no longer live close to home and maternity leave can be an isolating and incredibly lonely experience.

Ms Harte, who is originally from Donegal but now lives in Dublin says: "A lot of girls from the country for example, we're living in Dublin, and we're working professionals and we don't have our parents or grandparents around, we may not even have siblings nearby. So, in a lot of respects you're kind of learning on your own and learning as you go.

"When you're completely sleep-deprived and you might have a baby that's ill or a husband that's away all day it's just to know that there's a helpline, or there's someone that could come to your house to give you respite for an hour or you have access to someone.

"I feel it's all self-lead and the system should be coming to us, rather than us going to the system.

"You have all these wraparound supports in your pregnancy you're even really well looked after in hospital, and then you're sent home, and that all kind of just slowly seeps away," she says.

'Mindset of parenting must be changed'

Minister promises to raise parents' leave to nine weeks for mother and father, writes Elaine Loughlin.

A significant change of mindset on the role and responsibility fathers have in caring for their children is needed, the Children's Minister has admitted.

Roderic O'Gorman has promised to increase parents' leave, which is given to mothers and fathers, to nine weeks each during his term in office.

Mr O'Gorman is strongly in favour of extending parents leave, and not maternity or paternity leave, as he believes it introduces the greatest level of equality.

"Our focus of extending paid leave is at the moment on parents' leave, which applies to both parents and both parents are treated equally with the working assumption that we expect both parents to be involved in the care of the child in those early years," he said.

Ruling out any immediate increases to maternity benefit, which currently provides mothers with 26 weeks' paid leave, the Green Party minister said this support can create "an expectation that care is primarily delivered by the mother".

It comes after more than 30,000 people signed a petition calling for extension of paid leave for mothers by three months in light of the restrictions Covid-19 has placed on new parents.

"Looking at maternity leave is something I would like to do once we've maybe achieved the objectives in terms of parents' leave, I think everyone recognises we are still low in terms of the maternity leave we grant compared to most European countries. I think we should be addressing that too.

"We have more to do to change that mindset about the division of responsibility when it comes to caring for children. There's a societal element to all of this as well and that deeper question of who cares for children, and an approach that all of us and particularly men need to take that we have an absolute responsibility in terms of caring for children," he said. 

It has to be understood that it is a shared responsibility of parents.

Around 92% of mothers take maternity leave, but the number of fathers who avail of paternity benefit, which is paid at the same rate of €245 a week, is much lower.

Almost half of fathers entitled to paternity benefit did not take it in 2018 and the level of uptake varies dramatically depending on the sector and the size of the company a person works in.

Mr O'Gorman said that where paid benefits are provided it's disappointing to see that they aren't being taken up.

He said this may be down to the fact that maternity leave was created first and paternity leave was "added in quite late" so is not as established.

"I like the concept of parents' leave where it is pure equality. It's the same number of weeks per parent, same rate of pay per parent, it creates this idea that it's available to both and the equality is based on a societal expectation that all parents are involved in caring for their children."

Parents' leave, introduced in 2019, has been further extended under Budget 2021 and will give mothers and fathers five weeks away from work, up from the current fortnight's leave.

Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman is strongly in favour of extending parents leave, and not maternity or paternity leave, as he believes it introduces the greatest level of equality.
Minister for Children, Roderic O’Gorman is strongly in favour of extending parents leave, and not maternity or paternity leave, as he believes it introduces the greatest level of equality.

However, a recent report found parents' leave does not meet its policy objective of encouraging greater equality because rates are too low and companies are not topping-up to match salaries.

The Department of Public Expenditure spending review concluded that the scheme does not address the existing disparity in leave entitlements or the low uptake rate of paternity leave.

The report also found that parents' leave is unlikely to support families in the more equal sharing of care responsibilities or address women’s under-representation in the labour market.

However, Mr O'Gorman believes that as the scheme is further rolled out it will further encourage equality and shared responsibility.

"What's important about parents' leave, is that it is offered to both parents at the same rate at the same time and we're extending it at the same time," he said. 

I think that is part of this bigger societal question about work/ life balance and just reminding ourselves that the duty of caring for children does fall and should fall on both parents.

The Government is now looking at the area of flexible working and this will also feed into the supports that are provided to parents.

Consultation around flexible working was carried out last December and January. However, the minister is now planning to do a second round of consultation given the significant changes that have occurred since the pandemic.

"I think we all understand that the experience over the last number of months has been very different and some people have really welcomed it, I think some people have really chafed under it as well, it's not that everyone wants to be at home all the time.

"But I think the fact that in a lot of workplaces it can be facilitated so easily, the excuses maybe that were used in the past have basically been swept away.

"Flexible work isn't just about working at home it's about maybe working in blocks and again, ensuring that you can to an extent, design your own workday or your own workweek in a way that works for both you and your employer."

The minister added: "It's now a question of if it can be facilitated, and it does work, and if a significant proportion of staff want it really we should be considering it," he said.

He said the commitment in the Programme for the Government to ensure workers are given the right to switch off is also equally important.

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