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Dublin: 11 °C Friday 26 April, 2019
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Play golf on paternity leave? You're lucky to have time to breathe

The government is reportedly considering making paid paternity leave mandatory for all new fathers.

Cianan Brennan

A REPORT IN yesterday’s Irish Times suggests that the government is poised to introduce paid parental leave in this year’s budget.

At present, Ireland’s system of parental support lags some distance behind international best practice, to put it mildly.

We’re one of six European countries in which an employer has no obligation to pay its workers while they’re on parental leave.

We have no system of shared parental leave at all making it next to impossible for fathers to take an equal role in the rearing of their child.

By contrast, workers in Sweden are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their regular wage, which they can split between the parental unit howsoever they deem fit (and that’s surplus to the 18 weeks of basic paid maternity leave). Oh to be from the land of the Skarsgårds.

Meanwhile, paternity benefit here was introduced just two years ago, and totals just €235 a week (don’t get me started on the fact you need a Public Services Card to claim it either).

To be welcomed

So the introduction of any kind of paid parental leave by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection, even if it is just two weeks to begin with, is to be welcomed. It’s a first step towards dragging us kicking and screaming into the world of modern parenting. And it might just take an axe to the gender pay gap while it’s at it.

Some of the other initiatives mooted don’t ring quite so true however. Like mandatory paternity leave.

That Irish Times report cites a departmental statistic of 62%, just under two-thirds, takeup of the current paternity benefit. This makes a deal more sense when you consider that a firm may not pay the father in question should they choose to take time off – meaning it may be they have to stay at work in order to best support their family, rather than taking two weeks off at a State-funded rate which may be a fraction of their normal wage.

However, a government source informs the Irish Times report that many men are using the benefit as an excuse “to go play golf”. Hence the need to make such leave mandatory, in order to force the beginnings of parity between mothers and father as to time devoted to caring for a newborn.

This is hard to fathom.

Four months ago my wife gave birth to our first daughter.

It turns out that years spent in the company of nieces and nephews hadn’t developed any dormant nurturing skills in my brain by osmosis. The first four weeks were absolutely terrifying.

You’re suddenly saddled with an exceptionally needy, exceptionally hungry, exceptionally crotchety bundle of joy with zero language skills who is totally and utterly dependent on you. Not to mention the fact they don’t yet know how to sleep.

The idea that we could have survived that first month without the two weeks of paternity leave (coupled with about 18 days holidays I’d squirrelled away) afforded by my company is laughable. I would have been of no support to my other half who was learning to be a mother. And if I found things tough, I can’t imagine for a second how hard her part was. And we both would have had nervous breakdowns.

No-brainer

If my employer hadn’t paid me for those two weeks however, I would have had a very unpalatable decision to make (I would have taken the two weeks’ unpaid leave actually, I’d see it as a no-brainer – those two weeks of development aren’t something you can claim back at a later date). But if the choice hadn’t been mine to make, had I been forced to either work or stay home, boy would I have resented it.

Currently, paternity benefit can be taken any time within the first six months. To delay it wouldn’t have worked for me, I had too little of a clue what I was doing, but I can understand why you might put it off to a time when you’re more comfortable in your new role, particularly if you have lots and lots of holidays to work with – a good friend is doing exactly that in fact.

I’ll hold my hands up – I don’t play golf. I do play football for pleasure though. That is to say I did. It’s been four months since I last togged out. I hope to do so again sometime this decade.

Not that I’d change it for the world. Watching a mini-human develop, one you can call your own that might even have the good grace to look a little bit like you, is the greatest privilege I’ve ever had.

Which brings us back to the golf comment. Because if that’s how the government views the takeup of its fairly useless paternity benefit, as a means for a wrong-headed father figure to get some quality time back on the course, it doesn’t bode well for the future development of our childcare services, which are already among the most expensive in the developed world. Seriously. Ireland doesn’t make it easy to procreate.

A close friend recently had twins (we’re at that stage of life where babies are everywhere, it’s very discommoding altogether). He’s been an avid golfer all his life. He’s unlikely to play again before the year 2025. He’s not complaining.

Forcing people to do anything, let alone take paternity leave, to save them from themselves isn’t a particularly clever approach in any circumstance.

If you really want people to take the benefit, make it worth their while. Unfortunately that would require longer-term thinking. And that just isn’t the Irish State’s forte.

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