Sometimes it’s as if nothing has changed. When did you last read an article or survey asking if men are ‘helping out with the housework’? Or posing a question in relation to a father’s ‘involvement’ in the lives of his children? Not very long ago, I’d guess. Like the father was some kind of fire brigade service, only needed in emergencies, rather than a full time presence, doing every bit as much as the mother does. For this, surely, is what most parenting actually amounts to in the modern era: a 50/50 split between two partners. Indeed, any man not fully sharing the housework nowadays should be shown the door. And a man who thinks that a father is someone who sits back with the pipe and slippers and only greets his already-washed children at bedtime with a peck on the cheek needs to join the rest of us in the 21st century.

And this is why the new bold proposal on parental leave, as advocated by the Minister of Children Frances Fitzgerald in an interview in this newspaper earlier this week, is so welcome and interesting. Not only would it be a positive move for gender equality, it could also be a boost for keeping people in employment. The Minister’s proposal is to split the current standard State maternity benefit of 26 weeks between both partners rather than have it go exclusively to the mother, as is now the case. The proposal recognises that after a birth both parents are in need of respite and also that both parents want to spend time with their newborn. Granted, the physicality of childbirth is obviously much more demanding on the woman, as is the subsequent breastfeeding, if such is being done. Which is why the first period of maternity leave could continue to go to the mother, and a following period to the father.  They don’t have to be equal chunks of time – that could be something worked out in terms of familial and employment demands.

Currently, some 23,000 women take maternity leave every year at a cost of €300 million to the State. But the reality is that many women do not feel that they need the full amount of leave and are, in fact, anxious to get back to work. Many feel indeed that such a long period of leave can also act as an inducement to stay away from the workplace altogether, reinforcing that old fashioned concept of atending to ‘motherly duties.’ And, let’s face it, there are many men – and women, sadly – who believe that once a woman has had a child or two, they should simply fade away from the workplace altogether and blend into domesticity. Many women do ‘fade away’, as it were, not because it is their ‘duty’, but because, in our demanding society, it sometimes seems like a preferable option. Which is why men are also making such a withdrawal, or partial withdrawal, these days. As a former be-suited boss once said to me – ‘You won’t lie on your death bed thinking that you should have spent more time at your desk and less with your children!’

Paternity leave

The reality of a modern society, however, is that the old work model of a ‘9 to 5’ job for life is no longer applicable. People now work freelance, or on contract, or they work part time or on a temporary basis. And this affects both men and women. This is the way many people work, and it is, of course, more conducive to the raising of children. It’s a model, therefore, that could be used as an example of how shared maternity/paternity would work to good effect.

I would be a good example of this family’work set-up. I work from home as a freelance writer, while my wife has two separate job assignments, in film and social media, that require her to leave the house for two or three days a week. If I have to go to a radio or TV station, she can be at home. We have two children, a five-year-old who has started school and a three-year-old still at home, so we see a lot of the kids, which is fantastic and, far from disturbing our work, it benefits both our parenting lives and our work lives.

When the kids were born, there is no doubt that both of us could have done with parental leave had we been in full-time jobs. Most of the follow-up demands of parenthood are suffered (if that is the word) equally, by both parents –  sleep deprivation, general disruption and full-on child maintenance.

But Minister Fitzgerald’s proposal would have a wider societal significance since it would challenge the idea of the mother as principal child-raiser, which is quite simply now an outdated idea, plainly unfair, and still holding women back. Some employers discriminate against women in job interviews because of fears that six months of maternity leave will at some stage become a reality. So the Minister’s proposal has an obvious benefit – employers would view prospective workers equally, irrespective of gender, as male and female workers would get equal access to leave.

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There are, of course, administrative and legal issues to be thrashed out in terms of this proposal. And, from the point of view of small businesses, it is understandably a development that they would regard with some trepidation. Imagine for a moment that you employ just two people – one or both of whom happen to be young men. It’s a big ask to expect such an employer, with already tight margins, to blithley accept a radical change in the law which could see them suddenly short on staff, and having to take on additional costs to cover for a paternity leave situation.  This is obviously problematic, but surely some acceptable solution could be found.

In fact, Minister Fitzgerald says she is making the proposal precisely to support business and boost employment. ‘We need women in the workforce and we need men and parents in the workforce’ said the Minister. ‘I’m very pro-business and in order for a country to be competitive you have to enable people to combine work and family.’

As a politician, Frances Fitzgerald knows all about how the long and late hours of Dail and constituency work can play havoc with family life, just as it does in so many areas of business. It is a havoc, however, which often discriminates against and disempowers women. Changing the maternity leave laws would challenge our outdated business culture. Not only would it boost employment and create a more level playing field, but it would also reflect the reality of modern family life in the 21st century.

We used to have a society which banned women from the workplace once they married. Thankfully those days are gone. But things evolve, and now is perhaps the time to make another leap. Our children will thank us for it.