My Partner Took Nine Months Of Shared Parental Leave – It Changed Our Relationship

'"This is what women have had to deal with for decades" became our SPL catchphrase'


by Lauren Bravo |
Updated on

I knew I was never going to be able to take a traditional maternity leave.

In a fun quirk of family planning, my first novel was published when my daughter was three months old, with the first draft of another book due a few months later. I would need to start working again, in some form, at around two months postpartum. We decided it made sense (practically, if not – spoilers – financially) for my husband Matt to take my allocation of statutory maternity leave as Shared Parental Leave instead, with him off work from the day she was born for just under nine months total.

We were proud of, if not a little smug about, this plan. He would be the primary caregiver while I worked as much and as flexibly as I could, dipping in and out of baby activities, passing her back and forth between Zoom calls. How modern! How progressive! How Scandinavian!

We loved the idea of navigating those wild, early weeks and months together, as much as I hated the idea of navigating them alone. And with me self-employed, we felt lucky to have the option for him to take extended time off without it forcing me back to an office before I was ready. ‘It’s the only thing we have to thank David Cameron for,’ we joked, a lot, to anyone polite enough to listen.

Shared parental leave ©Lauren Bravo

Shared Parental Leave– the legal right for parents to split up to 50 weeks of leave between them after the birth or adoption of a child, with 39 of those weeks paid – was introduced by the coalition government in 2015. But nearly a decade on, we’re still a novelty for actually using it. Though uptake has slowly risen, only 5% of eligible fathers and partners in the UK currently take SPL. Which is disappointing, though not surprising when you do the sums. Even in Sweden, where shared parental leave has been law since the 1970s and fathers get a non-transferable 90 days at 80% pay, only a third of total leave is taken by men.

Naively, we’d assumed that Matt’s huge public sector employer would offer the same package for SPL as it did for maternity leave: six months at full pay. Surely the whole point of a law to promote equal caregiving is that it would be, ah, equal? But despite lobbying the HR department throughout my pregnancy, getting our MP involved and bringing out my biggest gun – a sarky Twitter thread – they refused to improve on the bare minimum, statutory pay of £172.48 a week.

The amount I was able to earn as a freelancer during that time was never going to match the amount he would have earned by going to work every day as usual. But the mental and emotional cost of trying to hit my deadlines during nap time felt greater. Much as I admire the female artists whose urge to create is so strong that they can squeeze work into tiny slivers of twilight and dawn, I know I’m not one of them. Freeing me up to work was the way that made most sense for us – so we took the financial hit, albeit still a privileged one, and used our savings to keep us afloat.

Fourteen months later, I’m so glad that we did. Those early months were an incredible experience, even if the most Scandinavian thing about them was a diet of daily cinnamon buns.

For starters, there were the obvious logistical benefits of having two pairs of hands in the house, especially with six weeks of gruelling recovery after a c-section. I was fed, I was watered, I was (mostly) showered. Not having to wedge a baby bouncer into the bathroom doorway every time I needed to pee was a luxury I never took for granted. If new parenthood means feeling wildly out of your depth most of the time, we helped keep each other’s heads above water.

But more than that, it meant we were both learning how to be parents at the same pace and on a level(ish) playing field, with less room for the domestic imbalance that can create a chasm in so many relationships. Being in the minority it was hard not to see the whole thing as a feminist experiment, and I was determined we’d prove that women don’t instinctively know how to care for babies any better than men do.

‘I’ll probably be the one asking him where we keep the muslins!’ I’d say, while the polite friend glazed over.

Reader, I was not. Turns out it takes more than nine months to tip the scales on thirty-six years of social conditioning, and let’s say that simply leaving him ‘to get on with things’ was not a mode I switched into easily.

But still, on the whole, our home life felt fair(er). We were equal players on Team Baby. If there was a bum to be wiped, a bottle to be warmed or yet another load of washing to be hung out, he was as likely to be doing it as I was.

‘I think it helped us get back into a more even partnership after pregnancy, birth, and then breastfeeding,’ agrees my friend Jo, another SPL advocate, who split her leave equally with partner Will after the birth of their daughter, each of them taking 24 weeks. ‘I loved watching their bond get stronger and feeling like we both understood first-hand how hard it can be to look after a baby, but also how rewarding.’

I felt the same. Having struggled a lot with the physical burden of pregnancy, sharing the leave felt like an important way for me to stop resenting his intact pelvic floor and right the balance of our relationship. But the best part was seeing how confident Matt became as a parent in those early weeks and months. It made me sad that the vast majority of fathers are still left playing catch-up while mothers bear the load.

Which is not to say, of course, that hours spent at home = quality of bond, or that you can’t be an amazing parent and partner with a full-time job – but let’s be real. There’s a reason rates of marital dissatisfaction are highest in the year after having a baby. Research suggests that longer paternity leave correlates with lower divorce rates, and higher levels of maternal mental health. SPL may have changed our relationship, but I think it protected it too.

That said, there are drawbacks to being the early birds in utopia.

For my husband, that 5% take-up rate meant that he was often the only man at rhyme time. We were blessed with a brilliant antenatal group who were more than happy for him to join in early meet-ups, but I was anxious about the etiquette, not wanting anyone to feel uncomfortable chatting sore nipples and perineal tears in front of him. Kev from Motherland became a running joke.

Having been initially gleeful at so much time away from his inbox, Matt also started to feel unfulfilled around the six-month mark. One night he confessed, sheepishly, that he was missing a sense of professional validation, and worried about the impact so much time off might have on his career.

‘I know, I know!’ he yelped before the words could leave my mouth. ‘This is what women have had to deal with for decades.’

Those words became our SPL catchphrase. Any time he admitted feeling tired; bored; understimulated by the thankless trudge from park to library to coffee shop, my sympathy would last about as long as it took for my caesarean scar to start twanging.

Because while he was missing work, I was missing milestones.

My gratitude at being free to work faded pretty quickly once I remembered that I hate working. What I love is eating cake and watching daytime TV with a cuddly dumpling asleep on my chest. Why, I wondered, in my darker moments, was I giving that up? For feminism? For my art? Surely my best art was at home, drooling on a Lamaze toy.

I would sit in coffee shops with a blank page on my laptop and my phone in my hand, scrolling through photos of her face. ‘I’ll be out all afternoon!’ I’d tell him, then sneak back home after an hour and a half, full of milk and FOMO.

Things would have been simpler if I’d scaled back on breastfeeding, but guilt only made me more determined to keep that maternal connection flowing. As a result, one dad perk I didn’t get was more sleep. While I leapt out of bed like a coiled spring any time she whimpered (and still do), Matt would magically snooze through all but the loudest of screams. I didn’t fight this too hard though – because who decided that the person who sits at a desk all day needs more rest than the person in charge of wrangling an infant?

The hormonal fug of matrescence didn’t help matters, and nor did postnatal anxiety. One day, around weaning time, I burst into tears because he told me she’d tasted a smear of avocado during a group lunch.

‘I – hegghh – wanted to see her eat – hegghhh – avocado for the first time!’ I sobbed, while he apologised without really understanding what for. ‘I just hate that I can’t be there for everything.’

‘I know,’ I added, before he could say it. ‘This is what dads have had to deal with for decades.’

But despite the struggles, that alternate perspective was one of the greatest things we both gained. Taking time away from my newborn helped shore up my sense of identity, but it also made me so much more appreciative of all the time that I did spend with her; so much more heartbroken for all the parents who don’t get that experience; so much angrier with a system that makes Shared Parental Leave a non-choice for so many couples. I wish more UK fathers would take SPL, to normalise the choice and prove the demand – but I fully understand why they don’t.

‘The scheme is fundamentally flawed,’ writes Joeli Brearley of Pregnant Then Screwed. ‘It is not shared parental leave at all, it is shared maternity leave. It requires a mother to give away a portion of her leave to her partner and understandably most mothers don’t want to do that. But also, in the majority of families where there is a mother and a father, the man earns the most, so removing his income and replacing it with just £172.48 statutory pay a week would have disastrous consequences for the whole family.’

I don’t think we’ll ever regret investing in that time together. Now the fog of the first year has lifted, my overriding memories aren’t of working – they’re of the daft songs we made up for nappy changes, our ritual of eating lunch in front of Richard Osman’s House of Games every day, or turning my key in the door to hear the two of them giggling upstairs. ‘It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,’ says Matt. But he means that literally, because unless the law changes, we won’t be able to afford to do it again.

If we’re lucky enough to have another baby, I certainly won’t be going back to work at eight weeks postpartum. Most likely we’d split the leave in a more conventional way, taking a few months each in turns, and I hope I’d also be far more chill about stepping away and letting him parent the second time round. Whatever the situation, I’d like to think the foundations we laid last year would be strong enough to see us through and keep things equal(ish).

But then, kids rarely get the memo. For full transparency, our now-toddler is going through a serious ‘only mummy will do’ phase at bedtimes – which stings doubly hard for her dad, the feminist hero.

‘Please love,’ I coo, as her screams for me subside. ‘This isn’t very Scandinavian.’

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us