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Dublin: 3°C Thursday 3 December 2020
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Column: ‘Those first months were magical’ – a dad’s paternity leave plea

Statutory paternity leave would help shift the attitudes of a whole society, argues Andrew Doherty – recalling the birth of his own children.

Image: sabianmaggy via Flickr

RECENT COVERAGE OF the rights and responsibilities of men to paternity leave highlight the extent to which Ireland needs to play catch up to many of our European neighbours – where it is already provided for, and in some cases generously so.

Even though men don’t have a statutory right to such leave in Ireland, in some cases it can be negotiated with willing employers, highlighting at least an interest in and acceptance of the concept. For a group such as the Men in Childcare (MiC) Network, the fact that men can and do share so much in the rearing of their families comes as no surprise.

As a dad of three children I have to admit a personal motivation. I never received paternity leave. However, when our first child was born in 1996 I was unemployed. Those first few months with our new child were magical. We worked as a team for those first few months which helped to create a very comforting space. My wife was free to breastfeed and bond with our child without concerns such as housework, bills and appointments.

I could also take over for nappy changes and go for walks while my partner slept, or mind our son while she had a trip to town or simply a walk in the garden. We were also together to talk through the new challenges that arose (as they seemed to daily with a new child).

Another factor, and perhaps not as obvious to me then, was the importance of the time I spent with my child. Carrying, changing, rocking, gazing at this brand new treasure and wondering how such a momentous thing could have happened to me. This time and space to getting to know my child was invaluable. Although we were unmarried, the time was also very important for our relationship.

‘My partner had to give me some space to do it my way, and at times make mistakes’

The importance of this age developmentally is becoming increasingly understood. Physically the child learns in a matter of months to crawl and later walk, to pull itself up, to feed and so on. Children need encouragement, stimulation, age appropriate challenge. Brain development is blossoming with baby learning to read parents’ moods, learning to speak a new language, learning to communicate for all their needs. Emotionally, a baby knows if parents are ‘present’ and get a clear sense of whether and how much they are loved. Much of what the child absorbs at this point is the building blocks of a healthy happy child, to become a healthy happy adult.

I think the expectations of a man are an important factor also. My partner (now wife) expected me to be around, to help out. She also had to yield some of the care duties and give me some space to do it my way and at times make some mistakes. It wasn’t all easy going – and there were times where if I was honest, I might have preferred had my wife taken on more and left me free to pursue other interests.

I was often surprised by the reaction of some to the notion that men can care for their children. For example we were at a family gathering and someone mentioned that the child had a dirty nappy and asked where my wife was, implying that she would be the one to change it. I simply picked up the child and quipped (to the lady’s surprise) that I would have it sorted in a jiffy.

Sometimes my own prejudices got in the way. On one occasion, when I was sitting in town on a bench, three men approached the seat. I looked around realising I was all alone, save for the men and my son. They were obviously the worse for wear, and one had a can of beer which he threw into a nearby bush. As they came near, I never felt as vulnerable. I felt the panic rise, knowing that I had nowhere to run to, no means of protecting my son.

As they came closer, one leaned in over us. “He’s beautiful.” he said. “You must be so proud.” He gently touched my son’s head and before leaving said “You’re so lucky boy!” To this day I’m not sure if he directed what he said to me, or to my son.

The event highlighted to me the underlying good nature of the vast majority of men and their care and interest in children.

‘It placed a lot of stress on us – most of it on the shoulders of my wife’

When our second and third children were born I was working and on both occasions paternity leave wasn’t available. The fact that I had to work at the time placed a lot of stress on us as a young family. Most of it fell on the shoulders of my wife. Many seemed to think that being in this position was a rite of passage. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! I have to say that I found it unnecessarily harsh and the stress it caused to be potentially damaging to our relationship.

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I often wondered how lone parents managed through this period. Knowing some, I realise that family, friends, neighbours play a big role. I could not imagine how someone would be able to do it completely alone, but I am glad I never had to find out.

As a society the most fundamental issue, as we in the MiC Network see it, is that children can benefit hugely from the mix of female and male caregiving. Surely Irish society can strive to enshrine paternity leave in our statute book thereby reducing the stress on young parents? Given the centrality of the family in the Irish Constitution, is it not surprising that this has not already come to pass?

For the MiC Network the recognition and value that paternity leave would bring to Irish society would be a valuable assistance to our own work. If society can value men in their role as parents, it would certainly assist our own mission of increasing the numbers of men working in the early-years sector. Recent estimates suggest at least 30,000 working in the Irish sector, although this would not include the largest element of the sector, childminding. It is further estimated that men make up about one per cent and at the most two per cent of this group. Paternity leave would be a welcome addition to our attempts in convincing policy makers that a five per cent target of men in the early years by 2020 is needed.

Andrew Doherty is treasurer of the Men in Childcare Network, which can be contacted via mobile on 087 2299208, email at menicirl@gmail.com or Facebook.  The Network was established in 2004 and works to encourage and support men to work in the early years childcare sector. The work of the Network is carried out on a voluntary basis but receives some small financial support and a lot of encouragement from Childcare Committees nationally. Members of the Network will attend the Early Years Education show in the RDS this Thursday and Friday to promote their work. Andrew currently works with Waterford County Childcare Committee (WCCC) as a Development Worker.  The views expressed in this article are his own.

About the author:

Andrew Doherty

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