Is shared parental leave as great as we think? Or is there more to the debate? Here’s a perspective from Asawari Churi of Pinsent Masons, who’s chosen to take a longer period of maternity leave based on the benefits of breastfeeding. She argues that mothers should feel able to take the leave they believe is right for their own and their children’s health, and celebrates the employers who allow that. She also calls for changes to shared parental leave laws and practices to take account of the mother’s role in feeding her baby, and not to provide additional leave for fathers at the cost of what’s available to breastfeeding mothers.
This is of course an emotive and potentially controversial topic. We’re grateful to Asawari for speaking so candidly, and would be equally grateful to anyone who would like to put an alternative viewpoint or add to the discussion in any way. IP Inclusive cares about the rights of parents of all genders, not just women, and about creating working cultures that allow everyone to parent in their own way without detriment to their career prospects.
Not so long ago, I attended an event on women in IP. I thought it was a fantastic event – we had some great discussion around what it means to be a woman in a professional environment and what challenges women face on account of being, well, women. At that event I met a woman in a senior position who commented how great it was to see women being supported to advance in their careers, something which was not available to her when she was a junior. We both agreed that we must work towards career equality between the sexes because women are just as capable and committed to their careers as men.
She then said something which gave me pause: she said that we must work towards the day when fathers taking six months of the shared parental leave becomes the norm. Only then, she went on to say, will there be true equality.
That sounds great, right? No longer will women be the only ones taking lengthy career breaks which, no doubt for most, often come at some cost to their careers. By shouldering the responsibility of childcare alongside mothers, fathers will be able to get more involved in their children’s lives at a very early stage, something that most modern dads are keen to do (and thank goodness for that).
Quite obviously, the shorter the maternity leave, the sooner new mothers can return to work and reintegrate within the workforce. A short maternity leave seems like a sensible career choice. This is what some senior women actively advocate with the best of intentions. It’s also what I always thought I would do. I love my job. And the thought of being stuck at home with a whining infant is not exactly something I looked forward to. Most women I knew went back within six to eight months. I will even admit that I secretly thought that women who took the full 12 months were a bit, how shall I put it, self-indulgent or were not really committed to their jobs. I even know a couple of women who take pride in the fact that they returned to work in less than six months. Wow, I thought, admiringly.
So how can anyone have a problem with shared parental leave, this new amazing benefit which allows women to return to work sooner?
But I do.
Let me explain why.
Before I had a child, I had never particularly given much thought to breastfeeding. I always assumed that breastfeeding for about six months would be enough. Then I would switch to formula and let my husband, a lovely, supportive modern dad, take over.
But then I started reading up on breastfeeding. Not popular magazines, but proper scientific papers. And the more I read the more I came to the realisation that six months is nowhere near enough. I was going to be one of those women taking a “long” maternity break. I was going to be the “self-indulgent” and “lacking-in-commitment” woman I never thought I would be.
The problem with scientific papers on this topic, however, is that for every paper drawing a certain conclusion, you may well find another that at the very least casts doubt on that conclusion. The studies reported in these papers are also constrained by what experiments, such as clinical trials, can be conducted in order to obtain evidence. The conclusions drawn, therefore, are usually opinions rather than facts, and can sometimes be a bit hand-wavy as if to pre-empt future studies from contradicting them. This means that frequently there is a lack of certainty that is afforded by facts. If there are gaps in the knowledge, we have to use our judgement to fill in those gaps. It is therefore entirely possible that two people looking at the same body of evidence come to two different conclusions based on their individual judgements. But that is fine because at the very least both will have considered the latest scientific evidence rather than relying on received wisdom.
People often say that whether or not to breastfeed is a woman’s choice. Yes, of course it is. But in order to make a true choice, you have to know what it is that you are actually choosing.
We have all heard, increasingly in recent times, that breastmilk is superior to any brand of formula. This is common knowledge. What isn’t quite so well known is when the benefits of breastmilk stop being significant. Within the first six months? A year?
On the basis of the evidence on breastfeeding available so far, here are some of the things I believe in, which were instrumental in helping me make my mind up on this topic:
- We, as primates, are designed to breastfeed our infants for the first few years (not months) of their lives. According to estimates based on other primates, most human children would naturally stop breastfeeding at around three years of age. This matches up with what is seen in tribal societies that have had little to no contact with the modern world.
- Far from being of little value after the first six months, breastmilk continues to be an important source of nutrients, immunological factors and other compounds for an infant. In fact, the benefits continue well into the second year of life (if not beyond). Formula does not provide this benefit as it does not contain the immunological factors and other compounds.
- Breastmilk, which contains helpful bacteria and viruses as well as prebiotics (ie compounds indigestible by humans but important for the growth of beneficial microorganisms), plays an important role in the development of the infant’s gut microbiome, which, due to its role in immune system development, influences not only the short-term health of the child, but may also impact long-term health, ie when they grow up to be adults. Once again, formula does not provide this benefit.
- Extended breastfeeding has benefits for the mother including reduced rates of ovarian cancer, premenopausal breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. As above, formula does not provide this benefit.
If anyone thinks that any of these statements are implausible, please feel free to contact me for sources, if you should wish to do so.
It is not without reason that the WHO recommends breastfeeding for at least two years, not just in developing countries but also developed ones.
Once I had made up my mind about what I was going to do, I realised that if I returned to work after seven months as originally planned, I would not be able to breastfeed for as long as I wanted to. I suppose expressing and freezing milk is an option for some, and that’s really great for them. It wasn’t for me. Frankly, I don’t know many women who have expressed for more than a few months. It’s not a particularly nice thing to do, especially when your 10-month-old feeds 10 times a day. There are other issues with expressing and freezing milk (again to do with the microbiota) but I will not get into those here. Suffice to say that I did not and, if I were to have another child, will not do it.
I appreciate that I have been lucky. I work in a firm where no one made me feel uncomfortable about my choice to take 12 months off. It wasn’t easy – babies are not generally renowned for their intellectually stimulating conversation. But I believe it was necessary and I am glad that I was able to do so. By 12 months my child was sufficiently into other foods for me to limit feeding to first thing in the morning and after returning from work. The transition back to work could not have been smoother and I am grateful to my team for making it so.
I should also say that I know some mothers struggle with breastfeeding and am aware how sensitive this topic can be. There is a lot of guilt associated with not being able to breastfeed and I am truly sorry if this post has added to it. That was certainly not my intention. I also understand that for some people finances dictate the length of maternity leave they can take. Even in firms with generous maternity packages, the period in which full salary is paid is limited.
Despite the sensitivity of the issue, I felt compelled to write this article for two reasons. One, because of comments directed to me by some people. Comments such as: “12 months? How ever did you manage that in a City law firm??” and “You must not have a lot of work for your team to agree to this.” I know these comments were made without malice, but they give an insight into how the issue of maternity leave is viewed by some.
I have also heard it said that some people might view taking a “long” maternity leave as being selfish because it could mean that others in the team have to take on extra responsibility to make sure the work is done and deadlines are met by the team despite being one member down. But where does that line of thinking take us? How many months’ leave is acceptable? Eight months? Six months? Three months? Taking it to the extreme, would it be fair to say, in this day and age, that women who do not have children are in this context less selfish than women who do? Of course it isn’t!
The other, more important, reason for this article is this: I believe that women should not feel pressured into taking a short maternity leave just because shared parental leave is available. If any woman is forced to choose, even if only in her mind, between her career and her child’s short-term and quite possibly long-term health as well as her own health as a result of this policy, that would be extremely unfortunate indeed.
Just to be clear, I am not for one moment suggesting that women who take a long maternity leave are better mothers than those who take a short one. I know for a fact that this isn’t true. I also do not expect everyone to agree with me. Just because I see things in a certain light, it does not mean that I expect everyone else to follow suit.
We all make choices, to the extent that this is possible, about how we lead our lives, how we raise our children and what sort of human beings we want to be. The whole point about a diversity and inclusivity policy is that these choices are respected, so long as they are not outrageous. Whether or not to have children, whether to take a short maternity leave or a long one – these are choices everyone should be free to make.
Of course, there are other situations where shared parental leave may not work, for example if the father is not eligible for it on account of being self-employed. Another reason why shared leave isn’t quite as wonderful as many seem to believe it is.
Another question to ponder – can taking a few extra months off really have a permanently damaging effect on a woman’s career, which may well span decades? If anyone has any comments on this, I’ll be very interested to hear.
To summarise: no, I will not be supporting the drive to get men to take six months’ parental leave if this comes at the cost mentioned above. Not unless we had 18 months’ leave on offer. Now wouldn’t that be amazing? The Swedes are almost there with their 16 months’ shared leave. Any UK firms fancy being trailblazers in this area?
The opinions expressed in this post are entirely my own.