Parental leave: let's not judge the different choices mums and dads make

Maternity leave. Paternity leave. Parental leave. They're all the same, right?

Let’s support mums and dads to make the right choice regarding parental leave, says Richard White (©GettyImages)
Let’s support mums and dads to make the right choice regarding parental leave, says Richard White (©GettyImages)

Well, that at least, one has to assume, is the legislative intention of shared parental leave rights.

When in the depths of the winter of 2014 I announced at work that I intended to take ‘additional paternity leave’, as it was then called, and be the stay-at-home parent for my daughter when she was aged 9-12 months, it didn’t seem like a brave decision.

Admittedly, she wasn’t even due for another few months, so to say I was blissfully naïve would be an understatement.

As D-day (aka "daddy-day") approached, I made a point of saying to the team here "make it as hard as you can for me to come back".

By that I meant step up, take the opportunity, grab those client relationships.

I’d led the team for over 14 years. I think deep down I saw these three months as an overdue sabbatical.
As it was, they were anything but.

Immensely rewarding? Of course. Hard work? Not really. But relentless? Emphatically, yes.

Mornings were spent going to ‘buggy-fit’ (and yes, before you wonder, I always took the buggy and child, or else I’d just look like an oddball bloke with a thing for pelvic floor exercises exercising in the local park with a load of new mums).

Afternoons were going to baby swim, or Monkey Music, doing a bit of shopping and, if I could manage it right, a good nap (for the baby, not me) in the afternoon.

But it was only when I began to ready myself for the return to work that I began to realise what I suspect every mother goes through when returning from maternity leave. The insecurity.

Richard White, former managing director at AxiCom

Meanwhile, my partner went back to work, able to continue her career knowing that father and daughter were bonding in a way that few have the opportunity to do.

So far, so amazing.

But it was only when I began to ready myself for the return to work that I began to realise what I suspect every mother goes through when returning from maternity leave. The insecurity.

Yes, I’d gone on record and challenged the team to effectively take my job. But what if they had?

For the first time there were new people on the team I hadn’t personally interviewed; new clients I hadn’t helped win.

And this was only after three months, not nine or 12.

So I made a point, partly out of this insecurity and also because I had by now become a bit of a militant about shared parental leave, that my return to work would be handled "properly".

Working with our HR team, I discussed how I felt and what I’d like to happen on my return and had the formal ‘return to work’ meeting with the bosses.

I came back to the team, but more as a mentor to the new team leader who’d risen to the challenge I’d set him.

Alongside my client work, I was able to take on more of a new business role across the agency. It was exactly what I wanted.

Why then, when child number two was born three years later, didn’t I repeat the experience?

Undoubtedly there was a selfish realisation that looking after two children and doing my parental leave during the depth of winter rather than in the warming spring sounded less appealing.

Furthermore, despite my overwhelmingly positive experience the first time around, there was still that nagging work insecurity. The concern that, well, now’s not quite the right time.

Now, a newly promoted to MD, I wanted to grab that role and run with it.

This wasn’t the business saying "no"; it was me (together with my partner) deciding not to repeat the experience. I had the luxury of having a choice, and that cuts both ways.

There is no right or wrong choice – I’ve trodden both paths.

The PR world didn’t stop rotating when I took parental leave for my eldest, and my relationship with my youngest is still one of unconditional love, even though I miss his bathtime more than I make it.

But what I have learned is that supporting people so they feel able to make the choice that is right for them, at that time, in their situation, is paramount.

So when it comes to parental leave, let’s not judge the different choices mums and dads make.

Let’s, as an industry, as employers, as colleagues, as families and friends, support them and empower them to make them. After all, it’s life.

Richard White was until recently managing director at AxiCom

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