>Thoughts on Paternity

by Brendan Strong

>On page 12 of the Sunday Times in Ireland on the 23rd January, 2011, there was an article about paternity leave in Ireland. I was quoted in this article, and I must say every word that was quoted was indeed something I said.

However, not every word I said was included. This is not to claim that my opinion was twisted in any way. I imagine the fact is, much of what I said was rambling; being interviewed at c. 530 on a Thursday, at the end of a very busy week and particularly a day that found me drinking coffee constantly. My hands were shaking, I felt under some pressure to ‘perform’, not only on my behalf, but also for dad.ie (for whom I write a blog about my experiences as a father), who had organised the interview.  In short, a lot of what I said was perhaps poorly phrased, confused or just couldn’t make the cut if there is a word count to which one must work.  However, because some people have asked about some of the things I was quoted as saying, I want to lay out my position here.

The truth is, it is very easy to have strong opinions on paternity leave in Ireland – both pro and con. It is much harder to hold – and indeed explain – that you can see both sides of the argument. To try and discuss paternity is impossible without a mass change of attitudes and opinions is much more difficult again. I will often be accused of ‘sitting on the fence’, because the certainty-lust of others demand you take a side and fight it to win it. Not all these things are competitions or races. Quite often, the questions that face us in life are qualitative: there can be no “win”; so how do we come about creating a situation where the best possible outcome for competing sides can be achieved?

Very quickly, the points I would make in relation to paternity leave and rights in Ireland are:

  1. I was very lucky when M was born, as the guys I was working for at the time allowed me to take 2 weeks holidays (paid), starting from whenever M was born. This was taken out of my regular holiday leave. I know of at least 2 other people where this was not the case; where they took their leave based on the day their partner was due to give birth. If their partners went ‘over’, that was tough luck. And so it was for one, whose child was born on a Thursday; they had to return to work the next Monday.
  2. This (as pointed out in the ST article) does have an affect on you as a father. You want to spend time with your newborn, and these days, this is nothing to be ashamed of. In years past, the opinion was you should spend time with your children, but whether you should want to was beyond anyone’s imagination.
  3. The other point (which did make it to the article) was that being at home for a good 2 weeks after birth helped me to better understand just how manic my wife’s days were.  There is a lot of stress after a child is born (not just financial – after your first, I had an existential ping, reminding me of my adolescent searching to understand what it was all about; there is also the logistics of a child in the house, how normal household tasks are performed; and also (for us anyway), stronger organisation of our time was required to make sure we met all our feeding, nappy, bedtime requirements); so any kind of understanding between the parents/guardians of any infant helps to short circuit any major incidents that might arise as a result of this stress.
  4. I then pointed out that society has developed. Mothers are no longer expected to be purely domestic entities.  It is well known and accepted that women can earn their own money and take care of themselves. Of course, in a family situation, you all take care of each other. However, I think for fathers the role has not moved on. The father’s role is still considered to be primarily material: to provide the financial/economic resources required to run the household. This is not to shy from one’s financial responsibilities: it is to point out that fathers’ generally want to be recognised as carers of their children, and they are often not. This is the case with paternity rights where parents are unmarried; but it is also not the case when people think about a childs needs in the immediate post natal period. Who should be there to care for the child? Just the mother. This opinion does both parents a disservice.
  5. However, I was working on contract jobs, generally sporadically at the time B was born. This meant after her birth I was almost immediately seeking work, being painfully aware that money would be required to pay bills, etc. Even were charm and good looks a tradable commodity, I would be broke. And so, one can see the problem, especially for smaller businesses and those (so many in Ireland) that operate on project work.  It is very difficult to 1 – allow people to take time off from project work, where suitable cover may be hard to find and 2 – pay those people who are not actually being productive toward the business (this of course excepts the idea that you might be taking holidays)
  6. My point about our obsession toward hyper-productivity was not a resounding yawp to return to a simpler time. Rather, it seems to me, social development has directed us further into our work, rather than allowing us to balance our work. When one considers that perhaps 40 years ago, many households had 1 person working. The idea that 2 people working might mean that both spend some time at work (a good thing for the sense of self, soul, creativity, imagination, &c.) and both spend some time at home (a good thing for appreciating life itself, family, etc.). However, this has not been the case. Instead, we find ourselves in the position that in most cases both parents are in work full time and the children are in creche; which is a horrible feeling for a parent. It’s not like you’re sending them out to the world to earn their living, but you feel lonely for them, and you worry how they will get on with ‘other people’.  
  7. Finally, there was the question of whether I felt my employer would accept a decision to take 2 months unpaid leave. I think in all cases (unless the business could do with a payroll break without actually losing talent), this is considered a bridge too far. It has to do with the above point (6 – family life in a productive world), but also a question as to whether someone has dedication toward their work, if they are taking 2 months off. Quite frequently you will hear motherhood being cited as a ‘life choice’ that means women can’t make it to higher executive positions in companies. I’m not sure I agree with the argument, but I am aware of it. I think the same sentiment can be applied to any time requested for family/personal purposes. There is a suspicion that you are not properly engaged with the company, not loyal enough, not committed enough. But this should be seen in the negative: It is not that one is any of these things, rather it is simply that one wants to take the time to spend with their family.

I recall Bertrand Russel’s essay “In Praise of Idleness” where he argues that if everybody’s working week was reduced, then more people could actually work. Of course coupled with this is a range of other social, political and economic issues that may be too much for any one person (except Bertrand Russel, of course) to attempt to bear. How does one reorganise a whole society in such a way? And what for the sparky entrepreneurs, whose efforts create employment? Any entrepreneur I know would baulk at the idea of being told they should work less. We live in an age when people will be on their deathbeds and will actually say “I wish I spent more time in the office”. This is just a fact of life. But it then begs the question of how we adequately deal with implementing a decent paternity leave policy for the country; while squaring peoples desires to work, and companies needs to have people working for them.

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