I am a data scientist at the Government Digital Service (GDS) and last year, I became a father for the first time and took Shared Parental Leave (SPL). As we’ve just celebrated Women’s Day I wanted to reflect on this experience.
SPL gives parents the option to choose how to share time off work after their child is born or adopted. In a recent podcast, the GDS Women's Network said the Civil Service in general had the largest uptake of people using this type of leave.
What I've learned as a primary carer
My first few weeks as primary carer were hard. Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, one awakens to the same morning routine. Rather than being roused by Sonny and Cher on the radio, we were awoken by my 10 month old daughter’s mutterings at 5:30am.
After breakfast I’d take Lara to the local public park. This oasis of calm in an urban area, where Lara and I learned the names of all the local dogs, flapping and cooing at them enthusiastically, as park-regulars exercised, relaxed or commuted on through.
We’d then attend our local Children’s Centre which provides developmental support including excellent ‘Stay and Play’ sessions. A huge range of toys and the entire socio-demographic cross section of the local community, drawn together by this shared experience, to play alongside and discuss our babies’ progress proudly.
I’d inhabited my local area for many years but only through SPL did I live in it. Building social connections and realising the full gamut of public and social services - from Lara’s birth at the hospital to her continued developmental support throughout the first year. It is only now I genuinely consider myself part of this community.
Calling biases into question
One of the hardest challenges I found with SPL is the sacrifice of one’s time. As a data scientist and life-long learner I’m constantly itching to consolidate my programming skills or master statistical concepts and techniques. Early on I tried to maintain this thirst for knowledge during Lara’s nap, but there burnout lies.
These sacrifices have historically been borne by the mother. This gender gap in household work is often neglected in gender pay discussions. It is in recognition of this, alongside the myriad other benefits, I encourage more partners to take SPL. It prompted me to recognise and work on my own shortcomings.
SPL was a great opportunity for the partnered endeavour of raising a child. It facilitated the return of my partner to work maintaining their career momentum.
Like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the endless repetition of events that is SPL left me enlightened. It allowed me to value public services and my career in the public sector even more. It also widened my perspective on the demands asked of the primary carer, calling my own perspectives and biases into question.
I have the support from my employer to enjoy the early years of my child and build and strengthen the foundations of my family. Working in a cutting-edge digital, data or technology role in government and benefitting from such flexibility has helped me achieve a work life balance that I would find harder to attain in the private sector.
Echoing the late great Sir Jeremy Heywood, I believe SPL will help to reduce the gender bias that currently impacts on women’s careers, help equalise career progression opportunities and contribute to a reduction to the gender pay gap. It will also increase partners’ involvement at the very early stages following birth or adoption.
Importantly, acting as the primary carer for a time instilled in me the confidence to continue to share the mental load of managing my daughter’s life along with a fulfilling professional career.
Do you know of a colleague who is having a child? Tell them about the benefits of Shared Parental Leave!