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New paternity leave scheme offers more than meets the eye

The new paternity leave scheme that started on January 1 may be cheap and still have a significant impact. It offers new fathers two weeks leave at minimum wage, which is only a fraction of what new dads…

New measures aimed at father-child bonding will hopefully teach dads why playing peekaboo matters. mouton.rebelle/Flickr

The new paternity leave scheme that started on January 1 may be cheap and still have a significant impact. It offers new fathers two weeks leave at minimum wage, which is only a fraction of what new dads in Sweden and Norway are paid, but its focus on fathers bonding with their babies may bring about a major shift in the way we see parenting.

Father-baby bonding is a key selling point for the new Dad and Partner Pay scheme. Cherubic infants with their dads feature strongly in promotions for the scheme. Human Services Minister Jenni Macklin and her department stress the benefits of fathers having “time off work, helping them bond with their new child and be involved in their care from an early age.” New fathers are urged to visit parenting websites for tips on how to bond.

Dads helping mum is also part of the pitch. This fits with the way that the Productivity Commission’s inquiry into paid parental leave saw it; the commission took note of the many submissions urging support for fathers’ role. But the main argument, it said, was the economic benefit of healthier, more productive mothers.

In its findings, the Productivity Commission relied on the notion of “primary carer” inherited from earlier leave decisions made by the Australian Industrial Relations Commission. When men gained the right to 52 weeks unpaid parental leave in 1990 (just 11 years after women did), mothers and fathers were barred from taking leave together. The only exception was for one week at the time of the birth. The primary carer model means dividing up, not sharing, the parenting time.

Our first paid parental leave scheme in 2011 used the same approach. Dads were included, as optional parents. The mother could opt to give some of the 18 weeks to the dad, but only if she went back to work. It was known before the act was drafted that this wouldn’t wash. In a similar New Zealand scheme just 1% of mothers transferred their leave to the fathers. Australian figures were the same.

Stressing fathers’ bonding in the Dad and Partner Pay scheme seems to be a feel-good device to get dads to sign up. But it may also flag a real change in the way we see parenting. Urging dads to emotionally connect with their baby rather than to just look after them breaks new ground by putting value on the fathers’ relationship with the infant.

It also puts policy in line with the hard evidence we now have of the importance of fathers for young children’s growth.

Recent Australian studies have shown, for example, that in the area of postnatal depression, sad dads pose the same risk for infants as do sad mums. Children whose fathers are depressed after the birth have twice the risk of behavioural problems, even allowing for mothers’ mood.

This has prompted health department seminars to examine the mental health needs of dads and their babies and Beyondblue to fund extra dad-focused resources for new families.

Long-term effects won’t be part of the first review of the scheme which reports next year. Rather, it will provide the time to discuss how to fine tune or even expand the leave. And there’s a catch when we do come to test fathers’ part of the scheme. The baseline survey designed for the 2011 parental leave scheme also used the primary carer model so only mothers were included.

Whatever the review finds, it seems unlikely that we will try to catch up to the levels of paid leave in Sweden. They are now debating an increase in the daddy quota from two months to three, paid at 80% of salary. We could, however, adopt less costly ways support new fathers.

The British idea of dads’ right to unpaid leave to attend antenatal visits is one example of a dad-friendly measure. So is the Swedish bonus that is paid for every day of shared leave taken by the father. This is in line with Sweden’s goal of gender equity; they see having fathers share the care of infants as one way to balance gender roles at home.

As critics of our paid leave scheme have pointed out, offering nine times more leave for mothers than fathers is not exactly a gender equity message.

On the father-baby bonding front, there are other policy areas to consider. The Council of Australian Governments’ project to boost parents’ grasp of how children develop is one example. The brain science information that will be part of this project is perfect for showing dads why playing peekaboo matters.

There’s no doubt that the Dad and Partner Pay scheme is an important first step for Australian fathers and their families. Its most telling aspect may be the focus on dads forming a loving bond with their baby.

Join the conversation

10 Comments sorted by

  1. Robin Bell

    Research Academic Public Health, at University of Newcastle

    Good to see some progress in the recognition of men as parents, even if it is for the wrong reason.
    Sadly, I have noticed a recent trend of excluding men from families and alienating them from health care provision and services.
    Men are still generally treated as superfluous in nursing and midwifery, and primary/secondary education. While there are very low numbers of men in the broader health care work force (particularly nursing and midwifery) and dwindling numbers of men in primary education…

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  2. Dianna Arthur

    Environmentalist

    Men have been marginalised from sharing parenting as much as women were marginalised from participating in business and politics for so many years.

    Finally, men are enabling themselves to move away from the 'masculine' mystique - that of a powerful protective male who goes forth, fells sabre-tooth tigers and brings home the bread. This image was never completely of true of most men, just as caring and nurturing are not the exclusive preserve of women.

    A good start would be for the caring professions…

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  3. margaret m

    old lady

    I think it is a great start I think the provision of minimum wage is adequate not what all would want but to live off that for even a fortnight might give many a new understanding that the majority of people live on that amount and many more live on a lot less.

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  4. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    The system of designating the mother as “primary carer”, basically designates the father as a “secondary carer”.

    This system has eventually meant “more than one-third of Australian children do not see their fathers, while 17% have day-only contact.”

    www.aifs.gov.au/conferences/aifs8/parkinson.pdf

    That survey is now 10 years old, but the father is regarded as so superfluous, no new survey has been undertaken since, and the issue of fatherless children is regarded as unimportant in a feminist type society.

    There has been some research that the first few weeks (and even the first few hours) after the baby’s birth, lays down intrinsic type bonding between the father and the child. There are some hormonal changes occurring, but the event becomes imprinted within the fathers mind.

    Any further defining of the mother as the “primary carer”, and the father as a “secondary carer” basically reduces that bonding.

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    1. Emma Anderson

      Artist and Science Junkie

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      I agree.

      And one of many ways this needs to be rectified is having the parental leave scheme just parental. A parent, regardless of their gender or martial status, has an intrinsic need and an obligation to their child to be there. If anything, it probably should be at least 26 weeks for an individual parent, and if there's more than one, they get 26 weeks parental leave each. This should be regardless of how long they've worked too. The CV of a parent also has nothing to do with their need and responsibility to continuously look after a person at the most dependent stage of life.

      This is an investment in everyone's health!

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  5. Lynne Newington

    Researcher

    Coming from another perspective, but a reality, this will be bringing home to the church [Catholic clergy where it only seems to apply], that fathers are important.
    One in particular, out of the vow of obedience [yet relying on the goodwill of his superior/s ], took years to receive permission to even register his child, which then gave the mother the opportunity to claim child suppor without conditions attatched, the father then supporting his child with integrity though his aged pension and some right to bond.
    He went to his grave without rescinding his wish for a resript of his vows, guaranteeing the social rights to his child according to Canon Law, where even a baptism register had the father's name removed.
    This whole isue could still be addressed posthumously but not pursued.
    Ref. Paul Smith ofm Minister Provincial.

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    1. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      Unfortunate that religion is not a massive feminist conspiracy.

      Ah well, sometimes there just aren't any convenient scapegoats and the awful truth is all that is left standing.

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    2. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      I don't know about that Dianna, I think it's more prevalent than we care to think about and why should this friar be an exception to the rule?
      Especially now the facitly at St Vincents no longer exists.
      Besides the church makes it easier these day's with the brother/sister arrangement that the permits clergy to have the best of two worlds, if they haven't just been sowing their wild oats.
      It certainly wouldn't do me.

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    3. Dianna Arthur

      Environmentalist

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      Shoulda thought of that - evil, scheming, conniving feminists have infiltrated the church by being wives, mothers, sisters, daughters, nieces even friends of the Good Men of the Church.

      Really?

      How about a tiny percentage of mostly men (not forgetting the rare exception - who know on which side their bread is buttered) have the lion's share of power in this world and they see no reason for most men and women to have a fair share? They like the status quo.

      Keeping men AND women in their place is the objective of the 1% who hold 99% of power, whether it be in the church, in schools at the Family Court fighting for their children.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OExykL5QnXY

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    4. Lynne Newington

      Researcher

      In reply to Dianna Arthur

      You're a scream!
      I don't know about the British Crown, but it's certainly the case with the Papal one!
      And in relation to the children born thereof, the Federal Government pays for their shenanigans through single mother's benefits!

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