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Jenni Murray

Dame Jenni Murray / 28 September 2021

Broadcaster and Saga Magazine columnist Dame Jenni Murray shares her thoughts on parental leave and the role of grandparents in modern childcare arrangements.

An illustration deicting grandparents having fun with grandchildren out of love not duty

How we cheered when, in 2003, a new father’s right to paternity leave was granted. It wasn’t much – a mere two weeks, compared to the 52 weeks of maternity leave granted to women – but it marked a significant shift in what had been traditional attitudes to what was expected of parents.

Suddenly it was acknowledged that a father, like a mother, might want to become close to his child and have a role in that child’s care.

It came too late for me as my two were born in the Eighties, but it was so encouraging that the rules which had dogged me and my parents when it came to gender roles were finally beginning to shift. I remember Dad telling me how the fathers in a 1950 maternity hospital were kept firmly away from the business of giving birth. One hour visiting a day was allowed, but childcare was for mothers. Dads were only useful as breadwinners. That was not women’s work.

 If I had grandchildren, I wouldn’t want their care to become a full-time job. It would be exhausting. I would want to have them round for pleasure and spoiling, not for onerous responsibility.

I recall trying to encourage my bored mother to get a job. She refused, fearing, ‘People will think Daddy can’t afford to keep us.’

Twelve years after the introduction of paternity leave, we cheered even more loudly when shared parental leave was introduced. Fathers and mothers could share up to 50 weeks of leave and pay between them. Splitting the time meant both could stay in touch with their workplace and learn equally how to look after their child.

A longer version of this article appeared in the October 2021 issue of Saga Magazine: subscribe today

The hopeful among us saw it as a possible revolution in the way work and family responsibilities might be managed; no more relying on Granny to do the job of caring for the little ones to enable Mum and Dad to go out to work.

Men and women, experienced as parents, could both opt to work part-time when the children were young and needed them. Part-time work would be taken seriously if men and women both did it. There would be no need for either to lose career status, and grandparents could choose to carry on with their own jobs or enjoy their retirement without the responsibility of childcare.

Dilemma: I don't want to have to look after my grandchild

Unfortunately my dream of a society where looking after the kids was no longer considered solely ‘women’s work’ has failed to materialise.

The proportion of new fathers opting to take the leave for which they are eligible is at a ten-year low. Only a quarter choose to make use of the allowance. Why? It could be that most fathers still see their role as breadwinner and don’t want to threaten their progress up the ladder. It could be that men tend to earn more than women and £152 a week is seen as inadequate compensation for bonding with the kids. More likely it is the result of lockdown and the realisation that ‘Work From Home’ is much harder when childcare is included than a commute and a day in the office with colleagues. So I predict both fathers and mothers will rush back to the office and, as professional childcare is so expensive, mothers will try to keep going part-time and grandparents will again be asked to fill the gap.

If I had grandchildren, I wouldn’t want their care to become a full-time job. It would be exhausting. I would want to have them round for pleasure and spoiling, not for onerous responsibility.

Grandparents looking after grandchildren

We need to look to Scandinavia where shared parental leave was openly promoted as a way of encouraging greater equality in the workplace. Each parent has a 90-day allowance which is not transferable. If the father doesn’t take it, he loses it. Nine out of ten Swedish fathers take it. Childcare costs there are a fraction of what they are here, thanks to a generous state subsidy. There seems to be a consensus in Sweden that society gains from such policies. Both parents carry on working, talent in the workplace is not lost and prospective parents don’t fear having a child will ruin their careers. Grandparents, meanwhile, can do whatever they choose – work, play, spoil. It’s a lesson to be learned.

Do you agree with Jenni? Email editor@saga.co.uk

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