There is never a good time to ask work for a period of leave, even if it is only a pretty modest 5 weeks through March and April. It is a particularly challenging sell when the explanation involves a relatively new employment policy that is completely unfamiliar to senior colleagues. So why did I decide to take 5 weeks of Shared Parental Leave (ShPL), how did the whole experience work out and what are my wider observations?
Why take ShPL?
In 10 years’ time, am I going to look back and wish that I had spent 5 more weeks at work, or am I going to wish that I had spent five weeks of quality bonding time with my 8 month old son?
Achieving the right work/life balance is very important for me. Now that we have a little son in our home, my motivation is to provide for but also spend time with my family. My son will only grow up once, however I have at least 30 more years of looking at my Bloomberg screens to look forward to.
ShPL allowed me to continue my career with my current employer, but also to bond with my son as he grows and develops more and more each day. ShPL provides me with the opportunity for a work life balance that suits the involved type of dad I want to be and also the type of career I want to have – in that order.
Where is the Downside?
There will inevitably be downsides to taking ShPL, some of which are yet I am yet to discover.
My employer’s ShPL policy meant that my five weeks of ShPL was completely unpaid. We are fortunate to have done OK in our careers to this point and the monetary implications were painful rather than problematic.
Taking 5 weeks out will certainly require a readjustment period when I return to the team. I am pretty sure that the team has survived in my absence, just as it does if any one goes on holiday for 2 weeks. If this leads to a disappointing outcome in any further personnel changes, I feel that ShPL will not hurt my position in those conversations.
The longer term implications for my career and pay and progression in my company are more unknown. In terms of my career, taking 5 weeks out of the office for ShPL is an irrelevance. However an employer may take a different view. Unfortunately this downside is completely unknown but I feel that it is a risk worth taking.
What We Did
We decided to take ShPL towards the end of my wife’s maternity leave. Choosing a period when my son was around 8 months meant that we all got share in this enjoyable time of exploration and rapid development. My wife would also be returning to work shortly after my ShPL came to an end, so selecting this later period gave us some real quality time together before our life as a working couple resumed.
5 weeks felt like an appropriate period for a couple of reasons. My wife will have taken approximately 9 months of maternity leave, so the maximum ShPL amount I could have taken was roughly 3 months. 5 weeks meant we could both be on leave at the same time. A 5 week break from the office is only a couple of weeks longer than a summer holiday and in terms of pay we felt that 5 weeks was a manageable financial hit. 5 weeks was also a sufficiently long period that it would really allow me to switch off from work and fully engage with the little guy.
I tried to give everyone as much notice as possible and to structure the discussions as a negotiation rather than a fait accompli. My communication with HR started 4 months before I intended to start ShPL and I kept my manager informed broadly at the same time. Our plans firmed up as the dates were finalised, before formally submitting the necessary forms 3 months before ShPL started.
How Did it go Down at Work?
By way of background I work in the investment management industry, which has a traditional City demographic.
HR were very enthusiastic and engaged throughout the entire process, which proved to be a bit of education for everyone on the fine details. I was the first male employee to take advantage of the ShPL opportunity so HR’s interest was unsurprising.
A much greater level of education was required however for my colleagues and team. This lack of knowledge may have contributed to the very mixed response from some colleagues across my team. Such a response was disappointing but not unexpected. However my ShPL did not really come up again after the initial conversation. I survived the usual Q4 redundancies, made progress in the 2017 pay review and the rest of the ShPL process went smoothly with HR.
Awesome. We took the opportunity to travel in the US, we spent days in the house learning to crawl, we tried new foods, we complained about savoury foods and begged for sweets, we changed loads of nappies, we had tears and tantrums and sleepless nights and smiles and laughs. Clearly I would have experienced these things without ShPL, but enjoying 35 straight days with my son and wife made each activity, interaction and emotion even more rewarding.
Observations on ShPL in a Wider Context
My wife will enthusiastically agree with me when I say that I am not cutting edge or fashionable. However the idea of choosing to spend five weeks with my family has been interpreted by some as a surprising or controversial decision. Really?! I spend time in the office during the day so that I can leave to come home to my wife and son. Taking advantage of the opportunities provided my ShPL wasn’t even a decision – why wouldn’t I do this?
ShPL is an unconventional choice now, but it won’t be controversial in a couple of years as more young families make use of ShPL and employers become more familiar with the concept. Of my three very close friends who became fathers for the first time in 2016, two have taken ShPL and I am sure others will follow given our positive feedback.
A couple of things give me great confidence that ShPL will not be a big deal in the future. Employers will eventually come round to the idea, particularly given the fact that ShPL can’t be refused. The established narrative of mums bringing up children is coming to an end as the benefits of paternal involvement become increasingly apparent. Finally the traditional dad vs mum pay gap should also gradually narrow, which will make the financial element of any ShPL decision much less relevant and in some cases where mum is the main earner actually make ShPL a financially sensible decision.
It shouldn’t be newsworthy or “new age” that a dad wants to participate in the development of his children, it should become as commonly accepted as maternity leave.
Thoughts and Conclusions from our ShPL
I would not change this experience at all. As the five weeks come to an end, part of me wishes I had been braver and taken a longer period of leave. However I know that the period I have taken off was appropriate both for me, my wife, my son and also my employer.
The pros massively outweigh the cons at this point and my relationship with my son has developed as quickly as he has. It may well be the case that there are other challenges to come further down the line, however these would need to be pretty horrific to cancel out the fantastic five weeks I have spent with my wife and son.
If we are fortunate enough to see our little family grow further in the future, I will definitely apply for ShPL again. Potentially I would look to take a longer period as the challenges of two young children will likely be very different from just our first born, however that is a debate for the future.
Looking back at the ShPL experience of the past 6 months, it has broadly met my expectations. HR were keen, the attitude of senior management softened after the initial surprise, my wife was a star and I was fortunate to watch my son develop rapidly.
- Get involved with HR early as it helps to have them on your side.
- Notify your manager as soon as you have a firm idea of what you want to do.
- Try to conduct this process as a negotiation, rather than something that can’t be refused.
- Be prepared and plan for a negative initial reaction, however this will pass in time.
- Don’t worry if you are one of the first people in your company to take ShPL, you won’t be the last.
- Take advantage of this opportunity, it will be your best decision as a dad so far.
Thank you to Nick, Zaina and Alexander for sharing their experience.
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