Flexible parental leave: The key to having it all?

Legislation announced today would give new mothers the opportunity to return to work after two weeks and share the rest of their leave with their partner. You can read all about it here: Flexible parental leave to give mothers ‘real choice’ over work-life balance.

The idea is to give new mothers as much flexibility as possible, including:

  • Leave would be flexible and could be triggered at any point after the first two weeks;
  • The remaining 50 weeks could be shared between mother and partner;
  • Leave could be taken at the same time or in turns;
  • Maximum leave will remain 12 months, nine of them on guaranteed pay (!)
  • Couples will need to be “open” with employers and give them “proper notice”;

Could this, I wonder, be the key to the age-old dilemma of having it all? Women would have the choice to go back to work knowing they would have flexible support and could share the leave with their partner.

It changes hiring dynamics too — if a man is just as likely to take paternity leave as a woman, would that help to eliminate hiring biases?

When I took my first maternity leave in 2002, I returned to work after 5 months months. While I enjoyed that time, I would have loved the opportunity to share the responsibility with my husband (he was running a small software company so not sure realsitically how it would have panned out). When I took my 2nd maternity leave in 2003 (I know, I know) I could tell my boss was about to kill me. I took another 5 months, and though no one said anything, my credibility with the company waned. I wonder if it could have been different?

What do you think? Does this new legislation help? Hinder? Or will “having it all” continue to be a dilemma for women, and men too?


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About Susanna Scott

Susanna Scott founded the BritMums social network in 2008 after a career in marketing. She wanted to create a space for parent bloggers to network, and share ideas and opportunities. She is often quoted as a pioneer in the UK Mum Blogging space, and has been named a top female entrepreneur. She has been featured in The Times, The FT, The Independent, The Guardian, The Sun, Technorati, She, Primo Baby and Red magazine, amongst others. She speaks frequently about blogging, social networking and the BritMums community at industry events. Her blog A Modern Mother ranks in the UK’s top 10 Family Tarvel Blogs. Follow her on @amodernmother.


  1. 13 November 2012 / 07:54

    The move toward parents being able to share leave goes a long way to addressing one of the main problems women have in the workplace: they are still perceived as less committed because of maternity leave. But when parental leave is enshrined as “maternity” and fathers are preventing from taking off more than 2 weeks, who’s bringing up baby.

    I think it’s a step in the right direction, although official paternity leave is still capped at 2 weeks. It will be insightful to see how many couples actually share early leave rather than the mother doing it all.

    • Susanna
      14 November 2012 / 06:01

      I’m curious as to how it would work in reality. Still a step in the right direction.

  2. 13 November 2012 / 09:54

    We vitally need a flexible approach to working and parenting because it will help achieve something that is sadly lacking: Respect for the value of parenting. Respect for the fact that children are the next guardians of our planet and we need to pay attention to the way we raise them. Respect for family life and its important role in building society!
    So – yes – definitely need flexibility for working and parenting. Parenting is as important as working to our society! People need to open their eyes to the broader picture.

    • Susanna
      14 November 2012 / 06:03

      I wish I had had more flexible working choices 10 years ago. And yes parenting is as important as working.

  3. 13 November 2012 / 11:36

    I definitely think it is a step in the right direction, and I will be curious to see how many couples will actually take it up. Doing a quick google search apparently tells me that around a quarter of women earn more than their partners, and from a purely financial point of view it might make sense for them to share (I know my husband and I would have considered it from that point of view!)
    Also totally agree with Ross’s point that it should help give added emphasis on the importance of parenting for BOTH parents, both for men, employers and society in general.

    • Susanna
      14 November 2012 / 06:04

      I like the idea of the importance for both parents to “parent”.

  4. 13 November 2012 / 12:59

    I think initially it seems positive as it gives the flexibility that people are after and to an extent improves the equality situation. However in some ways it feels like a step backwards – I know my former employers would have leapt on the ‘you can come back in two weeks’ angle like a shot, and it would be hard to fight that…

    • Susanna
      14 November 2012 / 06:05

      Good point, two weeks is VERY early. I don’t think I could string a full sentence together after only two weeks.

  5. 13 November 2012 / 19:38

    Sorry to be the voice of pessimism here but I don’t think anything will change. Yes, this is a step in the right direction towards equality and possibly breaking down attitudes when it comes to employing women of child-bearing age. But, having some lovely sounding legislation isn’t the be all and end all. How many men do you know that would do this? How many women would want to cut short their maternity leave to go back to work? There will, of course, be some that do but I’m not convinced that most would. And, of course, it will entirely depend on who is the ‘breadwinner’ in that household; I don’t know about you, but I’d want the higher earner to continue bringing in their wage, especially as the overall household income drops during periods like this.

    Also, how well will companies promote this legislation to employees? It could well become one of those company policies that no-one ever mentions in the hope that no employee will learn of its existence. New mums may also feel under pressure from their employers to get back to work ASAP after the birth, which would be totally unfair.

    For me, the issue isn’t about who stays at home with the baby during that first year, it’s about how companies support working parents throughout their careers to give them continuing flexibility and, more importantly, understanding to be able to juggle family and work commitments. Sadly, I think too many employers see flexible working as a ‘skive’ or something like that, rather than an effective way to support employees thereby reducing pressure and stress on employees and increasing their productivity and company loyalty.

    Sorry for the rant!

    • Susanna
      14 November 2012 / 06:07

      You are always so practical Laura. I wonder many of the same things, but the optimist in me wants to think it will be an agent for change.

  6. 13 November 2012 / 20:06

    My OH wouldn’t have considered taking time off, he’s a self employed farmer so didn’t take any specific time off at all. Luckily I had my mum around, and a company that assumed I’d be taking the full year (it ended up being 11 months, 12 with my holiday on the end).
    In theory it’s a great idea (especially for families where the woman earns more and is the main breadwinner so needs to go back over the man), but in practice I think it’s going to make admin and payroll etc extremely complicated for companies, let alone the government for tax purposes. Ok, if the couple work in the same company, but different companies – given lots of companies struggle to get things right for one employee for a set amount of time, there’s a lot more room for error and confusion for employee and employer with this option.
    I think more flexibility on an everyday basis is more workable for more people – and maybe more work supported childcare would be advisable.

    • Susanna
      14 November 2012 / 06:09

      More flexibility on a everyday basis would be welcome from me!

  7. 13 November 2012 / 20:16

    I completely support the offer of choice for maternity/paternity leave, and understand why it might seem that doing this is potentially breaking down the male/female barrier in the workplace. I also like the idea of both parents being able to take leave at the same time. But.. Couldn’t this actually backfire with employers expecting women should be able to come back to work after a few weeks when they aren’t ready, maybe (just maybe – I know that the feminists out there might shoot me down) most women really want to take longer off with their babies. It suggests that women should be ready to work after two weeks and isn’t that trivialising the physical and emotional experience of childbirth.

    Like Laura said, I think it’s more important that they re-think flexible working so that mothers can go back to work and can thrive in the workplace at the same time.

  8. Susanna
    14 November 2012 / 06:10

    Well said. We still have a long way to go.

  9. 14 November 2012 / 10:53

    I think it’s a step in the right direction but it will probably be a while before men will feel like they are able to take any of this leave. As others have pointed out, this hopefully will help fight some of the arguments against pay and promotion equality.

    However, I don’t think change will come overnight. For example, the rights for parental leave for kids (illness etc) are the same for men and women but how often are men off rather than women? A guy who worked for me was off when his son was ill in my old employer. My boss, the MD said “Where’s Andy?” (I’ve changed his name) I explained and the boss replied with “Well what’s his wife doing? Why isn’t she looking after him?”

    That said, if promotion prospects for women improve if more women are the main wage earner, it might change.

    In summary in my view, a good thing, a step in the right direction but not a magic bullet for all causes of inequality in the workplace.

    A few details need to be worked out too. I know some maternity leave schemes are more generous than others so it might even be worth the major breadwinner to be off for some of it! I’m sure employers have some details to work out…

    • 16 November 2012 / 06:23

      Yes, it takes many small steps to leap…

  10. 14 November 2012 / 22:02

    I definitely agree that there needs to be more respect for parenting, done by both parents rather than just the one, (if there are two parents around).
    I’m not clear how this works given that the paternity leave for men is 2 weeks, and yet it says above that the ‘remaining 50 weeks could be shared’ between both parents. How does that work?
    Although it will probably be slow to take effect, legislation like this pushes the discussion in the right direction and makes more archaic practices and assumptions less acceptable. Like the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975, it wasn’t welcomed with open arms and wasn’t put into practice immediately, but it certainly changed opinions and work ethics over the long term. (Not that we’re all the way there yet.)